LAS VEGAS - A recession may seem like an odd time for a renaissance in technology, but the need to cost-effectively share information and brainstorm for solutions has never been greater.
As cash-strapped companies struggle to get more productivity out of fewer employees, cutting-edge consumer-driven technologies, such as blogs, wikis and social networks, are allowing those remaining workers to improve how they communicate and collaborate with one another.
"Technology has both changed reality and boosted productivity," said Craig Saint-Amour, director of U.S. capital market solutions for Microsoft, speaking at the National Investment Company Service Association's 2008 technology summit at the J.W. Marriott Las Vegas Resort last month.
"Communication is rapidly increasing in complexity and virtualization, and many firms are now managing computers across a company and across the world," Saint-Amour said.
Technologies like wikis, blog forums and server-based Excel spreadsheets can be beneficial to project collaboration, even in an office where all the team members are within earshot, but when team members are spread out in cities across the country or across the world, such technologies become essential.
When meeting with clients, computers will never replace the effectiveness of a firm handshake, a face-to-face meeting and a round of golf, but it often isn't practical for a national or international company to always meet with clients in person, particularly if the client is in a country on the other side of the planet.
"The costs of meeting face to face are rising," said Brian Stetson, senior vice president of e-commerce at Putnam Investments. "Collaborative solutions have improved our productivity, helped to control costs and allowed our workers a lot more face time and interactivity than if they had to travel everywhere."
People have been using technology to cut down on travel expenses and improve efficiency since the invention of the telegraph. The widespread use of telephone, Internet, e-mail and videoconferencing have further eliminated communication obstacles caused by distances between cities, countries and continents.
"We are very vigilant that you don't need to travel extended distances if it can be done using collaborative solutions," Stetson said. "Obviously, making someone travel for an hour-long meeting and then travel back isn't the most efficient use of time."
Younger employees in particular are very comfortable using blogs, instant-messaging and social networking on their free time and want to use the same networking tools at work.
"Social networking really started about 10 years ago with e-mail," Saint-Amour said, adding that Millenials or Generation Y users are accustomed to self expression through blogs and wikis. "Millenials are driving our chip consumption, and 91% of them cite access to technology as a factor in where they choose to work."
Technology experts say these collaborative solutions have a real place in today's business environment and will undoubtedly play a larger role in the future as Millenials climb through the workforce. The online network LinkedIn is prevalent among business professionals and has more than 30 million members worldwide. Many executives have professional Facebook pages, as well.
"Consumer expectations are bleeding over into the enterprise space, and many firms are extending the use of these products beyond their firewalls," Stetson said. "Technology empowers multiple concurrent users to edit and manage content. Often, social networks are a good way to find people for business."
James Marrano, vice president of global product management for the State Street Corp., said his company has been using collaborative tools for years and found that once there was an open forum, every employee became an author.
"If everybody's an author, you get lots and lots of content," Marrano said. "Now we need to figure out ways to get to that content. Without being able to find things, no one will take the time to search."
Marrano said employees are tagging content for their own consumption, adding that "tagging is the most important capability around this type of technology."
"I don't think of this as a technology issue as much as it's about culture and process," said Tony Frazier, senior director of the emerging technologies group at Cisco Systems. "Our wiki was launched a year ago and went from zero to 150,000 unique pages with over one million edits. We get 2,000 queries per day to the directory, but if you need to find people based on what they know, it's more difficult."
Frazier said Cisco has seen a 63% reduction in T&E expenses since it began using these tools.
Employees have generally been quick to adopt these technologies, but corporate legal and compliance teams still worry that the wrong information could inadvertently get out into the public.
"Legal and compliance departments are cautious about making sure a system complies with technology usage in other areas," Stetson said.
Firms often buy pre-made packages from technology vendors, but many of these packages offer capabilities like chat rooms and file attachment features that may be inappropriate for a business setting or incompatible with some of the "established, more mature technology" that includes archival features, he said.
"These tools don't integrate with how we track that information, and as a result, compliance has to either disable or integrate these tools," Stetson said.
"We're finding fantastic adoption rates on using technology like this," said Hazem Gamal, a vice president at OppenheimerFunds. "We need to overcome how we think about business, but legal and compliance has to be engaged."
He said OppenheimerFunds' legal department has a great deal of influence on which technologies are appropriate and which could potentially leak information into the public domain.
"I suggest you try calling them business networking communities," Marrano said. "The minute you call them social networks, everyone panics."
"More and more people will realize that collaborative solutions are not just a necessity but a competitive advantage, as well," Stetson said.
"People embrace technology because it makes them more efficient. If it helps people do their job, there is a motivation to use it regardless of age. Everybody is seeing the benefits, young and old, but these technologies are only worthwhile if they help people," the e-commerce senior vice president added.
(c) 2008 Money Management Executive and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.