Accenture topples communication barriers

2008 InfoWorld 100 finalist: Services firm deploys telepresence, VoIP, and videoconferencing to help globally dispersed workforce collaborate face-to-face

Proximity gives coworkers the ability to easily engage one another in productive, face-to-face meetings at the drop of a hat. But what happens when you work in New York and your coworker is based in Chicago, or Los Angeles, or even London or Bangalore? Collaboration becomes far more difficult.

Accenture found itself in this sort of predicament: The company wanted to improve collaboration among its 180,000 employees, spread out among 40 different countries. The solution came in the form of the company's Borderless Workplace initiative.

[ See the full list of this year's InfoWorld 100 winners, as well as the other Top 10 finalists ]

"When we talk about our borderless workplace, the entire theme is an anytime, anyplace, anywhere strategy for allowing people to work and be productive and communicate and collaborate with each other," says Vidya S. Byanna, executive director of global infrastructure at Accenture.

To achieve that vision, Accenture has leveraged a wealth of collaborative technologies -- telepresence and videoconferencing included.

Telepresence, which will eventually be available at 35 locations worldwide, enables Accenture employees to interact face-to-face using high-definition video and high-quality audioconferencing. Wideband audio and video enable the company's videoconferencing systems to provide a 360-degree view of conference rooms. To be rolled out in 32 cities, this videoconferencing implementation also includes a peer-to-peer desktop component for extending collaboration beyond the conference setting.

By facilitating virtual face-to-face collaboration, these technologies do more than just make meetings more efficient and easier to coordinate; they save on travel expenses. According to Accenture, videoconferencing saved the company millions in travel-related expenses in its first 10 months of service -- more than enough to justify the investment, Byanna says.

The company has also rolled out VoIP companywide. Combined with presence awareness, Accenture's VoIP implementation makes it easier for employees to locate and speak to one another, no matter where they are.

VoIP and videoconferencing have also been tied into Microsoft Office Communicator, enabling Accenture employees to easily elevate IM sessions with coworkers to phone- or video-based meetings.

Laying the groundwork to enable the voice and video data streams took significant effort, notably: Accenture first transformed its network, integrating voice and data transmissions on to a single, secure, scalable, resilient, and low-cost MPLS network.

Accenture's Borderless Workplace initiative doesn't end with unified communications. The company's IT department has also developed customized search and content management tools to enhance collaboration. For example, Accenture People, a professional/social networking site, enables employees to syndicate knowledge, find experts for client engagements, and instantly collaborate via e-mail, online chat, whiteboard session, videoconference, phone, or voice mail.

"[Employees] can go into Accenture People pages and search on an area of expertise. Once they have located an expert, a presence indicator tells them if they're available or in a meeting. They can click on that and basically start chatting with them," Byanna says.

Accenture Knowledge Exchange, another in-house tool, provides a one-stop internal and external knowledge repository, designed to help employees craft proposals, plan projects, and contact internal experts.

Add to that Accenture Media Exchange, where employees post corporate videos; Accenture Encyclopedia, an internal wiki; and personal blogs and wikis -- and Accenture's workflow processes have been vastly improved, thanks to its Borderless Workplace initiative.

Moreover, secure b-to-b microsites enable Accenture employees to collaborate with customers. "It allows a lot more deeper information sharing and virtual teaming," Byanna says, noting the ability to post videos, project deliverables, and proposals as key to this effort.

More than just reducing barriers to communication, the initiative has taken much of the friction out of establishing highly productive collaborations.

"When using Accenture People, it took me less than a minute to find an expert in the area of digital asset management for my client. I also tapped into my old network via a blanket e-mail, which took days to yield the same result," says Olivier Fusil, who leads Accenture's Performance Workspace and Knowledge Management offering in Europe.

And as the pace of business increases, "days" just doesn't cut it anymore when it comes to collaboration.

2008 InfoWorld 100 Award winners

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