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Ask just about any CIO to list his or her top IT objectives, and you'll likely get an answer that includes improved collaboration. That's especially true at consulting firms and business-services providers where the core assets are knowledge and people.
"Our value to a client is to give them the best advice for solving a problem," says Peter Jessel, managing director and CIO at Towers Perrin, a privately owned global management firm. "The best way for us to do that is to leverage the 8,000-plus employees and their collective wisdom, expertise, and experience." Towers Perrin has built a collaborative network that makes information sharing easier using content management, electronic meetings, shared information repositories, and sophisticated search engines.
Ernst & Young LLP is cultivating collaboration with clients. It has created a single network infrastructure of about 4,000 IP phones that support data, voice, and video conferencing.
Other firms have invested in XML to improve collaboration. Manpower Inc., a global workforce-management services firm with sales last year of $10.5 billion, developed XML-based specifications that describe various transactions. The specs were adopted by the HR-XML industry-standards consortium, a nonprofit group that's developing standards to automate human-resources data exchanges. Manpower developers are incorporating standards into order-entry and fulfillment, Web-ordering, and time-reporting systems. Manpower expects communication with subcontractors to improve. "We do so much subcontracting, and there are opportunities to save a few dollars and make our information flow much more efficiently,'' CIO Peter Stockhausen says.
Information is flowing more freely at Towers Perrin, too. In addition to its collaborative network, it has improved knowledge management by providing groups of its consultants with dashboards that include news of the day culled from internal and external sources, software, and bulletin boards. It plans to build a similar platform for its customers, and by year's end will have an area on its public Web site for the firm's top 100 clients where they can access software tools and databases, information repositories, and electronic team rooms.
Collaborative systems have helped Towers Perrin and other services providers to react more quickly to their clients' needs, Jessel says. "As best as you can leverage knowledge across the globe for a client, the more value you bring."