Finding the Stars With Bright Ideas

Companies are using collaboration tools to tap the brains of experts in cubicles all over the world.

Finding the right employees to meet key challenges has long been a conundrum for corporate executives and project managers. In a big corporation, the expertise needed to fix a stumbling marketing program or jump-start a product development project could be hidden anywhere within a workforce whose ranks could number more than 100,000.

Some multinational companies, like The Procter & Gamble Co. and Cisco Systems Inc., are giving managers a variety of options -- from high-definition videoconferencing to instant messaging and wikis -- to help them find people with the skills they need, wherever those people may be.

In fact, IT managers at P&G and Cisco have been sharing information for about seven years to assist each other in separate efforts to implement collaboration tools from a variety of vendors, including Cisco.

The companies quickly met their initial goals of cutting travel costs and easing the corresponding wear and tear on their workers, according to managers. But they also got an unexpected bonus by gaining the ability to more easily find ideas and expertise previously hidden in cubicles located deep within office buildings around the world.

"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 [intellectual property] we have is [our] people."

Since P&G has 138,000 employees in 80 countries, collaboration tools have become a key business driver for the $80 billion consumer products giant. "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," Heltsley said.

P&G discovered early on in the collaboration project that its research and development teams could tap expertise found throughout the corporation, she said.

The company wouldn't disclose the exact cost savings it has realized by using collaboration tools, but Heltsley estimated that P&G has saved about $4 for every $1 invested in 70 high-end telepresence systems it started installing worldwide two years ago. The high-definition systems are used four times as often as earlier videoconferencing products were.

The company is now looking to expand its collaboration capabilities, she said. Among other things, P&G hopes to try out Cisco's new Enterprise Collaboration Platform, which was unveiled this month and is slated to enter a beta-test period before the end of the year, she added.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group, said the interest expressed by large companies like P&G in expanding their use of collaboration tools helps prove the value of the concept.

"What really defines us as humans is communication and our ability to work together in groups," said Mathias, who has followed collaboration tools since the early 1990s, when they were called groupware. "Collaboration is all about group productivity anytime and anywhere, and of course made better with mobile devices. The whole idea behind collaboration tools is practically primal."

At Cisco, CEO John Chambers uses a video blog to communicate with employees. Thousands of videos are also posted on an internal channel called "C Vision" that's used to share insights and information with workers, said Rick Hutley, vice president of the company's Internet business solutions group.

He said the tools offer Cisco "a huge opportunity to leverage skills and expertise" throughout the company. "We have virtual experts because we don't have enough experts to be in enough places enough of the time," he added.

Hutley estimated Cisco's total savings from using collaboration tools during fiscal 2008 at $691 million but added that "the [dollar] savings is minor" compared to the value of tapping into internal expertise.

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