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Agile Computing: Article

Case Study: Transcending E-mail As a Platform for Multi-Person Collaboration

Design Commission Nets $2,000/month in Productivity Gains Using Wiki Technology

E-mail is extremely easy to adopt and use, and lends itself very well to certain types of collaboration. When two people are attempting to collaborate asynchronously, e-mail is usually the best solution. It's certainly far less frustrating than phone tag. But once more people are involved, email's utility rapidly degenerates. While the rise of free, open-source solutions makes it tempting to build one's own collaboration tools, on-demand or Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions are the better choice for the majority of users and uses.

Design Commission, an award-winning design firm based out of Seattle, Washington, had grown from a bootstrapped startup into a thriving business. Along with a friend, David Conrad had co-founded Design Commission after working as a design lead for videogame giant Electronic Arts’ Web site.

Starting from scratch, Design Commission had built up a stable of prestigious clients like Sony, Corbis, and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Labs. David had even been recognized for his work with Sony in the Communication Arts Interactive Annual. Now, the firm had to figure out how to deal with how success had made its previous strategy of collaborating via email unmanageable.

“The studio has gone from two people to six people in the last 18 months,” said Conrad. “That doesn’t sound very big, but that’s 300% growth, and you run into the same issues of scale as you would with a big company. At the heart of these challenges is communication. Our success had made it much more difficult to make sure everyone in the team was on the same page.”

Email is still the most common tool for electronic collaboration. Everyone has it, and everyone uses it. However, email presents an extremely difficult set of challenges for organizations who try to use it for coordination and project management.

Email is extremely easy to adopt and use, and lends itself very well to certain types of collaboration. When two people are attempting to collaborate asynchronously, email is usually the best solution. It’s certainly far less frustrating than phone tag. But once more people are involved, email’s utility rapidly degenerates.

The problems with email as a platform for multi-person collaboration are the issues of accuracy and discoverability.

As asynchronous emails fly back and forth between the participants, it becomes harder and harder to ensure that the information in the email remains accurate and consistent. Who hasn’t experienced replying to an email, only to discover that another party had already given a different answer? There is no way to know which version of the information is the gold standard.

In addition, email is a poor medium for storing and discovering information. Only the recipients have access to it, and it is generally disorganized and unsearchable.

Who hasn’t experienced the pain of spending minutes or even hours fruitlessly searching for a particular lost email?

Yet because email is a critical part of our professional lives, it became the default collaboration tool for Design Commission.

"We’ve been dependent on email, and it’s a habit we're trying to break," said Conrad. "It's incredibly dispersed, and trying to find the password to Campaign Monitor takes 30 minutes when it should take 30 seconds. We wanted a common place where we could store all our important information."

Nor was his email addiction simply an issue of convenience. It had real impact on Design Commission's business and bottom line.

"Being able to organize and find information translates into real financial benefits," said Conrad. "I have more time to work on billable projects because I'm not spending that extra 29:30 hunting down information I'm not being paid to find. There's also a boost to general morale. It drives me nuts when I can't find a piece of information I need to do my job."

Since Design Commission is a professional services firm, Conrad knew that time was literally money. He resolved to find a collaboration solution that would help his firm manage its growth.

Conrad looked at a lot of different options before choosing PBwiki. “We’ve been looking at collaboration options since we started the company,” said Conrad. “There’s no shortage of potential approaches to the problem.”

One key decision Design Commission made up front was to opt for an on-demand collaboration solution.

While the rise of free, open-source solutions makes it tempting to build one’s own collaboration tools (There’s no cost! We can tailor it to our needs!), on-demand or “Software as a Service” (SaaS) solutions are the better choice for the majority of users and uses.

Even the most comprehensive and powerful collaboration tool will generate zero productivity gains if it isn’t used. Focusing on functionality first is putting the cart before the horse. Better to emphasize ease of adoption and use.

Low barriers to entry will help encourage users to experiment with collaboration tools and ease of use encourages them to keep exploring new uses for those tools. This incremental approach allows organizations to adopt technology informally and from the bottom up, rather than requiring a major top-down effort to re-engineer the enterprise. That’s as true for a 6-person organization as a 60,000 person organization.

Introducing a new software package into the datacenter generally rules out the informal, bottom-up approach. Instead, it is necessary to trigger your organization’s standard procurement and review process. Rather than being up and running in a matter of minutes, it may take weeks or even months to obtain the necessary approvals and resources from corporate IT (assuming that the request is approved in the first place). By the time the rollout is done, the original reason for introducing the tool might have disappeared.

