Whether connecting people to their colleagues, customers or business partners more effectively, or enabling them to get the right information to those people when it is needed, collaboration technologies are playing a central role in changing the way we work. MIS Australia recently hosted two round table events sponsored by Microsoft – one in Canberra with public sector chief information officers, the other in Sydney with their private sector counterparts – to discuss how collaboration technologies are helping organisations make better business decisions.
What follows is a summary of those conversations, which covered a broad range of collaboration tools from email and instant messaging to video-conferencing and social networking.
More importantly attendees talked about the cultural and management issues associated with deploying these technologies, which Microsoft Australia's federal director Terry Maloney says are really about productivity because they enable organisations to make group decisions more quickly.
In the public sector the collaboration focus has been largely external, with federal government in particular exploring ways to better engage citizens in its decision-making process through Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis and social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
This led to the creation of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, chaired by Lateral Economics chief executive Nicholas Gruen, which was asked to explore ways to increase public participation in government processes in an attempt to improve Canberra's decision making.
The taskforce reported back to Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner just before Christmas last year and its recommendations were broadly accepted in early May.
But initial efforts to enter this brave new world have provided an early indication of just how difficult it will be to get public servants, who have historically worked in secrecy, to open up information to broad scrutiny.
Glenn Archer, chief information officer at the federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, was a member of the Government 2.0 Taskforce. He says it highlighted cultural change as the most profound challenge in transforming how public servants will interact with the many communities they serve.
"There are protocols in place for consultation with stakeholders and relevant groups but they're more formalised," he says. "When you start blogging around some new policy initiative, no one knows where it's going to go."
At the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, social networking sites are a tool of the trade. So while many federal departments and agencies still block access to social networking sites, DEWHA information chief Peter Woods says it has opened them up for younger workers to communicate and collaborate.
It also started a blog but Woods admits this has not been very successful.
"I think the issue was in part a lack of executive engagement," he says. "There was an initial burst of activity when it was first launched and some of the senior executives were active but they dropped off a bit.
"Staff probably didn't find that they were getting that much out of it. Perhaps they were a bit reluctant to speak too openly."
There is also a balance to be struck between ensuring information is completely accurate and making it available quickly because the value of that information diminishes over time. This is a risk management issue that will become increasingly important for CIOs and their senior management teams as collaboration technologies drive greater transparency.
Then there is the problem of knowing when to respond to criticism. Defence Housing Australia CIO Shane Nielsen says it has decided against engaging with a Facebook group called "I Hate DHA" that appeared last year. During the past 12 months, its membership has grown from 40 or 50 to more than 2000.
The Australian Federal Police has had issues with contentious topics like convicted drug smugglers Schapelle Corby and the Bali Nine being debated in its internal discussion forums. Chief information officer Rudi Lammers says such content would have been filtered at one time but posts would only be removed now if they used offensive language or were likely to leave the AFP open to legal action. Suppression, he argues, makes those opinions more likely to make their way into the media whereas internal debate is healthy.
Increased focus on Web 2.0 is far from being confined to the public sector. The latest annual CIO Agenda survey conducted by global analyst firm Gartner found it was one of the three most significant technology trends alongside virtualisation and cloud computing.
The global financial crisis has forced information chiefs to look for more cost-effective ways to get things done and forced this new breed of lighter weight technologies to the fore.
GE Capital Australia CIO Matt Mansour says his recently appointed chief executive Skander Malcolm has been using micro-blogging service Yammer to chart his professional journey and has generated a following among the financial services company's younger employees.
Ninemsn's IT manager Kojo Sarkodee says it has a corporate blog on its intranet, where employees are encouraged to post what they are doing and drive discussion about challenges they face in their job. Social media has been big for the organisation, he says, because a lot of people are tired of email.
One of the biggest concerns for public and private sector organisations when considering social networking tools is the potential drain on productivity. Australian Maritime Safety Authority CIO Ewan Perrin says measuring productivity is difficult, especially for an organisation that has a diverse workforce.
However, there is increasingly broad agreement among CIOs that abuse of access to social networking sites is a management issue rather than a technology one. An offending member of staff should be dealt with in the same way as somebody that spends all morning on the phone making personal calls.
People are working and managing their personal lives at the same time. If somebody is prepared to stay behind late to get the job done, is it fair for employers to be concerned about them using Facebook during business hours?
The productivity question also extends to other forms of collaboration technologies. Many a suspicious manager has harboured fears that staff with access to an instant messaging platform will spend all day sending inane messages to friends instead of doing their jobs.
Rolle Walraven, IT manager at Lumley Insurance, has had members of the executive team asking for instant messaging to be turned off but he says it fills a gap between email and picking up the phone.
"If you're asked a question, you're quite often put on the spot and you want to provide an answer," he explains. "With instant messaging it provides just that little bit of lag that allows a bit of thought."
Leighton Contractors CIO Diane Fernley-Jones recalls a conversation with one manager who wanted instant messaging turned off shortly after the company had introduced it. If people were using it, the manager argued, this meant they were not working.
While the IT department can provide the business with productivity tools, Fernley-Jones says getting people to realise the benefits can still be a problem.
Macquarie Telecom is running a major education program to drive better use of its business data through collaboration technologies. Having started with line of business and commercial managers, group executive of information technology Bob Wallace says the next phase is to take it to the users who know the data.
"If an account manager is about to make a visit, they will be able to use data mining for the past three or six months to pull out everything they need to hold an intelligent conversation with the customer when they get there," Wallace says.
BCS Strata Management is working to enable collaboration between its customers. Technical services manager Ayman Badr says this will enable strata committee members to review budgets or invoices and team up virtually between meetings.
In another example of engaging social networking tools to improve collaboration beyond the four walls, Lumleys is working with recruiters to create a unified approach to hiring through LinkedIn.
But for some organisations, especially in the public sector, the concept of sharing information with each other can be very problematic for a number of reasons. As the federal government's taskforce found, culture is definitely one of them. The AFP's Lammers wants to spread the mindset among national security agencies to think of data as information rather than "intelligence" or "evidence" – terms which he says have a major impact on how people see and treat information.
Beyond cultural issues, and the need to respect privacy, federal chief information officers also note that system incompatibilities will be a major hurdle in improving the sharing of information between agencies and departments.
Microsoft Australia services director, Nigel Cadywould, says that the traditional rewards are the biggest inhibitor to better use of collaborative technologies.
"Traditionally, many reward mechanisms are very much individual performance based," he says. "That doesn't necessarily pull well with an environment where you're trying to get people to collaborate better together." MIS Australia
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.