A computerized approach to battling employee turnover

Company enables firms to log worker know-how

Small business

November 12, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Computer Solutions GSD is a company that's done a little of everything.

The Columbia-based company started 17 years ago training people to use computers, moved to networking computers and now does a little of both, helping businesses keep track of employee knowledge.

The three-person company, run out of the founders' home, was recently named Small Business of the Year by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, in part because of the company's work improving the chamber's communication with its members.

Chuck Sherman, who calls himself a "knowledge management evangelist," said creating a central repository for the key information employees have gathered to perform their jobs is critical in today's business climate of cutbacks and swift job changes.

"It's just as important as backing up your hard drive, to back up your employee knowledge," said Sherman, who started the company with his wife, Caroline. "That should be part of your disaster plan as well to capture the intellectual base of the company."

Computer Solutions GSD operates in the knowledge management arena, helping companies keep track of records and allowing them easier use and remote use so that workers can perform their jobs anywhere. The group creates databases using IBM's Lotus Notes application, which allows employees and managers to access files online or input routine information that anyone in the company can share.

For example, a nurse visiting a new patient in a home can get a file on that patient's history online and update the file before leaving. And the nursing manager has real-time tracking of field nurses.

The applications make the job of managing employees a little easier, while minimizing the loss of institutional knowledge, Caroline Sherman says.

"Every company has had the experience of losing that one person that knows that particular thing or process," Chuck Sherman said. But the programs help "capture the intellectual property of the worker" and share that information with everyone who remains attached to the company.

For Chuck Sherman, sharing information is what his company is all about.

Computer Solutions GSD was founded as a computer training company in 1984 by the Shermans. They started with a government contract to train 500 workers to use personal computers in large classroom settings. But three years later, they decided to shift gears.

"We came to the conclusion that it was easier to train the computer to do what you wanted it to do than the people," Caroline Sherman said. "We went from large training to getting into network support."

From there, the business grew, taking on more people and moving into a small office in Columbia. The group became something of a help desk for its customers. At one point, the company had 19 full-time employees.

Through many of those years, the Shermans invited high school students into their company as interns, teaching them computer skills and showing them the business beyond programming. In turn, the students created projects for their schools.

"This was our way of helping," Caroline Sherman said.

By 1996, the Shermans started working with Lotus Notes, developing customized applications for customers. But as the cost to employ Microsoft-certified staff members increased, and the networking market started showing signs of softness, the Shermans decided to scale back part of their business.

Last year, they sold the networking and service side to an accounting firm, Peacock, Condron, Anderson & Co., but continued to work on application development. Today, business is steady for the small company and less hectic, Chuck Sherman said. The Shermans are in the middle of an 18-month contract with the Army at Fort Meade to customize a knowledge management application.

One of their first customers was Garry Sittig, who acquired the service part of the business the Shermans sold. Computer Solutions built a database for billing and customer management that allows the renamed PCA Technologies to track billing, invoices and services and to manage engineers in the field.

"In my business, one of the things a lot of companies don't have is a good management system," Sittig said. "We think it's a big differential in terms of why our clients want to do business with us."

Over the past year, the Howard County Chamber of Commerce has been one of their clients. The Shermans consulted with the group to help it develop programs to improve communication with members, said Cara Calder, director of government affairs for the chamber.

"We really knew we wanted to take a fresh look at how we communicate with our members," she said. "They were able to say, `Here's the gap and here's how you're going to bridge it.'"

They developed a program that allowed the chamber to create Web sites where small groups can chat and exchange presentations and documents online.

"We can target our market now, based on things people have participated in or demonstrated an interest in," Calder said. "It's a little more interesting than just blasting information out there."

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