An industrial research department of around 150 people is located on two sites that are some 120 miles apart, with about half the staff at each location. The two sites have a different corporate tradition and have they work well together but arrangements for sharing electronic documentation are cumbersome and inefficient. At the very least, the need for version control of project documents imposes an unnecessary overhead and the potential for proliferation of 'local' copies of documents cannot be ignored.
There is a corporate statement of intent that local drives will be retired and that a common data repository will be instituted. As a local initiative the application on which this data repository was to be implemented was piloted within a group of 25 colleagues for a period of six months. During this time many of the features of the application were 'road tested' and the implications for the department of managing the application bean to be understood. Early in the second six months, the application was introduced to a number of section leaders and the benefits of a web based application that would manage the data repository, had the potential for more effective document search, could incorporate calendars, task lists, announcements and much more in a single desk top were explained. Three further pilot sites were set up for projects after which two of the project leaders began to use the application and there was a progressive adoption by their teams over a period of two or thee months. After four months, further requests for sites began to materialise spontaneously so that by the end of the first year there were some 15 project sites up and running.
The application, once set up is self supporting and can be largely maintained by its users with help desk support. This mode of working is very familiar to those colleagues who operate sophisticated software applications in their leisure time and they tend to become the local experts who help their colleagues exploit the full capability of the system.
The implementation of collaborative software provides users with some capability to tailor systems to their particular needs and paradoxically can achieve a greater degree of standardisation. In a nutshell mass customisation is adopted as an alternative to a fully bespoke application.
By providing a framework (with the minimum necessary constraints) and a basic system which has some level of flexibility in how it is implemented , users can do their own customisation thus reducing the cost of implementation and maintenance while increasing the sense of identification and commitment to the system. The result is a more robust application that engages local users in its support and development.
A global organisation was planning to establish a purpose built facility for a specialised research and development activity. This would represent consolidation and a significant scale up of processes that for good historical reasons were spread over a number of sites at the time. It was necessary for the project team to gain a good understanding of the existing process before proceeding to design the facility and it was decided to consider the use of computer simulations. In house skills were not available and external consultants appeared to provide the best way forward. At this point an alternative was proposed, which involved identifying for the company a specialist who could be contracted to undertake the work. Although this approach involved the company having to acquire a licence for the appropriate simulation software, it would also mean that they had unlimited access to experiment with the model once the project was complete and even with this investment the overall project cost to the company was reduced by several hundred thousand dollars.
In this instance it was decided that the specialist would work primarily at the client's site. This had many benefits, especially at the outset while he was creating a process map. Even at this stage there were unexpected outcomes, such as realisation by some of the science groups involved how interconnected the research activity under study was and the extent to which each groups performance affected their colleagues downstream. A key feature of the project was how closely the science teams were involved. It was their knowledge and experience which was translated into the model and they had to verify that the model was an accurate representation of the qualitative and quantitative descriptions they had given. Once verified, the model was tried out with historic data as a means of validation. A validated model was built from scratch in a period of four months.
As a consequence of this and other exploratory simulation projects, the company decided to recruit an in-house specialist to undertake further internal simulation projects.
While business growth is always welcome, it rarely comes without complications. An expansion programme meant that a small team of 25 specialists would have to be relocated in a temporary location for a period of between six and eighteen months while a new facility was being made ready. The relocation meant moving the team with their laboratory equipment to an elderly building (about 40 years old) about six miles away. In addition to the inevitable disruption caused by the move, there was the risk of the group feeling isolated and of a loss in morale.
In addition to refurbishing the facility to the highest possible standard consistent with its temporary occupation, the move was approached as an opportunity to build engagement in the team that was moving. By chance the company was in the process of implementing SharePoint and a team site was set up for the move. This became a focal point for announcements relating to the move. In addition the site provided a library for documents relating to the move, including images of the accommodation as work progressed, and provided a framework for online surveys and themed discussions. As you can imagine, a couple of visits to the new location were organised and the team was closely involved in a consultation process. This was followed by the move team proposing an occupation plan of the building which was quickly adopted with a minimum of modification and implemented rapidly once the building was ready. Follow-up was provided to respond to any issues that arose as the team moved which continued for the early occupation of the building with the result that the move went very smoothly and the team's output suffered very minimal disruption.
If anything the team's morale improved; certainly they developed a strong sense of identity associated with their new location and the management overhead required to oversee the process has been very slight. A good job by the refurbishment team was a necessary prerequisite for a successful move; with the additional attention given to the impact on the team it has been sufficient to provide a desirable workplace for the team for a period that will extend to the full 18 months.
A traditionally manual research process was experiencing significant capacity constraints which were manifesting themselves in the overall quality of the output. The responsible scientist could conceptualise how to improve the process (invention) but did not know how to realise his ideas. A technical solution was developed, proof of principle was demonstrated at very low cost (~$1000) and a small engineering team assembled, combining internal project management with external technical resources to design and build the system.
The novelty in the project introduced significant risk and put a premium on the various project partners working well together. This could only be achieved with a high level of mutual respect and trust between all parties from the client through the project leadership to the individuals machining parts and writing code. Project focus and momentum was maintained through a development programme that ran for more than 18 months (implementation); the project manager's role was very important here as he was the principal vehicle for building and sustaining trust and his relationship with the client was particularly critical. Having assembled the project team, there was a continuing requirement for oversight and mentoring 'with a light touch'. The client's engagement with the project is illustrated by the fact that within a week of having access to the system he was able to produce results leading to annual savings for the company of more than a quarter of a million dollars (innovation). Subsequently a second system was built for one of the company's other laboratories.