Oct 15 2009

Telework for COOP

To make remote work setups a practical option for short- or long-term displacements, JPL technologist identifies five must-have technology capabilities.

A fire has a way of illuminating things, says Tomas Soderstrom.

In fact, it was the California wildfires this summer, says the IT chief technology officer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, that brought to the fore just how important a telework capability could be to the robotics lab in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley.

“The fire in August came within 30 feet of the lab,” he says. And while the research-intensive staff at JPL enjoys being able to work when they are away from the lab, expansive telework was not something that the lab chiefs had given much thought to. “We’re all pretty collocated,” Soderstrom notes.

But the fire (along with earthquake drills over the past couple of years) led the lab’s managers and IT leaders to view telework as a crucial component for continuity of operations. Remote access when traveling and the technology bent of most of JPL’s staff make telework an obvious COOP strategy, says Soderstrom, who spoke on a panel at the recent fall Telework Exchange Town Hall in Washington, D.C.

“For our smart people, their work tools are their IT tools,” he says. “To serve them, we have to stay flexible and provide them what they need.” And because its researchers travel extensively, the lab mines their experiences for best practices.

To figure out a viable telework strategy, Soderstrom says there can’t be too much testing. His motto is: “Test ’til it fails to actually find out what doesn’t work, and then fix it.” This approach also applies beyond the technology and can guide an agency in figuring out what policies must be changed as well. Typically, policies lag behind technology, he adds.

Ultimately, the goal must be to make telework (or any remote access) easy for users and provide them with choices. That comes down to serving five needs, Soderstrom says, specifically the ability:

  1. to talk: “Voice over IP is very effective,” but also consider instant messaging, Cisco Unified MeetingPlace, Skype and Jabber.
  2. to see: JPL has high-definition video conferencing (LifeSize Communications and Polycom) deployed everywhere because it’s a “very good way to eliminate unnecessary travel.” Now, the IT team is working on notebook video conferencing, and NASA has built Second Life virtual worlds at JPL and Ames Research Center for meetings and collaboration.
  3. to share documents: There has to be some mechanism for remote users to exchange documents. He cites Gartner research that by next year 80 percent of computer users will share documents on the web.
  4. to collaborate: Right now, the lap uses Microsoft SharePoint, but IT is also exploring backup cloud solutions.
  5. to maintain relationships: This goes back to being able to see one another and so requires that an organization provide end-to-end video conferencing.

In terms of COOP, Soderstrom says, working from anywhere must address handling both short-term (a small fire) and long-term (a pandemic) displacements.

Looking further out, systems developers will need to figure out how to make far-ranging data use possible through personal digital assistants by 2020, he says — “because that’s the way people will work.”



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