Peter Williams, the CEO of Deloitte Digital found this out when he requested help the IT group to roll out a knowledge management solution for collaborating on new business plans. His IT group finally responded 18 months later. By that time, Williams had already brought in an on-demand solution from PBwiki, and had successfully used to generate real business benefits.

This example illustrates one of the key strengths of Software-as-a-Service: An organization can start using a hosted solution immediately, without waiting for its IT department.

Naturally, it is important to consider the needs and requirements of IT in the long run. While line of business managers can focus solely on business benefits, IT managers need to consider the overall safety, security, and maintainability of the organization’s technology infrastructure.

Even in this case, however, the standard arguments for hosting in-house—security and reliability—have been addressed by on-demand vendors like PBwiki. Hosted wikis provide high-grade encryption, redundant data replication, and full access controls. Additionally, because on-demand vendors focus solely on wiki hosting, rather than treating it as a single project within the IT portfolio, they generally deliver better performance and reliability. PBwiki delivers “five nines” uptime to its millions of users.

In the case of Design Commission, as boutique design firm without a formal IT group, the decision was even simpler: Avoid the hassles of hosting by only considering on-demand solutions. Based on this criteria, Design Commission evaluated three main solutions: 37Signals’ Basecamp, Google Sites, and PBwiki.

Design Commission had already used 37Signals’ Basecamp to manage client-related projects, but that tool lacked the necessary comprehensiveness and permanence:

"We manage client-related projects using Basecamp. Not because we like it; a lot of us really dislike it, but because it was the best option available at the time. The problem with Basecamp is that it doesn't let you tie everything together; there's no way to see all your different projects at once. Also, it's temporal; there's a begin date and an end date. PBwiki lets us organize information for use in perpetuity."

Conrad liked PBwiki's flexibility and openness, citing its open APIs and widget support as evidence that PBwiki gives its users the opportunity to build on top of the base platform.

“PBwiki seemed to be making efforts towards information convergence,” Conrad said. “In a closed environment like Basecamp, there’s not much flexibility. Because PBwiki offers exposures to APIs and widgets, that shows me that there’s an opportunity to do new things.”

Conrad also looked at Google Sites as a potential solution. Design Commission was already a Google customer, managing its email using Google Apps. But when Conrad reviewed the Google Sites product, he concluded it wasn't going to meet his needs.

"When Google first announced Google Sites, we started tinkering with it, but quickly found it to be a disappointing experience,” said Conrad. “It didn't do a good job of getting me into a mode where I could create useful pages. There's nothing cohesive about the experience. I don't even know the URL. I had to log into my Google account and hunt around for the link. With PBwiki, we know exactly where to go, and there's a place that's got all the content I'm looking for."

In addition, Design Commission had already had a good experience with PBwiki, thanks to one of its projects with Vulcan Labs. That recommendation helped make going with PBwiki an easy decision.

After choosing PBwiki, Design Commission moved quickly to make PBwiki an integral part of the team's workflow. Now the team members all use PBwiki on a daily basis. Among its uses:

  • Recording the notes from the company's internal meetings
  • Recording the notes from the company's partner and client meetings
  • Organizing and recording the company's staff meetings
  • Providing a central repository of login information for software and Web-based tools
  • Storing contact information, both for staff and for key vendors and partners
  • Planning and managing company projects and events

"We have a company retreat coming up in a couple of weeks, and we're storing all the information about the retreat on PBwiki," said Conrad. "Everything from logistics--directions and who's cooking what--to planning out our meeting agenda. That's temporal, but some of that information needs to live on, and PBwiki lets us do that."

And while Design Commission specializes in telling stories through design, they made the decision to use PBwiki based on cold, hard ROI. "We figure that we save on the order of an hour per week for each of our six team members, and we hope it will be more than that in the long run.”

“Conservatively, we're improving productivity at least $2,000 per month," said Conrad.

More Stories By Chris Yeh

Chris Yeh is Vice President of Enterprise Marketing, PBwiki.

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Most Recent Comments
Alice McLane 07/07/08 05:16:25 AM EDT

Email is still the most popular project collaboration tool - this is right. But its many draw backs are not the reason to give up on your favouite communication medium. As, you have noticed in your article, SaaS are offering more and more options for collaboration, one of them is project management software integrated with email. Our idea is to build projects by simply emailing your tasks to the system.

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