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ThoughtLink's Exercise in Collaboration

Monday, October 11, 2004; Page E05

Communicating can be tricky when a company or a government agency has workers in different locations and even different time zones.

ThoughtLink, a six-person company founded by Julia Loughran and Marcy Stahl, works to find solutions. The company researches how "distributed," or virtual, teams can use technology, including the Internet, wireless technology and Web-based games, to communicate more effectively and be more productive.

Julia Loughran, left, and Marcy Stahl research how virtual teams can use technology, including Web-based games, to communicate more effectively and be more productive. (Gereald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

In Profile

Name: ThoughtLink Inc.

Location: Employees work from their homes in Maryland, Virginia and Florida. President Julia Loughran's home in Vienna is the corporate headquarters.

Big idea: Researches and evaluates how virtual teams share awareness and how they can use technology to work together more effectively.

Founded: 1997

Web site: www.thoughtlink.com

Who's in charge: Loughran is president, and Marcy Stahl is vice-president.

Funding: Loughran and Stahl funded the company themselves, with help from Stahl's former husband. They said they are not looking for venture funding, nor are they opposed to the idea.

Employees: Six. ThoughtLink expects to hire in early 2005.

Partners: The company contracts out projects that require specific expertise, but it has no formal partnerships.

Big-name clients: Homeland Security Department's Office for Domestic Preparedness; the U.S. Navy, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command; and the FBI

Origin of company name: Loughran and Stahl liked 15 other company names better than ThoughtLink, but the domain names were taken. "We liked brain words and 'link,' " Stahl said. "We thought we would be technology -- and people -- focused," Loughran said. "It's not all about the technology itself."

ThoughtLink's major contracts are with the government, including the Defense Department and the Homeland Security Department's Office for Domestic Preparedness.

The preparedness office helps states put together exercises designed to show cities how to anticipate hazards and respond to them, including terrorist acts and biological, chemical or radiological crises. But providing millions of first responders with face-to-face training is so expensive that only some of those who need such training get it.

ThoughtLink reviews technology products to find less-expensive alternatives to achieve the same training goals. "We identify how Web-based games, CD-ROMs or other types of technology could augment the current program so more of the people that need the training could get it cheaper and faster," Loughran said. "Some products are collaboration tools, e-mails or Web sites for sharing information. And some are games that are focused around a particular problem."

For example, ThoughtLink developed a game called SCUDHunt to determine how distributed teams share awareness. In the game, team members receive different information, like satellite knowledge or spy information, and have to collaborate to build a shared picture of where SCUD launchers are hidden on a grid to prevent missiles from being launched.

ThoughtLink applies its own lessons on communications. Although the company headquarters is in Vienna, the business is run as a distributed team. The six employees work out of their homes in three states, keeping in touch through daily e-mail and phone calls, biweekly teleconferences, and quarterly in-person gatherings. To have a successful virtual team, Stahl said, you need a goal, and you need to understand everyone's role and responsibility. "You can't go to the office next door and see what that person is doing. . . . When you're not physically together you lose a lot of contextual information that you absorb working face-to-face. Trust and shared understanding are key issues that need to be addressed."

Before applying a new technology in a distributed team environment, Stahl said, it's crucial to understand the business and its problems. Organizational culture plays a huge role in whether a new technology will be embraced. "Successful technology adoption depends on having the right product solving the right business problem and having the right people and processes in place to come up with a complete solution," Stahl said. "You can't just throw technology at somebody and expect they'll rearrange their world to accommodate it."

Homeland Security Department large-scale training programs typically use high-end military simulations. Loughran and Stahl would like to see commercial game developers create inexpensive games that could be used to train more people more frequently. "There's a lot of interest in the military and the Department of Homeland Security in the application of commercial games to their specific problems," Loughran said. "We're trying to bridge both worlds."

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