Web 2.0 Tools Transform Osborne's Management Strategies

With collaboration at a premium, manufacturers are looking to the next generation of information tools for help.

When electrical equipment manufacturer Osborne Transformer was looking to update its Web site, the management team had the good fortune of having a third-generation family member on the staff who understood the potential of 21st century tools to solve some of the problems at a 21st century business.

Jeff Osborne got his first taste of 2.0 tools while working as a management consultant at SAP's Palo Alto development labs, working on a blog platform implementation. Even after he returned to help the family business with the Web update, he kept this technology in the back of his mind, and sold his father on its specific application to the problem at hand.

"We were saying 'How are we going to develop our Web site?' and we thought that a wiki would work," remembers Osborne. "And it did. I used the same graphic designers, same database guys, the same experts and me."

The project was a success, and allowed the Osbornes to plan and execute a complete Web refresh with a minimum of fuss.

However, this early success led Jeff and his father, president and chief engineer Jim Osborne, to at least consider using this custom-branded wiki workspace for other purposes. "It wasn't that we had an urgent master plan, or an urgent need to cut down on intracompany e-mails -- we just saw the wiki workspace as a tool with potential to encourage the kind of collaboration we felt we needed."

Thus, a second wave of wiki applications was born, created by both management and staff on an ad-hoc basis as needs arose. Not only did this process coincide with a need for knowledge capture, but it empowered the Osborne Transformer workforce in a way that dovetailed nicely into an overall refresh of the company hierarchy itself.

"Osborne is transforming to a distributed leadership model, and we wanted the ability for good ideas to come from all levels of the organization," Jeff Osborne observes. Similarly, he says that at Osborne, as at most if not all companies, there's no time to waste duplicating effort. "We wanted everyone to know what the rest of the team is doing, and to help improve the decision-making process."

For example, Osborne's sales team now uses a wiki workspace to collate and track customer quotes. Standards-setting and process documentation have also been streamlined through the Socialtext wiki appliance. "When we hired a new customer service manager, we were able to provide him with the information he needs to get up to speed quickly," says Osborne.

Similarly, the company's certification process is now wiki-enabled. "They've been doing a really good job at ISO for 15 years here," Osborne says. "In the past, when we would manage our ISO meetings, we would sit down once a month and come out of the meeting with action items and tasks to do." After the meeting, however, "people might not revisit the action items for the next three weeks, then they would maybe do everything in that last few days all at once to make sure they got done."

As a manufacturing manager by both birth and training, Osborne figured that if this type of "feast or famine" workflow was a bad idea for production flow on a manufacturing shop floor, the same was no doubt true for information flow amongst knowledge workers.

"Distributing those tasks, making them more of a day-to-day process, evens out our workloads," he says. "Similarly, strategic planning around the sales process, or metrics around quote tracking -- using the wiki takes these abstract management concepts out of your private work and makes them more part of the everyday shared life of the company."

The result has been the gradual creation of a culture of empowerment and accountability, wherein Osborne's workforce adapts this cutting-edge tool to fit needs both old and new.

For instance, when it comes to closing the loop between the plant and office, "the use of the Socialtext tools has improved the ongoing dialogue between shop and office personnel who didn't normally have a lot of interaction throughout the day," says Osborne. "Originally I was pretty prejudiced against using the blog function, but the use just took off among the staff. Now we have people from all functional areas of the business -- from the shop floor on up -- using this internal blogging function for news and updates and problem resolution."

This virtual public forum, constantly updatable by everyone from techs on up, has driven visibility into everyone's workday, and freed the company from "trapped information syndrome."

"If it didn't happen on the wiki, it would happen in scattered word documents or in e-mails," Osborne observes, and, once created, the information probably would be relegated to someone's personal folder in the database.

Osborne Transformer's R&D group has also gotten into the act, partnering with outside project teams for product development activities that are crucial to the future of the business. "We set up a separate secure workspace for client projects," says Osborne. "We've been working with outside researchers, and we can allow them into this section of the wiki to post research results, data tables and even images."

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