Collaborating from a Single Pane of Glass

By Steve Brescia Print this article Print

Publicly traded utility company consolidates collaboration and communication tools in the email inbox.

Based in Voorhees, N.J., American Water is the largest publicly traded water and wastewater utility company in the United States. With 300 locations in 30 states and parts of Canada, the company provides drinking water, wastewater and related services to approximately 15 million people under locally managed operations.

When American Water began planning a collaboration project for its 7,000-plus employees in 2010, one of the first decisions we made was to simplify the user experience by eliminating the need to toggle among multiple applications to get work done. The goal was to allow employees to access documents, maps, email, calendaring, company directories, instant messaging, Web conferencing and other tools from a single interface that would both encourage collaboration and save time.

With our heavily email-based work culture, the IT team determined that the ideal approach would be to aggregate communication and collaboration tools within the email client so users would not have to change work habits. As a result, we are in the process of rolling out a solution that will enable our employees to access Microsoft SharePoint, IBM Sametime, WebEx, AT&T audio conferencing and Cisco unified communications functionality from a small window embedded in the email inbox.

This “single pane of glass” strategy is expected to streamline work efforts for projects ranging from water-main repairs to new business proposals. That’s because our users will be able to retrieve a document; call or IM a colleague about it; and/or initiate a chat, Web or audio conference for further discussion—all without leaving their email comfort zone.

In addition, the project promises to drive SharePoint adoption by replacing frustrating multistep SharePoint navigation with a drag-and-drop process through the email window.

Over the years, that decentralized corporate structure had produced a patchwork of stand-alone communication tools, as well as hundreds of information silos scattered in more than 1,000 IBM Lotus Domino databases. With no ability to easily find and reuse existing content, incorporate edits, share new versions, or route a document through a workflow, knowledge sharing within and across business units was extremely difficult.

That, in turn, was hampering efficient execution of our everyday business activities. Responding to an audit or rate case from a public utility commission requires soliciting, merging and refining input from 20 or more staff members under a tight deadline. Similar group efforts are required to assemble a request for proposal (RFP) to manage a new municipal drinking water or wastewater system or to initiate, approve and manage capital projects. The lack of tools to address these needs translated into duplicated effort and wasted time.

Enabling Centralized Access

One part of our plan to solve these problems was to enable documents from throughout the company to be housed in a single repository for centralized access. SharePoint was already used by hundreds of users and was therefore the obvious choice to provide core collaboration functions such as content management, document collaboration and enterprise search. 

The next step was to determine which email platform to use to fulfill our vision of providing access to multiple tools from the inbox. We had used Lotus Notes for more than a decade, but there was no integration between IBM and Microsoft. We could have replaced Notes with Outlook to standardize on the Microsoft stack, but we preferred to maximize investments in our existing infrastructure and spare our employees the pain of migrating to a new email environment unnecessarily.

To bring SharePoint into the Notes environment, however, we needed to find a cross-platform IBM-Microsoft solution. In addition, the solution had to offer built-in access management capabilities to ensure our ability to comply with the rigorous confidentiality requirements inherent in our business.

Eventually our search led to Harmon.ie for SharePoint, social email software that provides point-and-click access to SharePoint and other disparate communication and collaboration tools from an email sidebar in either Outlook or Lotus Notes. Harmon.ie for SharePoint, Lotus Notes Edition, makes it possible to deliver an integrated user experience across Lotus Notes and SharePoint despite the lack of integration between the two vendors’ operating systems.

With that email sidebar, users will be able to drag and drop documents from Notes or elsewhere on their desktops to the SharePoint repository, share them as document links, search and access SharePoint document libraries, and follow document updates in real time in a Harmon.ie-created SharePoint activity stream to expedite project work. In addition, they will be able to instantly connect with document writers and editors using the unified communications tools built into the same window.

Other abilities will range from accessing SharePoint profiles and searching synchronized American Water directories to scheduling team and project meetings from merged Notes, SharePoint and Google calendars.

We piloted our unified email, communications and collaboration solution to user desktops in mid-2011 as part of a migration to Windows 7, and deployment is expected to be complete by late 2013. While it is too soon to measure results, one survey indicated 90 percent support for the one-stop strategy.

In the next phase, our 2,000-plus mobile workers will be equipped with similar unified communication and collaboration capabilities. That will provide these employees with easy in-the-field access to system maps, water hydrant locations and other business-critical information stored in SharePoint from ruggedized computers in their trucks.

The success of the project rests on the two cornerstones laid at the beginning: replacing multiple disjointed tools with a single interface that eliminates application switching, and enabling employees to stay in the email environment in which they are accustomed to working. From early indications, those decisions will facilitate SharePoint adoption, information sharing, document co-authoring and other collaborative work for all American Water employees. That, of course, is the goal.

Steve Brescia is manager of ITS enterprise architecture for American Water.  

This article was originally published on 2012-07-27
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