Plenty of balls will fly through the air during tonight's NCAA men's college basketball championship game between Duke University and the University of Wisconsin. But it's nothing compared to all of the balls in the air that event organizers must juggle in the months leading up to the championship and during the game itself.
A 12-person management team from design and event planning firm Populous coordinates much of the activity among some 260 suppliers and vendors – "everyone from the guy delivering portalets to Turner Broadcasting System," according to Marc Klein, a senior associate at the company, which also plans, schedules and coordinates logistics for clients such as ESPN, the NFL and Top Rank Boxing. Over 2,000 tasks and 160 deliveries must be completed in the week leading up to NCAA championship game day alone, Klein said.
This is the fifth college basketball championship Populous has managed for the NCAA, a task Klein said is made easier by its use of a cloud-based project management tool from Smartsheet. Prior to Smartsheet, Populous relied on a combination of email, Microsoft Project, Excel spreadsheets and phone calls for event coordination, he said.
"We previously used a master schedule that was 3,000 lines long and became so cumbersome nobody could find anything," he said.
Project Management on the Same Page
Because Smartsheet uses a familiar spreadsheet-like interface, it requires no real training for NCAA vendors, only about half of which work with Populous from year-to-year, Klein said, adding, "Any time you have multiple entities coming together for a temporary even, you must be able to rapidly deploy a tool and get everyone quickly up to speed."
"It's really important to push the information out into the hands of the people actually doing the work," he said. "Before vendors would send us information, and we'd put it into the schedule. Now they enter and manage their own information, and they can also see what everyone else is doing so when they manage their information, they are coordinating with the other vendors."
This eliminates lots of superfluous communication and results in better coordination of activities, he said. "A vendor might say, 'OK, doors open to the public at 2 on Tuesday, so I need to get my resources there at 1,' as opposed to sending four emails asking when doors will open."
Brent Frei, co-founder, CMO and executive chairman of Smartsheet, said Populous is typical of many of Smartsheet's clients, which include marquee companies like Google, Netflix and Metlife, in several key respects: they need enterprise-grade data tracking, structure and security capabilities; they have a large percentage of third parties with whom they wish to collaborate; and they want to be able to selectively share information.
For example, Frei said, "You can say, 'I want just these two rows and all associated documents and attachments to go to our HR specialist and these three rows to go to our lawyer.'"
Don't Fight the Spreadsheet
Frei said his company chose not to "build the 435th project management tool or 200th different version of Basecamp or other social collaboration tool" but instead decided to leverage the popularity of the spreadsheet.
"We thought why not take something people already like and use a lot, the spreadsheet, and add automation, integration with other tools and other features they need. We want to be the iPhone of productivity tools," he said, noting that Apple made the smartphone a tool that few people want to live without by bundling tools such as a camera and an MP3 player into a single, easy-to-use platform.
Smartsheet allows users to set automated reminders about upcoming tasks and approaching deadlines. It can also send email notifications when other people make changes to a sheet. Interactive Gantt chart functionality enables users to highlight tasks or indicate status levels with different colors.
It also integrates with key enterprise applications such as Salesforce and Marketo and offers an API so, for example, users can create a connection with an on-premise SharePoint system, Frei said. Earlier this year Smartsheet announced an integration with Microsoft's Office 365 and Azure Active Directory.
It can be tough to get users to share information they have always managed themselves, Klein said, adding, "When they do share, they see the power of collaboration. It's often surprising to see how many other people can make use of information. The ripple effects can be substantial with these big events."
Populous no longer has a single Microsoft Project application license, Klein said, and Smartsheet is increasingly replacing standalone spreadsheets at the company. In addition, all internal and external file sharing is now done via Smartsheet. Event vendors also appreciate Smartsheet's ability to update schedules and view them in real-time and to send and share large electronic files, he said.
Klein also lauded the tool's reporting functions.
"With these kinds of events, you have thousands of lines of data. We are able to slice and dice the data in so many ways that it allows us to create essentially an unlimited amount of customized reports," he said. "You can see exactly what is happening in a building on a given day. You can sort information by person, by building, by vendor, by day. It gives the event leadership tremendous visibility into what is going on. They really appreciate the ability to be able to follow along and 'see' the event progressing before it happens."
Though in theory Smartsheet could offer an alternative to enterprise collaboration software like Jive, Yammer or Salesforce's Chatter, Frei said such systems tend to be complementary tools rather than competitors. "They are a great place for information to trade hands but not for progress to be managed. In addition, their discussion threads are generally associated with topics," he said.
Smartsheet produced a video showing how its solution could be integrated with Chatter, Frei said, noting that, "You might track a product launch in Smartsheets but then start a discussion thread in Chatter if there is a delay."
Smartsheet snagged a $35 million Series E funding round last May, which Frei said the company is using to further grow its business. This year it expects to add 100 people to its current staff of 160, having added 77 employees in 2014. The company has achieved 85 percent year-over-year revenue growth for the past four years.
Ann All is the editor of Enterprise Apps Today and eSecurity Planet. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade, writing about everything from business intelligence to virtualization.