The Value of Working Together

By Gary Chervitz, CPA

"Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success."
— Henry Ford, industrialist and founder of Ford Motor Company

The concept of promoting a collaborative workforce is not new. As illustrated by Henry Ford's quote, business leaders have known for some time that bringing everyone together in pursuit of a common goal delivers success. The promise of a more collaborative business environment is a more efficient and effective workforce. Technology plays a crucial role by dictating the framework within which the organization deploys its collaborative processes.

Businesses rely on information systems as the digital backbone of their organization, and technology that encourages workers to share ideas and communicate directly with one another can help unify the company. However, few solutions offer a consolidated view of the workplace in addition to providing the platform to unify previously disparate processes and individuals. Traditional communication tools like e-mail, telephone and Web conferencing provide a satisfactory platform for workers to exchange information, but they cannot be relied upon to house critical business intelligence because they are not integrated with the core business system. Despite their utility, these tools perpetuate intelligence silos that keep the organization disconnected.

With the specter of an unstable economy casting a shadow over an already competitive business environment, it is more important than ever for organizations to leverage every available resource at their disposal. Companies are advised to deploy a business strategy that unifies all employees, departments, customers and supply chain partners. The ideal software solution should wholly support this initiative and provide the foundation for a more successful and efficient company that works together more effectively throughout the organization and the supply chain.

Building a Collaborative Infrastructure

Building a more collaborative organization is not as simple as buying new software. In fact, it comes with very real challenges. By considering the following, companies can begin to develop a collaboration strategy that appropriately addresses the primary aspects of the transition — people and technology.

  • Corporate Culture and Behavior Must Reflect Collaborative Principles

When the time comes to search for software, look for solutions that promote company-wide visibility and knowledge sharing. Don't allow individuals and departments to create their own portals. Aside from isolating information and working against company-wide collaboration, this approach can cause severe maintenance problems for departments as well as for centralized IT.

  • Use Integrated Technologies to Revitalize ERP

For example, traditional enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems capture transactional information, such as dollars and units sold. Collaborative technologies, on the other hand, look to capture information associated with interactions between people and business units. Integration provides one central, comprehensive repository of interactions that can be linked to underlying ERP transaction data. This additional context adds another dimension to a company's business information that improves insight into business processes and delivers real-time visibility into the organization's key performance indicators (KPIs).

  • Reinvent the Paper Trail and Increase Accountability and Visibility

Seek a solution that provides a consolidated, company-wide view of your documents, workflow processes, human resource policies and activities, and interaction with customers and suppliers in a secure online location. By eliminating the trail of paper without losing the "paper trail," companies can improve performance and increase accountability among both internal and external stakeholders.

  • Next Steps: Monitor, Measure and Manage

Non-integrated tools, like spreadsheets, are isolated from the core business system, making it difficult to monitor and measure progress. Integrated analytics and activity monitoring reveal additional insight into core processes that businesses need to close the feedback loop, creating ample opportunity for continuous improvement. This allows for the long-term focus to remain on "evolution" rather than "revolution." As Henry Ford's quote at the beginning of this article suggests, building a more collaborative organization is not a destination, but a journey. Properly monitoring and measuring progress will keep the organization on the right path.

Conclusion

Paper files have given way to centralized secure documents; inter-office mail has been replaced by instant messaging; and personal, paper-based calendars are giving way to shared digital calendars. The goal is to move away from storing valuable information in silos and toward one version of the truth that is available everywhere in a single repository. By capturing this information and making it visible to both internal and external stakeholders, companies can begin to identify which processes are repeatable, allowing them to increase efficiency over time.

A unified business strategy will push results to the bottom line and provide an advantage over the competition by strengthening ties to customers and suppliers and promoting efficiency and cost-prudency by replacing manual and paper-based processes with digital counterparts. Collaboration projects successfully help companies do more with less, work leaner and greener, with fewer resources and lower operating expenses. Becoming more collaborative is truly a process, and keeping an eye upon continuous improvement efforts is essential. By combining these basic principles with the right collaborative technology, an organization will definitely find itself working together more effectively. And like Henry Ford said, "Working together is success."

Collaboration in Action: UFP Technologies

Building a collaborative infrastructure is critical to UFP Technologies. A designer and custom converter of high performance packaging, parts, and products from foams, plastics and natural fibers, UFP operates three distinct brands in 11 facilities throughout 10 states. The plants share customers, processes and materials, but a lack of communication, data sharing and general accountability hindered company-wide efficiency.

In 2006, UFP implemented a collaboration software suite to increase communication, knowledge sharing and accountability across its divisions. According to Bruce Wright, director of IT at UFP, the company's productivity correlates with its ability to cooperate internally, externally, interdepartmentally and within divisions. For example, UFP's collaborative software suite allowed Wright to develop a three-step process workflow to manage requests for new quotes. The request for quote (RFQ) workflow ensures that key stakeholders from four separate departments (Account Management, Customer Service, Engineering and Plant Management) are either notified or requested to take appropriate action before the process can be completed. This ensures that the quote request is delivered in a timely manner and is properly reviewed and approved. The process is consistent and repeatable, with an audit trail to ensure employee accountability along the way.

In the last two years, UFP has created 30 process workflows to streamline activities and unify departments in the service of customers and has seen its sales increase 31 percent between 2005 and 2008. "UFP communicates well, both internally and with customers and suppliers," says Wright. "We have the systems in place where we're sharing information effectively. We're evolving into a more unified organization, and it couldn't happen at a better time."

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