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Do you remember that Dilbert panel where Dilbert follows a building map to find the marketing department? Upon arrival, he finds Grecian columns, a party that would make Bacchus proud, and a sign that says, "Welcome to Marketing. Two drink minimum."

For me, having been on both sides of those Grecian columns, this cartoon sums up a gap between marketing and technology.

The biggest reason for the gap is the cartoon's punch line: Marketing is a highly interactive, social sport. Marketing projects involve not only other marketing team members but also internal clients, customers, partners, freelances, vendors, and agencies.

Until recently, with the exception of uber-geek, multiplayer games, technology wasn't social. Think about it... we primarily have two types of software:

  • Individual "productivity" applications, like PowerPoint and Word, which aren't the tools we use to work together. Rather, we have email (loads of it) and meetings (loads of them, too) to develop our presentations, messages, pitches, and, basically, get work done.

  • Multi-user, "big iron" software, like a CRM systems, which are designed primarily for management tracking and reporting. These also don't help us work together on a new branding campaign, a big deal, an annual event, or the programs that drive all those sales leads.

Marketing projects and workflows need technology that's as social as they are, so marketing can move ahead and automate their projects and standard workflows.

"Collaborative" technology that supports business workflows has been around for a while. Over the last three years, though, things have changed: the Internet as a stable "platform" for software; software-as-a-service providers (like RightNow, WebEx, Salesforce.com, and Intuit's QuickBase) have matured; and new technologies, like AJAX, help deliver a rich, software-like experience via a Web site.

Today, you can get high-quality, collaborative technology sharable internally or across company boundaries, reliably and securely, with no support required from IT. With these advances, marketing has an opportunity to make its daily workflows as collaborative—as engagingly interactive—as marketing campaigns.

So, how do you find project and workflow software to support you and your team? Here are my top five ways to get started:

1. Know your processes. Whatever technology you choose must support your process. That means it needs to make it easier to do what you are actually doing today.

Technology tends toward an overabundance of process. You want a technology that supports what you do today without requiring new behaviors, or added work. Whether you have 5, 10, 100, or 10,000 people working in your organization, you want them to be effective, and supporting them in working the way they work is critical.

Tell your prospective vendors your top workflows and have them show you how their technology will support you and all the people involved in that process. They should be able to answer questions, give you examples of how others have been successful with similar workflows, and even be able to say that they use it themselves for similar workflows.

2. Don't forget your partners. I mentioned this point already, and it is critical for marketing.

We work with internal product teams, with legal and communications teams, with customers, with contractors, with agencies, with vendors, and with partners. Your marketing team will only be more efficient if the technology easily supports working with teams outside of marketing.

This means the system has to be both easily accessible and easy to use—no installations or training. This is where Web-based, software-as-a-service provides some great options.

3. Focus on workflow. There are two basic types of collaboration software: real-time and workflow systems. Real-time tools, like instant messaging, white boarding, conferencing, and chat are great for "bursts" of interaction, whereas your team spends most of their time "collaborating" in a workflow:

  • Alex decides sales needs a white paper on security.

  • Liz defines and schedules the writing and design; Alex approves.

  • Anna needs to design the layout of the document once it is ready; Liz approves.

  • The security team needs to review and approve the content.

  • Kathy needs to be notified in case she wants to use it in some programs; etc., etc.

It isn't important for Liz and Anna to be able to collaborate real-time on what the layout is, but it is critical for Liz to know when Anna's first draft is ready for review. It isn't critical that Alex and Kathy decide on programs together, but it is critical that the sales team know when the white paper is being promoted. This is workflow and it is how things get done. If a vendor can't support your workflow, then find another vendor.

4. Expect simplicity. I'll follow my own advice and keep this one simple. You must think about how much time and energy you are going to require from your team to learn a new system.

By focusing on workflow, you are taking the right first step; now take the next and consider team adoption. How easily are the workflows implemented? Does a team member have to hunt through screens to find his action items? Does she have to go to four different screens to update one piece of information? Find a system that supports having each team member's information most readily available while allowing clear, fast paths to any additional information needed.

You also need a system that's easy to support. Make sure you talk to your vendor about what is required to maintain this technology. How much time do most customers spend supporting it? How easy is it to change? This must be something you can reasonably manage.

5. Start now and iterate. John Hagel, the respected "where business meets technology" strategist, often says you need experience with a technology to be able to know how to use it. Don't spend six months defining your "perfect solution" then another six months installing and customizing it. Find a flexible solution that allows you and your team to change the solution easily.

Many new technologies are easy enough for non-techies, even some technophobes, to customize. You can get started right away with core workflows, get your team comfortable using the technology, then iterate to improve the solution. Just make sure at least one person is actually making changes regularly.

To get started, ask your selected vendors for a free trial. An advantage of Internet-based, software-as-a-service providers is that they have few costs associated with letting you try the software, and you have little cost associated with trying it. Take advantage of this.

With some, you'll be able to get an application working for your team within the trial period. This means that you are, right now, just days away from technology that can increase visibility and accountability across your team, and save valuable time and effort, at a cost you can afford. What are you waiting for?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jana Eggers is the general manager of QuickBase, a division of Intuit Inc. She can be reached at Jana_Eggers@Intuit.com.