3 min read

Real-Time Collaboration Doesn't Always Click

sidebar story to "Groupthink Gets Smart"
The concept sounds perfect: Engineers in different locations use the Web to work together on designs in real time. But some find that the effort to make real-time connections work isn't worth the trouble.

Whirlpool Corp. depends on hot new designs to fuel its $10.3 billion-a-year appliance business, and uses the Internet extensively to share files among staff and partners in North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. But the company uses the File Transfer Protocol to share design files instead of a browser-based system. Partners and suppliers download the files from a server, work on the files, then upload them back to the server, which numbers the files to indicate the latest version.

That's not state-of-the-art, but the Benton Harbor, Mich., company doesn't find real-time, Web-based collaboration very helpful. Time differences make it difficult for teams to coordinate meetings. Plus, many emerging markets and smaller companies in developed markets don't have the sophisticated telecommunications and networking infrastructure needed to work in real time. "I don't want to handcuff myself to only be able to do business with giant firms, because I may be overlooking 50 world-class, great design firms that have a lot to offer, yet happen to be in a place where they don't have access to the latest or greatest technology," says Charles Jones, Whirlpool VP of consumer product design.

Tom Morris knows that real-time meetings can be a headache, but he says the payoff is worth it. Morris is CIO of Aptec Corp., a 25-person engineering and design firm in Daytona, Fla., that does online product development. To create a wireless headset for the backseat entertainment system of a DaimlerChrysler minivan, Aptec once linked people from the automaker with a car-stereo maker in Michigan, a Florida manufacturer, a South Korean tool and mold-maker, and a Philippine electronics company. Morris says a good online session is often better than a face-to-face meeting because the software creates an electronic record of the meeting. "In some ways, you get a more productive result than if you were all within the same four walls," he says. "It forces you to capture content changes and record how you came to a decision."

But it takes a lot of work. Aptec appoints a "pilot" to prepare each meeting--setting an agenda, collecting the right CAD files, computer simulations, or data, getting the right people on only when they're needed, and ensuring that everyone has the necessary Internet access and software to attend the meeting. Aptec uses CoCreate's OneSpace program to run Internet-based collaboration sessions in which people in different locations can look at and mark up shared CAD files, view data, and send each other text messages.

First impressions are tough to change, so Aptec spends time in one-on-one sessions with clients before the first time they go live with the technology, Morris says: "If you turn someone off to this process, it's really hard to get them back."