Taming the information beast for small companies?
March 3, 2011 6:30 AM   Subscribe

How can as a small company with multiple change events occurring daily implement an information sharing protocol that lets us share development, implementation and company changes to all who need to know?

I work at a small manufacturing concern, perhaps 30 or so people, building products sold direct to consumers. Our company suffers from an inability to communicate information effectively internally.

Because we are in a competitive consumer space, we are innovating constantly, tweaking our designs, and solving problems that come up, so change is a constant. I compare this to many business models where large parts of the business remain relatively static.

We have large component groups that must be purchased for our designs, manufacturing processes, smaller products that are built and sold with our major products with multiple interactions between older and newer designs, ongoing responses to problems or competitive pressures, database changes, requests for changes, and so on and so forth.

The amount of interconnecting bits of information is overwhelming our ability as individuals to respond effectively. Given that this is an entrepreneurial concern, there's a bit of idiosyncratic not-invented-here behavior going on as well.

There's a limit to the amount of information and change any one person can learn and implement in the midst of this, so things don't change easily or effectively. More likely we're putting out fires as they erupt not infrequently.

Another way to put it is that change events occur that have overlapping, cascading effects and the parties involved often don't find out until the change hits their domain.

I understand that this question is perhaps too broadly stated and may not get information I can put to use but still any pointers are helpful, the question being how can a small company implement some form of information sharing protocol that touches on the areas of development, implementation and ongoing changes in the company's behavior so that individuals can stay abreast of what's going on?

We have an internal Drupal install for our internal company website which largely goes unused. I understand Drupal's usefulness as a CMS/framework but am unable to implement it for the purposes outlined above due to time and expertise constraints. It could potentially act as a central knowledge repository if I understood a clear path to building the framework in which Drupal would be the central engine, or perhaps there is another solution which would work more effectively.

Any ideas would be helpful.
posted by diode to Technology (5 answers total)
Would it be practical for your company to hire a contractor to set up your intranet? Buy-in is a major issue with this sort of IT project, and training/expertise can help a lot. It won't be cheap, but the value added by the improved communication will be worth it. Most contractors worth their salt will be willing to submit a preliminary bid/proposal without much investment up front. Don't trust people who offer to do it for very cheap relative to your other bids. Chances are they don't have the expertise necessary to get the best results.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:44 AM on March 3, 2011

There was recently a link to the Panic Status Board. Something like that would take a lot of engineering, but perhaps you could do something clever with RSS feeds.

The big trick is that whatever system you implement for tracking this kind of information needs to actually get used.
posted by adamrice at 8:18 AM on March 3, 2011

Well, as a process guy, I'll tell you a couple of things that stick out from your question.

1. Your people aren't communicating. Solve that right away with having 5 to 10 minute meetings (stand up, no tables or chairs) throughout the day to keep people updated on goings on. Don't throw technology at something that a conversation can solve. Have someone get "the stick" (or the "monkey") at the end of the meeting - anyone holding the stick/has the monkey on their back gets to put out an email with short, quick notes about what was discussed and ensure that followup items are done.

These notes also get sent to team members that weren't there. Nothing wrong with buying a lunch three times a week and getting everyone around a table to talk about projects and status either.

2. Pick a loggable, trackable communication media. Facebook chats are not the right way to pass changes from CAD to manufacturing. Whatever you pick needs to be easy, or your entrepreneurs will poo-poo it in favor of sending each other texts.

If email is your main communication media, make sure you've got the ability to easily group people and team members (and disband them too), so that email to one address goes to many.

5. Don't overthink "keeping track of stuff". The key to the business is shipping product, not tracking tons of data. Everything must point to that goal. Tracked information is by nature historical, and can be used to make future work better, but has nothing to do with what's shipping today.

What matters today is the workflow used to get an idea from a customer's head, down on paper, into your shop, built to their specifications, shipped (or whatever) and then billed. All correctly so that you get paid. In all that you track and all that you do internally, remember that it comes down to the QA document that should be there right before shipping: making sure the product is right and ready.

6. Finally, maybe the answer IS to throw technology at the problem. As an IT guy, it sounds like your biggest problem is communication. Your environment may be ripe for an exchange server/small business server (or similar - doesn't have to be on site) that lets you share contacts, calendaring, email - along with sharepoint and shared access to files - and maybe some unified messaging. You can get into an exchange environment fairly cheaply - I think around 5-6 grand for hardware and software - that would greatly improve idea flow and communication.

Remember that all of this has to do with tools. Whichever tools you put in place to manage data/information, you either have to pick tools that work the way your users do, or you have to force your users to use your tools. You will find it works much more easily if the tools work with the users because you get a natural buy-in to using them. If not, the tools will rust, your information will rot, and your process will die.

TL;DR: Fix your communication problem by meeting with each other, select a collaboration tool (not Drupal for this), and seriously consider getting a server that can tie lots of different kinds of data together (like an exchange server can).
posted by disclaimer at 8:19 AM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

The problem of what people actually do and are willing to do to change is a big one. The Exchange server may be the godsend of collaboration but not going to happen in our business.
Our environment has a lot of craftspeople building according to schedules, sales folks, and service folks, all interacting around product development, sales, production and shipping. We have standard office tools, email, database, server storage and so forth. No kind of collaboration tools unless you count Google apps, which has helped a bit on the sharing front.
Simply having a good indexing search tool for a server volume. would be a good start Windows search function isn't very useful for that.
Thanks for the insights so far. Very helpful.
posted by diode at 1:34 PM on March 3, 2011

FYI, this was never satisfactorily resolved for me. The problem is that small companies can easily generate tons of information internally on a server volume, yet still not be able to find a piece of data when they need it. Person to person interactions, while important, cannot take the place of an information system that allows an individual to find a piece of data (video clip, document, graphic image, file directory) they need right now.

I'm beginning to think what I need to find is a publishing system for a LAN that would allow you to take the contents of a server volume, the one the whole company is saving their work to, and publish it on a web site. Via the web site you could do file name and content searches, and also add meta tags to a file. With meta tags, you could conceivably do a search for a file on a subject and find the whole range of application files.

Perhaps what I should have said for my question is: how do I publish our internal server volume on a web server so it is browsable plus be content searched and have meta tags added to a file. That possibly would have gotten more relevant answers.
posted by diode at 4:30 PM on April 3, 2011

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