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CIOs tout collaboration tools as the font of creativity

Four CIOs at the MIT Sloan Symposium dismiss the gulf between maintaining IT infrastructure and innovation as a false dichotomy and address what's really top of mind: collaboration tools that foster innovation by their people.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Stuart McGuigan, CIO of Boston-based Liberty Mutual Group, doesn't spend his days agonizing over whether to shore up the company's IT infrastructure or invest in new technology that will give his company a competitive boost.

"I do not think there is a tradeoff between efficiency standardization and creativity -- I think it's exactly the opposite. When you don't have standard processes for things that you do routinely or are not value-added, you burn up too much staff and management time just figuring out how to get the day-to-day things done," McGuigan said. "Your staff, your management, they're the sources of innovation."

McGuigan was one of four CIO panelists Wednesday at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, a gathering of academics and CIOs on the MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass. Joining him were Gerri Martin-Flickinger, CIO at Adobe Systems Inc.; Molly O'Neill, CIO of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and André Mendes, CIO of Special Olympics International. Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, served as moderator.

The assignment for the CIOs on stage was to discuss the "delicate balance between funding bread-and-butter technology maintenance versus the need for new investments in line with the firm's global vision and mission." But, like McGuigan, the others on the panel viewed the issue as a false dichotomy.

The topic that ended up grabbing center stage was collaboration tools. The strong push at each of these very different organizations is to tap into the creativity of employees using collaboration tools ranging from freebies like Skype to $500,000 Cisco TelePresence suites.

At San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe, for example, every new employee is given a virtual room, Martin-Flickinger said. These "connect" rooms are where Adobe employees, from the CEO to "frontline people," invite each other to meetings, make presentations, collaborate and show videos. The virtual rooms come with a whiteboard but can be furnished to individual tastes, Martin-Flickinger said.

"When you see this in action in a corporation, you see people working across the enterprise, engaging with each other as though they were in the office next door as opposed to across the world," she said. Customers and partners outside Adobe can access the rooms with a URL.

Liberty Mutual employees make use of Microsoft SharePoint, McGuigan said. But the casualty and property giant recently invested big bucks in TelePresence technology from Cisco Systems Inc. "We are a high-touch culture … and this is the first technology I have seen that enables you to recognize all the nonverbal signals in the room," McGuigan said, noting that people quickly forget they are not actually in the room. ("Stuart is actually not here," Brynjolfsson quipped.)

McGuigan acknowledged the price of entry was steep -- in the ballpark of $500,000 -- but for a company with projects that span many sites, the savings in airline travel and time justify the investment. "Decisions that would wait for the next monthly meeting now can happen daily," he said. For Liberty Mutual, the chief benefit of TelePresence is speed to market -- even more so than efficiency.

Collaboration is also essential for the far-flung, fast-growing Special Olympics organization, which is represented in 175 countries, Mendes said. "We do have a very expensive telepresence throughout the world -- it's called Skype," he joked. "It is actually a tool that works very well." Mendes said the organization's strategy for technologies like Skype as well as document management tools like SharePoint is to spend money on bandwidth and then "virtualize everything else."

"So, we are able to communicate throughout the world in an extremely efficient manner, and with very small amount of staff, maintenance and money," Mendes said.

Another benefit is that for volunteers in less advanced countries, the collaboration tools provide job training, giving them valuable skills that are in short supply in their geographies.

The EPA, as a government agency, is mandated to support collaboration, O'Neill said. The advent of IT tools is broadening and accelerating collaboration -- with powerful implications for public policy. O'Neill cited statistics that only 5% of the nation's environmental experts are employed by the EPA, underlining the need for collaboration outside its walls. The EPA uses traditional tools, including SharePoint and a portal for discussion boards utilized by EPA scientists. But in the past year or so, the agency has rolled out "a lot of the Web 2.0 technologies," such as wikis and blogs, to engage citizens.

"We started with a single blogger," O'Neill said. The blog has gone agency-wide and is gaining traction, she said, which is even more remarkable given the "digital divide" between the EPA's aging workforce and its younger hires. Now, the EPA is forming wikis, including public wikis, to get comments back from citizens, social networks and the myriad groups that weigh in on the EPA agenda.

Asked by MIT's Brynjolfsson if the feedback has proved useful, O'Neill gushed: "Wonderful ideas, coming from throughout the nation. Who would have been able to get that kind of contribution over three days?"

The response has been a wake-up call for the federal government that it can't get occasional updates of its websites. "You have to make sure you have a dedicated group of people who understand the subject, that you're posing the right questions and that you can categorize and manage that information," she said.

The panel appeared to offer plenty of food for thought. Members from the audience queued up to ask questions. One person wanted to know if the rapid consolidation in the vendor community will make it even harder for CIOs to budget wisely. The consensus on the panel was that the consolidation was good and that standards being adopted by a variety of vendors are allowing innovation to take place. Adobe's Martin-Flickinger pointed to all the small companies developing applications for Inc. as an example of innovation bubbling up from below.

Beth Cohen, president of Luth Computer Specialists Inc., a CIO consulting firm in the Boston area, took notes throughout the discussion about collaboration tools. Did she get anything out of the discussion? "Absolutely," she said, pointing to her notebook. "I wrote right here, 'IM is passé,' because nobody mentioned it."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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