Teamwork for Techies

Bye-bye, lone programmer. Here's how to get far-flung IT professionals to collaborate.

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In the virtual world, the Northfield, Ill.-based company experimented with technology to enable its 1,800 IT employees worldwide to participate in its annual IT leadership meeting held earlier this year, says Lorraine Casler, director of enterprise content management for information systems at Kraft.

The meeting brought together leaders from the information systems department and the enterprise shared systems department to discuss strategy. Through an online collaboration center, employees were encouraged to contribute comments and ask questions during the meeting. The collaboration center also hosted blogs, podcasts and videos by attendees. About 40% of the attendees blogged and 10% posted videos or podcasts, according to a Kraft spokesman. An average of 1,000 IT employees followed those posts, he says.

To foster in-person collaboration, a couple hundred IT employees in the company's Northfield headquarters have moved into office space redesigned to promote interaction.

As part of its workplace transformation project, the company got rid of offices and cubicles and replaced them with a large open area with enclaves for meetings and private conversations. There isn't any assigned seating. Workers keep their personal belongings in lockers and any files or office supplies in rolling "footstools," says Casler.

The change was mandatory, and Casler acknowledges that some employees didn't like the new arrangement at first. "In the old command-and-control culture, the bigger your office, the more important you are," she says. But thanks to a careful change-management process and proper training and support, most employees settled into the new space.

She says that having managers out on the floor with employees rather than behind closed office doors has strengthened relationships. "Once you get over the fact that you don't have an office, you start feeling more engaged," Casler says.

As more and more companies encourage, or even mandate, collaboration, IT may finally put to rest the stereotype of the lone programmer. Forrester's Hammond says collaboration in high-performance development teams breeds success, in the same way that cooperation enables members of professional sports teams to win championships.

"If you put [IT employees] in a situation where there are other people that are as good as they are, then -- bam! The collaboration just starts to happen," Hammond says. "It goes high-bandwidth."

Harbert is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in technology, business and public policy. You can contact her through her Web site, TamHarbert.com.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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