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Information sharing—new options emerge

This article appears in the issue March 2011 (100 Companies) [Vol 20, Issue 3]
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Content sharing has evolved through several distinct stages over the past decade. Enterprise content management (ECM) systems established centralized repositories that were organized, indexed and searchable to make content readily available. Ideal for many applications, they fell short when project-oriented collaboration was required, which led to the emergence of document-centric collaboration platforms. More recently, social software platforms have provided a way to share information in a dynamic and flexible way. New software tools that allow information sharing such as through peer-to-peer file sharing or thin-client viewers offer yet another set of options.

GT Nexus is a software company that provides a platform for global supply chain control. Its product is cloud-based and provides an efficient way for importers and exporters to collaborate with their supply chain partners, including third-party logistics partners, freight carriers, customs brokers and banks. GT Nexus software helps customers track their shipments and manage the financial aspects of transactions.

A simple goal

Because the company operates in a complex and dynamic environment, it needed an effective way to share knowledge, both among its employees and with customers. “The supply chain industry is very dynamic, and our own technology is constantly evolving,” says John Atherton, VP of strategic consulting and chief knowledge officer at GT Nexus. “Our employees need to stay up to speed on both fronts.”

Much of the information that GT Nexus wanted to share was available in the company, but was stored on various hard drives and within e-mail messages. The goal was to find a simple, cost-effective method of sharing information. Atherton launched a knowledge management initiative that reflected the vision he had for the enterprise program and provided a clear requirements statement. “We went through a formal RFP process, talked to analysts and developed a short list,” he explains. “Our conclusion was that Socialtext provided the best solution for our needs.”

Socialtext’s platform includes online workspaces, wikis, blogs and microblogging. “We wanted an easy way to collaborate, store documents and also to send Twitter-style messages to provide a quick blast of information companywide when needed,” says Atherton. GT Nexus constructed a social intranet called the Grid, which is organized departmentally. Content relevant to sales, HR and other departments is stored and accessed on the Grid.

Culture of sharing

“Our intent when we launched Socialtext was to develop a culture of sharing,” Atherton adds, “not just to communicate point to point.” He encourages employees to look at their interactions and consider, for example, whether a document being sent to a colleague might be leveraged by a broader group. If so, the employee should post it to the Grid as well. Once in Socialtext, content is indexed and searchable, including content in e-mail attachments.

The HR department uses the Grid to store reference materials such as policy manuals, as well as expense forms and training materials. “Part of onboarding is providing training for new employees,” Atherton says, “so we provide a workspace on the Grid with instructions about where to start — recordings, documents and pointers to more information.” GT Nexus is now streaming video into the Grid, including clips that provide descriptions of its supply chain software and product demos.

GT Nexus has successfully integrated Socialtext with other applications, including a cloud-based software product that tracks software bugs, and Salesforce.com. “The microblogging tool, Socialtext’s Signals, is used to alert colleagues to progress on sales deals or other time-sensitive events,” Atherton points out. “We also have a central location for our technical documentation.”

Although the company began with a focus on sharing knowledge internally, GT Nexus recently deployed a customer-facing extranet. “We have taken the vision we had for our own knowledge sharing strategy and extended it to our customers,” says Atherton. When customers log in, they can click on a link called “Community” and go to a GT Nexus-branded version of Socialtext. There, customers have access to help guides, FAQs and other source material. Since customers are accessing those materials in a social environment rather than as a static document, they can easily comment, ask questions and engage with GT Nexus.

Selective sharing

Knowledge sharing should be a byproduct of getting work done, according to Ross Mayfield, president of Socialtext. “Social software provides a context for making knowledge discoverable while allowing employees to work in their preferred modes,” he says. “Rather than seeing only a profile of what an employee knows, colleagues can get a glimpse into the activity stream as the individual works.” If an open question shows up in Signals, for example, someone who knows the answer can readily jump in to respond.

As important as sharing can be in an organization, striking the right balance is even more so. “The hype about sharing is that it should happen all day,” Mayfield says, “but it should be selective.” In the past year, Socialtext has expanded its integrations to include both Salesforce.com and SharePoint.

“Users such as GT Nexus who are sending Signals messages to people downstream from the sales department are targeting a group who can benefit from the information,” Mayfield emphasizes. “In SharePoint, information can be hard to find. Sending a message and link about a useful document can cut down on the time workers spend looking for the right information. As people find and share the information they need within the context of a social intranet, it quickly becomes the place where work gets done.”

Peer-to-peer and other options

One new option for enterprise file sharing is Content Circles, a desktop software product that uses a peer-to-peer model for information sharing. The application is Internet-enabled, but not browser-based. The user creates a group of files called a Content Circle, and then invites individuals via their e-mail addresses to share the content. The invitees then use the same application on their own desktops to access the shared content.

Content is replicated on the desktop of each member of the circle. As the content is changed or updated by any member of a circle who has the appropriate permissions, content on other circle members’ desktops is automatically updated. Content is added by simply dragging files or folders into Content Circles. If a folder is brought into a circle, the Content Circle software retains the hierarchy of the folder, which can be expanded for access and viewing, or collapsed.

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