Talk time

Lt. Michael Whitecar, head of online medicine for the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery and a former submariner, advocates dry-run training for online collaborators.

Even in stormy weather, the Web tool eRoom assembles staff at Navy's Bureau of Medicine
and Surgery

Workers at the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery were snowed in several days this year. But a virtual workplace from Documentum Inc. let them get to work even if they couldn't get to the office. 'We had 12 people online and held a conference,' said Lt. Michael Whitecar, BuMed's head of online medicine. They conferenced via eRoom, a Web collaboration tool from Documentum of Pleasanton, Calif.

The Navy bureau is geographically dispersed to oversee health care for 2.6 million active Navy and Marine Corps personnel, retired members and their families at more than 100 clinics and hospitals and at sea. The demands of distribution, security and economy have turned the bureau into something of a virtual organization.

'One of the things that makes eRoom satisfying is that, from a homeland defense perspective, if we have to get up and go, we can still run things,' Whitecar said. Inclement weather doesn't bring work to a halt, and online meeting rooms save travel money by letting workers telecommute.

ERoom is a persistent Web workspace for real-time and extended text discussions, polling and approvals based on user-defined business rules. It integrates with the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol to control each user's access to each object.

It runs under Microsoft Windows NT Server and is available as a hosted service from Documentum or as licensed software. BuMed uses the licensed version.

Users need only a Web browser to enter eRoom. An optional client plug-in permits rich-text editing and some drag-and-drop capabilities.

Meeting now'and later

Documentum distinguishes its persistent workspace from collaboration tools used for real-time meetings. ERoom can host real-time or synchronous meetings, but it keeps documents and discussions available over time so that users can participate on their own schedules.

ERoom's greatest strength is its asynchronous capability, said Jake Sorofman, director of product marketing. 'We find that within a project, work is usually 80 percent to 85 percent asynchronous, especially in a distributed environment,' he said.

BuMed uses eRoom asynchronously. 'We're staying away from the real-time aspects of it,' Whitecar said. 'Because our customers are around the world, connectivity may not be the same everywhere.' Time differences also make real-time participation unsatisfactory.

The initial requirement for eRoom came from the Navy surgeon general, who held regular BuMed directors' meetings with more than a dozen admirals.

'He wanted to create an environment where documents could be posted and decisions made,' Whitecar said. 'We called eRoom on a Thursday and had it running on Friday.'

For the next application, 'we created a room called CIO Today,' he said. More than 100 CIOs from BuMed clinics and hospitals came to annual meetings, but getting together more often was difficult.
The CIO room 'is a virtual water cooler in a 24-7 environment,' Whitecar said. Questions and comments can be posted at any time, and 'you might not be able to respond to something immediately, but you can come back to it later.'

The third application was for the Medical Board Tracking Department, which follows the progress of medical waivers.

'Very tedious work,' Whitecar said. 'We had corpsmen driving requests from building to building.' All that is done in eRoom now.

Not in person but as good

Each year, senior Defense Department officials submit a report to Congress on the Fisher Houses, 31 residences around the world in which families can stay near hospitalized service members. Last year for the first time, using eRoom, 'they did the report online instead of meeting to discuss it,' Whitecar said. 'After that, 30 more rooms were developed' supporting about 600 users in all.

Despite the ease of installing the technology, people need time to adjust to a virtual workplace, Whitecar said.

'You can't just tell people, 'Use it,' ' he said. 'It won't work. People are used to meeting face to face. That's eliminated in a virtual environment, and that's the biggest challenge.'

To prepare his users, the former submariner turned to dry-run exercises. Submarine crews routinely simulate cruises while at the pier to test their readiness. In the same way, BuMed workers in the same office practiced communicating 'remotely' via eRoom. 'You can't expect overnight success unless you are prepared for it,' Whitecar said.

BuMed does not allow sensitive information in eRoom, and access and encryption are ruled by Navy security policy. But the bureau is thinking of expanding eRoom's use to telemedicine, which would require stricter security, Whitecar said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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