by Elana Varon

A Good Story About Collaboration

Jan 26, 20075 mins
IT Leadership

I have been corresponding off and on recently with Steve Bergman, the CIO at Goodwill Industries. I was introduced to him a few months ago, after he won a CIO 100 Award. I think Bergman has a good story to tell about the collaboration process that lies at the front end of innovation – and the role IT plays in supporting that process. One reason I like it is that anyone could do what Bergman did.

    How businesses can use IT to harness the collective creativity of their employees (or anyone, really), is a hot topic. Tom Malone, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management recently launched the Center for Collective Intelligence to study the subject. He says, “One of the most interesting possible roles for CIOs going forward is to become not just technology innovators but organizational innovators. A lot of the most important innovations in the next couple of decades will not be innovations in technology itself but innovations in how people work together.”

    Bergman says he didn’t set out to be an innovator. Not exactly, anyway. Goodwill is a big, decentralized organization. A couple hundred affiliates in two dozen countries generate nearly $3 billion in annual revenue. Most of us know Goodwill because of the stores that sell donated clothing and household items. But they also provide job training and placement services. Goodwill has a long-term goal of helping 20 million people worldwide get jobs that would allow them to become self-sufficient. Business leaders around the company concluded that to facilitate growth, the organization needed a better way to share information

    When Bergman joined the organization, “I went around and interviewed many of the key business leaders asking them what the most pressing IT issues were and how I could make the greatest impact.  Collaboration and knowledge sharing were at the top of the list,” recalls Bergman. The only tools employees had to locate and communicate with each other were email and the phone directory—which we all know have their limitations.

    And so Bergman went looking for a portal application that could support both knowledge management and online learning. He talked to a bunch of vendors. Didn’t find what he was looking for.

    The company may be a non-profit, but, as Bergman observes, “the bottom line is the bottom line.” To get the integrated portal he wanted the conventional way, buying from an established vendor, would have involved extensive customization, because at the time, none of the portal vendors could support both KM and online learning. Bergman figured that after he paid for the licenses, there wouldn’t be enough money in his budget to build the necessary functionality.

    Someone on his staff found an open source portal distributed by Liferay. And so, in collaboration with developers in the open source community, Bergman’s team created a new enterprise portal application, into which they integrated a commercial learning management application. They built the portal for less than the $270,000 that was budgeted for it (operating costs run about $100,000 annually)

    Within the IT organization, two innovations occurred. First, there’s the software itself. There wasn’t a commercially available product with the functionality that Bergman wanted, so he went and built it. Then, there’s the use of the open source development process. The internal development team had to get used to throwing requests out the community when they needed help.

    But the bigger story here is how this application is enabling business innovation within Goodwill. The portal, MyGoodwill, has some 80,000 users company-wide who are tapping into it to develop new business initiatives–more registered users than any other corporate application.  One recent example is an emerging computer recycling business that got a boost from a discussion on an internal listserv.

    “We have thousands of computers donated to us each year, a  small percentage of which are so old that they can not be sold in our  stores,” reports Bergman. Member organizations around the U.S. were recycling them, not only to dispose of them responsibly, but also because it offered a way to provide their clients with jobs and help fulfill Goodwill’s long-term goals.

    A recycling expert at headquarters pulled together a task group of members from around the U.S. to share their insights about the recycling business. “They exchanged white papers about business models and promising practices through our knowledge management center, they posted questions to one another on the message boards, and they blogged about interesting aspects of the emerging industry,” Bergman says.

    The portal has been deployed for about a year. Bergman’s next step is to measure the impact that collaboration through the portal has on the business. But he notes that the shift to a collaborative culture is a long-term proposition.

    I’d love to know what you think about this project – and how you’ve been able to facilitate collaboration within your own organization. What do you think makes a project like this successful?