Over the past few months I have been playing a lead role on a large project with a leading motor vehicle manufacturer. The project will be their largest information services project in 2013 and will impact most of their workforce as they strive to provide an exceptional employee work experience while providing tools for modern collaboration.

This project has a lot of moving parts and relies on external vendors with subject matter experts who are top of their speciality, to provide services that are on time and within budget. With over 30 work parcels, there has been a need to seek multiple proposals from a variety of respondents. Once selecting a vendor, the typical project on-boarding challenges require addressing to ensure that people are up to speed and productive.

Being able to distribute the information across the entire team of vendors created another set of challenges. Every member of the project team needs to benefit from the sharing of accurate real-time information, no matter what organisation they were working for.

A couple of weeks ago, an American gentleman attended the project site to provide some critical services. He was provided with access to all the information he needed. As he had some problems and was unable to complete the work, an Australian colleague of his will be visiting today.  There is going to be a lot of pressure on me as I arrive late after an international flight, with multiple people demanding my time. It is going to be important that I can get his colleague working as quickly as possible.

So, I have three main problems, tight timeframes, multiple people and a need to share information. I think that it is high time that I taste my own medicine.

I have created an online secure Social Network for the project. Through the use of IBM SmartCloud for Social Business, it took just a few moments to put this in place. I created a private community through which vendors have been invited to participate and to share their project information. Over the next few days, I talked to the vendors about the community and made it the hub of information sharing.

Tools included within the community include, Blogs, Wiki’s, Files, Discussion Forums, Media Galleries, Activities, People Profiles and many other features. There are also mobile apps which allow the team to access information from an Andriod phone or iPad. The mobile apps make it very helpful when I am in a meeting and need to quickly reference information.

The use of a Wiki is a great way to share information which is evolving as the project makes progress. One of the most popular wiki pages contains a list of servers, simple configuration information, their status and other relevant information. As this information changes, the page is updated and the entire project team is able to see it. Below each page, there is the ability for the team to have an open discussion giving everyone who visits the page a broader understanding of its content.

Discussion forums are providing value by allowing people to ask questions and to connect with subject matter experts from across the project, to participate in solving problems. Traditionally these questions would come through the use of email. I would then redirect them to the person whom I thought could answer them the best. However, with discussion forums, experts are able to identify each other and get the assistance they require. This is good when I am in back to back meetings, people don’t have to wait for me to get out of the meeting to get the support they may need.

I like the ability to be able to share files with the vendors. At the beginning of the project, I found myself sending out files which were combined into a zip file. As the content would change, I would send out the information again. I had no way of knowing if the updated documents were being distributed to the right people. At times I also had problems with the email servers at either end not accepting larger attachments. All of which was costing me time. Through the use of the Files tool, I am able to upload documents and share them in the community. When there is an update to the file, I just upload a new version. Community members may wish to ‘follow’ a file, if this is the case they will receive a notification of the new version, the moment it is uploaded. Once again, there is the ability to have an online discussion about a file, providing one place for the information and the same place for the conversation. Getting this sort of thing out of email has some great benefits.

Through the use of the Media Gallery, I am able to share photo’s (pictures), video and other content. I have been using this to quickly share project timeline information. Not everyone in the wider team has access to Microsoft Project, therefore having the ability to take a screenshot and share it within the Media Gallery has been quite helpful. I also find myself taking screenshots of configuration information which I need to share.

It is not uncommon for me to be sitting in meetings where diagrams are drawn on a whiteboard. In the past, these diagrams and brainstorming sessions are often erased at the end of the meeting and important pieces of information are lost. It is common for me to take a photo using my cellphone or iPad. I would then have to go through the process of e-mailing the photo to myself so that I can have it on my PC and possibly share it with other people with the project team. However, I have been able to take the photo and upload it to an online community where it has been shared in real-time with the rest of the project team. From there, it can be viewed or embedded into other media types such as blogs, activities, wikis. The conversation is able to continue outside of the meeting room.

The killer feature, for me, is called Activities. This provides the ability to create an activity which can be broken down into individual tasks. Tasks can be ordered by dragging and dropping them around the screen. I am able to assign tasks to people as I need. An activity can be easily completed by people working as one team even though they span many organisations. Again, each part of an activity allows for people to add comments and engage in meaningful conversation as they complete a task. The project manager benefits from being able to see this by knowing what is happening and saving valuable time by reducing the time spent on gaining status updates.

I also use Activities to help document repeatable processes. There is an important piece of work which needs to be done 16 times with some slight differences. It is important that this activity is documented and done correctly. When I set up the activity, I have included a list of tasks which need to be completed. These tasks include a commentary and some specific requirements. I am not sure if the information is 100% correct, however, one of the vendors will be able to help me to make the required corrections. Once, this is done, I can create a reusable template which someone can follow as the work is completed each time. If the person completing the work finds a way to improve the process, they are able to communicate this and improvements can quickly be made.

When the community was first set up, it contained very little content and didn’t provide anyone with any great value. I had to drive user adoption by asking vendors to share information in the community, rather than emailing it through to me. I also had to model this way of working by using it myself. Rather than emailing individuals, I would put the information into the community and then send them a link. I had one vendor who tried to resist using it, but over time they have found value for themselves.

I have learnt more about the importance of a ‘tag cloud’ and how it relates to a project. For each piece of information within the community, there is the ability for people to add tags. Tags are words which they may want to use which describe the content. I tag information to help me search for it in the future. Tagging also gives information of relevance to the people viewing it. On the main page of the community the is a ‘tag’ cloud’.  A tag cloud is a bunch of seemingly random words, the more a word is used, the more it is made to stand out. The more popular words are usually displayed in a larger font. A quick glance at a tag cloud helps show how the project is changing. Each day as people interact with the information, the cloud changes. This provides a great way of quickly identifying what is important to the project the current time.

A tag cloud is also a good way to quickly spot project trends or, more importantly, the lack of them. If certain activities should be happening on the project, but there are no relevant words appearing in the tag cloud, then it’s time to look a bit deeper into what is happening.

The use of IBM Smartcloud for Social Business is not the only collaboration tool that is being used on the project. The use of this tool is only for information which is to be shared across organisations. Each vendor may have other tools that they use internally. The automotive manufacturer for whom the project is for, also makes use of Microsoft SharePoint for internal collaboration. However, the way Microsoft SharePoint has been set up, doesn’t provide for collaboration with external parties. This is good, as it clearly marks a demarcation point for sensitive information which should not be shared with external vendors or which may be commercial in nature. Each of the vendors have been asked not to share commercially sensitive information on the the IBM Smartcloud site.