Simon Hendery: Connecting the Salvation Army in the Pacific not your average IT project

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As IT manager for the Salvation Army's combined New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga territory, Mark Bennett finds himself confronting some issues that don't figure on other IT managers' radars.

There are both IT-specific and non-technical challenges associated with providing a communications network to connect the church and service agency's staff across the region.

The organisation's 2000 employees across the territory speak multiple languages, many have very limited knowledge of technology and internet connections in Tonga are very poor.

But on another level the issues the Army's IT department faces in arming staff with technology tools to do their jobs more effectively are no different from those faced by any organisation or business.

As is the case in workplaces the world over, Salvation Army staff members' knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, computer systems covers the spectrum from Luddite to super-geek.

The Army uses IBM's Lotus Notes platform for email and electronic collaboration. When it upgraded its 500 Notes users from version 5 to version 7, and trained them up to use the additional features in the new system, some quickly embraced tools like appointment sharing while others stuck with the leather-bound diary they had carried around for decades.

While software developers tend to believe the business tools they lovingly create have the potential to change the lives and double the productivity of users, they also realise not everyone will become a convert.

And not only do different people prefer using different software products, different generations also have different ways of working, each requiring a focus on different tools.

Jonathan Stern, a Sydney-based Lotus regional executive at IBM Software, says in general terms there are three demographics the company needs to consider when designing business collaboration technology.

The baby-boomer generation is typically "document-centric" - this group has become used to the notion of developing and refining a document by passing it between relevant colleagues via email.

Generation X are more "people-centric". Their means of collaborating is through more immediate forms of communication such as instant messaging and the mobile phone.

Then there is Generation Y, who have grown up with the internet and for whom collaboration is about social networking.

With the Facebook and Bebo generation filling more and more office cubicles, IBM last year launched Lotus Connections, which Stern describes as the first "enterprise-grade social software tool".

Connections users create their own profiles in a kind of corporate-directory-cum-online-resume which colleagues can search when they are hunting for someone within their organisation who has specific skills or expertise.

And as the line between work and personal life becomes increasingly blurred for many, Stern says Lotus is working on ways to integrate Connections with other social networking tools used outside the office.

Meanwhile, the Web 2.0 phenomenon - the drive to make the web more interactive - has led to the development of Lotus Mashups, the company's new tool for deriving business value out of previously disparate sets of data.

Mashups have been made popular in the consumer web world by the likes of Google Maps which can be overlaid with sets of data to put information in a geographic context.

Larry Bowden, IBM's US-based vice-president of portals and web interaction services, said mash-up technology provided managers with easier access to business insights.

Mashups hasn't made it to the Salvation Army's Lotus environment yet, but given its diverse geographical coverage and the wealth of data the organisation has to analyse, it will no doubt just be a matter of time before the Cabinet, the territory's senior management team, takes an interest in adding this type of technology.

In the meantime, IT manager Bennett has plenty of other technology challenges to keep himself occupied.

* Simon Hendery travelled to Sydney as a guest of IBM.

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