Firms use collaboration tools to tap the ultimate IP -- worker ideas

P&G and Cisco make widespread internal use of videoconferencing, collaboration tools

In large multinational corporations, expertise that could jump start a stumbling marketing or development plan may be hidden within the staff ranks. Finding that staffer has long been a problem for corporate executives and project managers.

Managers at Procter and Gamble Co. and Cisco Systems Inc. yesterday said that their managers now have a variety of options, ranging from high-definition videoconferencing to instant messaging and wikis, for quickly bringing together people and their ideas.

P&G and Cisco have been sharing information and technology for seven years in their separate efforts to roll out a variety of collaboration tools -- from both Cisco and other firms. Using the tools have brought both companies the expected cost savings on travel and less wear and tear on their workers. And as a bonus, both companies have been able to discover ideas and intellectual property previously hidden in cubicles in cavernous office buildings, said the managers during a roundtable discussion that took place over telepresence technology yesterday.

"We connect in clicks, with video anywhere and work everywhere, so work is not a place but something you do," said Laurie Heltsley, director of global business services at Cincinnati-based P&G. "The ultimate IP we have is [our] people and the collection of their expertise and everything associated with their identity."

With 138,000 workers in 80 countries, the $80 billion consumer products giant now finds collaboration tools to be a vital part of the business, she said. "It is an absolute necessity to be able to collaborate every day. We have a mandate to brainstorm, to listen, to innovate, where competition is fierce."

P&G found years ago that its product research and development teams could benefit from tapping expertise spread throughout the company, Heltsley said. "We've found we achieve more together than we achieve alone."

Heltsley said that the ability to detect the presence of another worker through an Internet connection -- and to find out if they are available for an IM or phone chat or via other modes such as a video conference -- has become the most important feature of collaboration tools for P&G. "It's not chat that's so important, although that's still central to this whole collaboration process," she said. "It's knowing someone is available and having the mechanism to know somebody is there you can contact that person."

Heltsley didn't offer specific savings figures from using the collaboration tools, though she noted that the company has saved $4 for every $1 invested in 70 high-end telepresence systems in four regions of the world the company started installing two years ago. Those high-definition systems are used four times as often as the prior versions of videoconferencing systems installed at the company.

P&G is eager to expand collaboration capabilities, she said, and the company wants to try out a new enterprise collaboration platform from Cisco when a beta version is released in two months.

Cisco CEO John Chambers has declared that he wants Cisco to be the leader in collaboration software in coming years, noted Sheila Jordan, vice president of communication and collaboration IT at the networking firm. In fact, she said, Chambers has begun using a video blog to communicate while Cisco posts thousands of videos on an internal channel it calls "C Vision."

In addition to offering insight and information, the videos and collaboration tools help Cisco create a great sense of community within the ranks, something that is essential to success but hard to enumerate, said Rick Hutley, vice president of Cisco's Internet business solutions group.

Hutley tallied Cisco's total savings from using collaboration tools during fiscal 2008 at $691 million.

Hutley agreed with P&G's Heltsley about the abiliy of collaboration to bring internal experts together. "We have virtual experts, because we don't have enough experts to be in enough places enough of the time," he said. "There's a huge opportunity to leverage skills and expertise you already have in your company, but the problem is finding it."

Part of Cisco's approach to collaboration includes building online self-help tools that can be accessed from anywhere over the Internet. For example, he noted that internal Apple Macintosh users created a Mac Wiki to provide fellow internal Mac users with information on fixing bugs and other information. Using the internal Mac expertise has saved the compaany an estimated $4 million that it would have had to spend on hiring Mac experts to help with trouble tickets, Hutley estimated.

And "the actual (dollar) savings is minor" compared to the value building a sense of community and tapping into internal expertise via the collaboration tools, Hutley added.

Cisco doesn't even make wiki software, Hutley noted, but had used it along with other tools, noting that there are many workers in any organization who enjoy contributing ideas to others like the Mac enthusiasts. "Give them a stage and they'll stand on there and sing all day," he said.

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