Surfing for better management software

Techniques used by surfer charity for tsunami aid become "Green Array," a software program that keeps business projects on track.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
4 min read
When a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the Indonesian coast and other surfers' paradises in the Indian Ocean nearly a year ago, Andrew Griffiths, head of Surf Aid International, knew his organization had to act fast.

Quickly, he set up a teleconference call with the five other international board members in the United States, Australia and New Zealand from his San Diego office.

"The moment a disaster like that happens, there are a number of difficult business decisions that need to be made," said Griffiths, chief executive of the nonprofit organization, which was created to provide humanitarian relief and health services for surfing tourism hot spots around the world.

To make those decisions, the surfer's charity--defying the freewheeling, Jeff Spicoli stereotype of wave riders--used an efficient method for setting priorities in a new software package. There was a red light for "stop," green light for "go," and a yellow light for "go, but with certain conditions."

That straightforward method was among a set of project management processes that had been used for years and the basis of new software being created by Miles Walsh, a board member of Surf Aid International.

Walsh, an avid surfer for more than three decades, said he was struck by a PricewaterhouseCoopers study last year that found that more than 97 percent of all business projects worldwide finish late and go over budget.

A former marketing vice president at Macromedia and chief executive of the Web advertising firm Flycast, Walsh decided to turn his own processes into a product that would coach people on a step-by-step basis how to start and finish projects. He started a San Francisco-based company, Green Array, in October 2004 and began commercially shipping the software two months ago.

Although the software was not available last year, Surf Aid International used the processes upon which the product is based to help it respond to the tsunami.

Applying the technique
The Surf Aid International board gave a green light to the question of whether to go outside its mandate and provide emergency relief; a green light to having doctors provide trauma care; and a yellow light to having doctors work to prevent communicable diseases, restricting them to malaria control, measles immunization and distributing Vitamin A.

Finally, the board gave a green light to sending a medical team to Nias, an island located about 78 miles southwest of the North Sumatra mainland, and a yellow light to expanding to other islands if resources were available.

The idea, one of several simple decision-making practices the group used, saved time, kept Surf Aid focused and guaranteed that everyone involved was clear on what had been decided so that miscommunication would not hamper efforts, Griffiths said.

"When (people are) in different time zones and geographies it is very important to hit some simple processes to ensure that everybody is

consistently on the same page," he said. "Doctors were there within 36 hours," providing medical care to tsunami victims in the critical days and weeks after the disaster.

Miles Walsh
CEO, Green Array

Now about 300 customers use the Green Array software. It includes resource-planning and survey tools; project management with critical tasks, document management, work flow; collaboration tools and integration with e-mail; and a dashboard that shows the status of projects, their priority and percent complete.

Walsh took the name Green Array from the series of green lights on his handheld device signaling that all his projects were going well with the start-up of his company. "If I woke up and saw all green lights on my Blackberry for all my projects then I could go surfing," he said.

The software poses questions executive planners may overlook but should anticipate in forging ahead with projects, such as, "Are there enough people to accomplish a task or project and do they have time to do it?"

A Green Array subscription costs $20 a month.

Overcoming a "tsunami of paperwork"
The University of California, Irvine, is using Green Array to help track of a pile of laboratory documents.

"Our nightmare was meeting regulatory requirements for documentation of document control. We were living with a tsunami of paperwork," said Jane Emerson, a clinical professor at the university's Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

The department, which has about 300 staff, is using the software to help archive documents, make revisions, create an audit trail, and document who sees the policy manuals and signs off on them. The system also ensures that staffers know how the lab should maintain things like equipment, thermometers and temperature, and are prepared for the two-year inspections.

"There are standards for how we do testing. We have to be able to point to which staff did a test and prove that they acknowledged the current version of the document governing the testing procedure," Emerson said.

The key, Griffiths said, is Green Array's ability to help set priorities, whether they relate to tracking documents or charitable work of the sort done by Surf Aid.

"It absolutely cut through the bureaucracy," he said.