Collaboration Software Can Help Information Hoarders


Though reality TV is a guilty pleasure of mine, I can hardly stand to watch "Hoarders," the A&E series about folks whose homes are crammed to the rafters with stuff, much of it things most of us would consider junk and toss out without a second thought. As the website says:

For some, throwing away even the tiniest thing -- a sponge, a button, an empty box -- is so painful that they will not be able to allow the cleaning to be completed, no matter the consequences. For others, professional help and an organizer's guidance give them the strength to recover.

My husband and I have the sad task of helping to clean out the cramped house of a deceased family member who could have been on the show. We've filled 30 boxes with books, with no end in sight. A number of the books were duplicates. My suspicion: The large volume of books made it tough for this family member to realize she already owned books or to put her hands on copies she knew she had. The same pattern seemed to show up elsewhere. She had a dozen soup ladles, for instance, squirreled away in some pretty odd places.


Buying a replacement for something you can't find in a cluttered house is a more common problem for many of us -- including me -- than we'd like to admit. (Let's just say my son has more than one but fewer than 10 pairs of swim goggles.) Many organizations have the same problem, with both internal information and customer-facing information. There's the same feeling of being overwhelmed and of knowing that some of your practices just make the problem worse.


IT Business Edge's Loraine Lawson wrote a great post earlier this week describing Best Buy's use of semantic technology to address the issue of customer-facing data and to make its website more useful to customers. The problem of disorganized internal information is an even tougher nut to crack, I think. Master data management, a topic Loraine regularly writes about, offers promise in helping organizations deal wiith their internal data but is neither easy nor inexpensive.


Collaboration software can offer a less-complicated and less-costly fix to finding certain kinds of internal data, as Booz Allen Hamilton's Walton Smith makes clear on a short video on the Enterprise Irregulars blog, discussing the company's Hello.bah.com, which sounds like a sort of intranet on steroids using collaboration tools such as blogs, forums, profiles, wikis and social bookmarking.


The portal won the Open Enterprise Innovation Award at the 2009 Enterprise 2.0 Conference. Reinforcing the ideas that, as Smith says on the video, "Enterprise 2.0 is not easy" and is "a continuous process," BAH has continued to tweak the functionality, adding new partners including MindTouch. RedMonk analyst Michael Cote chats with Smith and MindTouch CEO Aaron Fulkerson on the video.


Cote hits the nail on the head when he describes BAH as a company that's "not only geographically dispersed but experience dispersed." It has 23,000 employees, more than half of them not based in BAH offices. The company is growing at a rapid clip. Some 40 percent of the work force have been with BAH less than two years, and the company plans to add 5,000 workers this year. Most of the hires won't work out of BAH's headquarters in metro Washington, D.C.


BAH realized, says Smith, "we need to get them the tools they need to be successful." Like most knowledge workers, consultants need to "find the right information at the right time to meet the client's needs." Unfortunately, that's pretty tough using Microsoft Outlook, which Smith calls "the de facto collaboration tool within most organizations." He says:

It's not searchable. It's not scalable. But it's what we have.

In contrast, says Smith, Hello.bah.com helps employees easily determine whom they need to contact to get the information they need. It's cut down tremendously on what Smith calls the "do you know" e-mails, blanket messages sent out to try to determine which colleagues can help solve a problem. Folks are "one thousand times more likely to respond" if they get a specific e-mail or call addressed to them rather than a blanket message, Smith says. Hello.bah.com is searchable, it's scalable, and it organizes information contained in existing BAH systems from an employee perspective rather than an IT perspective.


Just like hoarders, most organizations have the information they need if only they could find it. As Smith notes, existing systems organize information in a technology-centric way not a people-centric one. Hello.bah.cim incorporates existing information (Peoplesoft profiles, etc.) so it's a "dynamic part" of employee profiles. The benefits BAH gains from this transparency sound similar to those enjoyed by Capgemini with its use of the Yammer microblogging platform.


BAH's experience with Hello.bah.com is also helping it win interest from some of its government agency clients, many of whom have "the same problems we had," says Smith. As MindTouch's Fulkerson says, BAH can help them "understand the gaps between their existing collaborative processes and where they want to go." Many organizations appreciate working with vendors that "eat their own dog food" as IT Business Edge contributor Rob Enderle wrote last week in a post about HP's converged data center infrastructure.