Social Business

Our journey to collaborative and cognitive computing

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Canal Barge Company, Inc., is a midsize marine transportation company with a refreshing openness to new technologies. We’ve recently transitioned our email system to the cloud, deployed a cloud-based collaboration platform and started to explore cognitive computing, all with promising results.

Canal Barge has offices up and down the Mississippi River with employees working in remote facilities, on the road and on towboats and barges. Such a distributed, mobile workforce inhibits collaboration even in the best of circumstances, yet we lacked a company-wide collaborative platform. We wanted to make it easier for employees to collaborate and share knowledge to improve our decision making, increase our agility and help boost our competitiveness.

Transitioning email to the cloud

We also faced an email transition issue. Canal Barge had used the IBM Notes email system for some time, but younger employees increasingly requested to use clients such as Gmail or Outlook. We considered this carefully because it’s a big step to transition an email system for three generations of internal users.

The solution was IBM Verse, a cloud-based email service that we feel leapfrogs other applications. It gives you cognitive participation – you can see what’s important to you. When you have a minute, you can ask what you need to do before your next meeting. You can see your calendar and who’s been talking to you. Overall, the transition was easy because Notes users can continue to use both clients simultaneously.

A strategic platform for collaboration

For collaboration, we sought a strategic solution that would be easy to use and adopt across the company. We found it in IBM Connections Cloud, which enables employees to work together from anywhere and at any time using wikis, communities, video conferencing and more. To date the platform has helped us improve our training, coordinate vendor audits and manage executive staff projects.

To encourage user adoption, we engaged our leadership team and super users, sharing educational resources and getting them excited about project goals. Grass-roots adoption is happening company-wide. As an example, a non-technical early adapter in barge maintenance realized that a Connections spreadsheet would work as a mobile-enabled workgroup app, so she created it herself. When executives heard about these benefits, they accepted the tool and evangelized within their departments.

Countering information overload

At IBM’s request, we became a beta site for Watson Workspace, a cognitive messaging tool. At first it seemed like a chat client, but Watson’s analysis made workgroup conversations more durable. Conversations can be mined for information, and Watson participates by identifying and summarizing important points such as decisions, actions and unanswered questions. When you review a conversation, it becomes a useful asset instead of just a mass of words. The tool helped to counter the information overload we all experience.

Watson Workspace highlights the insights that cognitive computing can bring to Canal Barge. Work functions such as barge allocation, dispatch, maintenance and repair, safety and training have distributed employees who do complicated things with lots of information. As they converse online, Watson can summarize, highlight, learn what’s important to them and bring it to their attention. We expect it to be very valuable.

In addition, cognitive computing can help with employee succession planning and training by analyzing the decades of structured and unstructured information that is our intellectual property. As our legacy workforce retires, younger employees will have access to knowledge that is currently unavailable to them. Watson can also help solve complex challenges such as pricing in long-term contracts. The many contingencies such as fuel costs, weather, the regulatory environment and future market conditions make long-term contracts risky. We think Watson can help analyze these variables to give us a competitive edge.


Hear more from Carl Fravel on the value he sees IBM Watson bringing to Canal Barge:

To hear more about collaboration technology in action at Canal Barge, click here.

To learn more about the IBM-Canal Barge relationship, click here.

Director of Information Systems and Knowledge Management

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