Collaboration Gains Traction In Project Management

Plants turn to collaboration tools to get everyone involved in projects. Monterey AgResources, a Fresno, Calif.-based producer of crop protection and animal feed materials, had difficulty accommodating the wide range of stakeholders concerned with the various stages of product development, from research and development (R&D) and field trials through compliance, registration and packaging.

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Each phase of the project called on people from different disciplines, from chemists and marketers to compliance specialists, suppliers and management. Bringing these people in and out of the process made innovation and product development sluggish. The company shared information through the process by using endless e-mails and hard-copy reports. “Errors and delays were taken for granted in a system that lacked any ability to truly track and collaborate,” says Jay Irvine, vice president of marketing for Monterey AgResources. “Once, we mistakenly double-paid a supplier $6,500.”

Tools to the rescue

To solve this thorny problem, the company started using collaborative tools produced by Clarizen Inc., an Israeli company with U.S. offices in San Mateo, Calif. The tools allow all stakeholders to view the progress of a project through all stages that touch their disciplines. “With Clarizen, all my team members have access anytime, anywhere to project data,” says Irvine. “Even members who are not Web-savvy can complete their progress reports on assigned tasks directly from their inboxes using an e-mail feature.”

Once the data started getting shared among team members, project meetings took on a different character. “Now, our monthly meetings focus more on strategic decision-making rather than sharing project data,” says Irvine. “I’m confident this will result in an increase in efficiencies and eventually, improvements on the bottom line.”

With collaboration tools now widely available, companies are sharing data widely across the enterprise and out to vendors, suppliers and customers. In the past, companies conducted haphazard collaboration using different systems, often different from department to department. All this was tied together by e-mails, spreadsheets and phone calls. At both large and small companies, these inefficient, hodgepodge systems are getting replaced by collaboration tools produced by Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., and other software vendors.

Collaboration is nothing new. R&D and plant engineers have always shared development data with procurement and the business side. But in the past, designs have been completed, then tossed over the wall to the next discipline involved. New collaboration tools help teams share data as projects progress. Data can also be shared with dispersed stakeholders. “How long have we been collaborating? Decades,” says Russ Novak, analyst at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass. “All of the major players in discrete and process have been collaborating all along. The difference now is you can use Microsoft SharePoint Portal technology in a dispersed workplace around the globe.”

Full-blown collaboration tools started to emerge in the late 1990s. They gathered steam in the market two or three years ago. “The focus on collaboration really started around 2002 or 2003. Before that, projects were finite and localized,” says Bhavin Patel, PMP program manager for automation vendor Yokogawa Corp. of America, in Newnan, Ga. “Now, people are collaborating across different organizations, across the pond, around the world.”

Why collaborate?

The reasons for formal collaboration are plentiful. Shared information helps eliminate errors. The more stakeholders involved in a project, the higher the likelihood the project will proceed without bumps. When data is shared through a collaboration tool, time is no longer wasted making sure everyone knows the status of each milestone. Team members dispersed across an organization and across the globe can participate in a project’s progress. Finally, greater visibility typically results in greater risk mitigation.

Visibility is key to making projects efficient. If you can’t see the project data, it can be hard to do a course correction before spending gets out of control. “Our customers are downloading our templates, customizing them and using them over and over,” says Ryan Kish, vice president at project management software supplier AEC Software Inc., in Sterling, Va. “Teams are using these collaboration tools to work smarter and get more transparency between team members and vendors. That’s controlling costs.”

Collaboration also helps teams work on several project simultaneously. “People want the ability to work on multiple projects with multiple companies,” says Avinoam Nowogrodski, chief executive officer and co-founder of Clarizen. “Say you’re doing a build-for-order machine for Delphi. You have to share the production line design with your suppliers and Delphi to get the full picture of the project.”

Risk mitigation is also a benefit of collaboration. “You want to minimize the time from concept to operational readiness. For the design-build phases, you almost always have external stakeholders,” says ARC’s Novak. “You may have two or three EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) companies. And with good collaboration, you have risk avoidance.”

Look who’s collaborating

The collaboration boom began in the aerospace industry. The Boeing Co., the Chicago-based aerospace manufacturer, was an early leader. The design engineering team at Boeing developed proprietary collaboration tools in the late 1990s so their suppliers could participate in the design and development of airliners and jet fighters. The rest of the aerospace industry quickly followed. High tech and electronics—which live close to aerospace—also followed Boeing’s lead. Since then, most industries have started to use collaboration tools. Collaborative partners can range from internal teams—R&D and control engineering—to outside partners such as vendors, suppliers and customers.

Collaboration allows more stakeholders into the mix. This is a version of the move toward greater integration between the plant and the enterprise. “More and more projects are expanding beyond just process control. They are now encompassing team members from operations, IT (information technology), business planning and financial operations,” says John Lewis, director of operations, Americas, for automation vendor Honeywell Process Solutions, in Phoenix. “As more groups become involved, it’s impacting automation beyond traditional process readiness and into operational and business readiness.”

Collaboration tools combined with mobile computers allows team members to check in on project data and progress even from home. “Everybody is getting better access and high speed with Web-based tools,” says Tom Olsen, who heads project services for Emerson Process Management, the Austin, Texas-based process automation vendor. “I work from my house and I have access to SharePoint all over the world. PCs (personal computers) doubling their power every six months really helps. And Microsoft Office 2007 is all about collaboration.”

Using the tools

There is a wide range of inexpensive tools available to support collaboration. Many companies use Microsoft Office 2007 effectively. Most of the tools are relatively easy to use, which prompts quick adoption. Some tools such as Microsoft Project are intricate, but many users skip the complex parts of the tool and use it like a stripped-down version. Because everyone is accustomed to e-mail, Web pages and spreadsheets, most collaboration tools mimic or integrate these tools.

One of the benefits of collaboration tools is measurement. If you can share it, you can measure it. If you can measure it, you can improve it. “When you have your workflow processes shared, you can measure them and get metrics out of them,” says Joe Wichowski, president and chief executive officer of Ebiz Technology LLC, a company that produces collaborative software in Wixom, Mich. “When you have the metrics, you can improve, cut waste and work on Lean Manufacturing.”

Collaboration has been common in product development for decades, but the latest tools have taken it to a new level. Errors have evaporated now that everyone who needs a paper trail has one. Less time is spent keeping everyone up on the status of milestones, since everyone can see the milestone progress as it happens. That means meetings can focus on higher-level strategy rather than data sharing.

Going forward, collaboration can become a step toward better integration between plant automation and business processes. “Project collaboration offers a more integrated solution so companies can run the overall business with the automation system,” says Honeywell’s Lewis. “We are expanding beyond controlling just the manufacturing process to automating solutions that positively impact how the company runs its overall business.”

The surprise in collaboration tools is the efficiency they bring at such a low cost. Plus, they’re easy to use. Little training is required to use Microsoft tools, and other software vendors are delivering tools that integrate into Microsoft Outlook and their commonly used applications. So training is not a major factor in adoption. Given the high payoff and the low investment, collaboration tools are being quickly adopted by companies large and small.

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