ASP Seeks ASP to Build a Better Workflow

With a staff of three to manage 30 major projects, the importance of collaboration, communication and organization became obvious to United Messaging as this application service provider (ASP) watched its business multiply over the past year.

United Messaging of West Chester, Pa. designs, implements and manages enterprise e-mail systems. To maintain superior customer service standards as its customer base expanded, UM turned to, another ASP in Belmont, Calif., which provides comprehensive yet detailed views of knowledge flow.'s project management system facilitates collaboration among employees and customers while increasing the focus on individual accountability.

Jim Reeder, director of electronic project management at United Messaging, needed a way to communicate with customers and make them feel included even though there would be no "face-to-face with the customer."

The answer for UM was a hosted, Web-based collaborative software application. Reeder says the benefits of hosted applications are "considerable." "It's cheaper than doing it in house, you get 24-by-seven support and you get tremendous expertise."

UM uses the Web-based collaborative tool to manage the life cycles of projects. Team leaders design each step in their project's workflow on a secure Web site hosted by Project participants log on to this site to see these workflow steps and the specific tasks within them for which they and others are responsible. As they complete assigned tasks, participants update their status in the system for all--including customers--to see.

Reeder attributes much of the system's effectiveness to enhanced communications between UM and its customers, which can participate in every stage of design and implementation through the Web. Such involvement increases overall customer satisfaction.

An important component of the system is the accountability it requires of all project participants.'s task tracker lets all participants monitor the progress of the project, and project managers can tell who is or is not completing assigned tasks.

According to Reeder, the ability to manage workflow in detail can mean the difference between successful and failed implementations of complex projects. "As a project manager, I can follow every task and look at every message and know when it was sent. It gives everyone working on a project accountability."

UM's project management needs revolve around the hosting of mailboxes on three different platforms: Lotus Notes/Domino, Microsoft Exchange and Internet-based e-mail systems. As an ASP, UM provides Web-based communication services for clients such as American Financial Group, Bristol-Myers Squibb and VerticalNet. UM customers send and receive e-mail by logging on to a secure UM site that is customized to fit their needs.

UM also maintains customers' e-mail systems by hosting mailbox services, designing and implementing e-mail infrastructures and monitoring them with around-the-clock administrative and technical support.

According to Reeder, setting up clients with UM e-mail services is relatively simple. However, migrating existing e-mail from a legacy system to the new UM host is more involved and requires the customer's participation in multiple steps.

To manage the migration of knowledge as important as company e-mail, communication among all involved parties is essential. In the past, UM stayed in touch with most of its clients through a seemingly endless series of telephone calls, sending an on-site representative only to clients with 10,000 or more users.

Meeting Online's automated meeting manager shifts the communication process to the Web by providing an online "meeting room" for all project-related interaction. Project managers can post messages to specific team members or to the entire group. The system alerts each relevant team member of posted messages.

According to Brian Jennings, senior project manager at UM, the implementation team relies upon this collaborative tool to facilitate each step of a project, beginning with defining the project itself. Starting with a basic template, the project manager establishes an online workplace within the site that includes project goals, tasks to be accomplished, participants responsible for the tasks and a schedule of meetings and consultations.

Managers also set the level of access allowed for each project team member. In this way, for instance, members of the UM team may be allowed an additional view of internal administrative tasks relevant to the project.

Jennings says that having a clearly defined project roadmap makes work easier for both UM and its clients. "It helps us a great deal when we have initial project meetings with customers," he says. "It allows us to show them the different phases of the project and what to expect. It also ties them into the project from the beginning."

Each person working on a mail migration project records his or her progress in the community workspace while keeping tabs on the progress of others. Project managers address workflow problems and communicate with participants through both messaging and e-mail from the site.

Remote users can access the site through a variety of platforms, including browser-enabled cell phones and handheld devices. Ubiquitous access helps managers to maintain high levels of accountability even if participants are away from their offices.

Overcoming Obstacles

The very advantages of the new system introduce cultural issues to work processes. Going from a relatively anonymous implementation style that relied on phone calls and faxes to a system in which everyone knows what everyone else is doing at all times requires some getting used to. "[Accountability] is a new term at a lot of companies, and some people don't like it," Reeder says.

A related problem was apprehension associated with using a new technology. All UM employees are required to use the new tool, but Reeder says the company is open to user feedback about it and willing to make changes.

Finally, collaborative software, whether hosted or deployed internally, does not guarantee superior work processes; it is only as good as the information its users put in it and the effort they make to apply it. "You have to go into it every single day and update," says Jennings. "Everyone must use this tool as part of the project."

At United Messaging, the system has been fully operational since October 2000, and the company continues striving to improve its knowledge flow and collaboration.

This kind of system has potential for the long-term benefit of incorporating lessons learned into the core system so they can be reused. According to Jennings, improvements in the workflow process that result from online collaboration can be designed directly into a project template.

"Some of the most important knowledge an organization has is the knowledge of how to get things done," says Mark Hill,'s CEO. Being able to modify a working template to accommodate and preserve changes is a way to use a company's knowledge to please its customers.

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