Small-town lender. Big problem. Solution that banks of any size could copy.

That in a nutshell is the story of how 1st Franklin Financial, a consumer finance company in Toccoa, Ga., population 9,323, turned to technology so employees in the rural, remote areas it serves could better collaborate on companywide projects.

In so doing, it is tackling a problem shared by many banks: too many emails and too little insight into project status.

"Employees are struggling with the increasing number of productivity and collaboration tools being made available to them," including email, social networks and file-sharing, said Alan Lepofsky, vice president of Constellation Research. "Organizations are looking for solutions that integrate collaboration directly into the tools employees already use to get their jobs done."

The $600 million-asset 1st Franklin provides personal loans, debt consolidation and auto loans to consumers through a network of 285 offices in six states. Because of the sprawling nature of this network, 1st Franklin's president, Ginger Herring, often found it hard to communicate with staff.

"When you have multiple locations and you're trying to deliver messages and keep up with things, it's hard to do," Herring said. "The amount of emails I manage every day was growing, and I was not doing an efficient or effective job of managing them, nor of keeping up with certain projects and tasks through emails. So I had to come up with some kind of collaboration software that would help me be more efficient at that. It was a very selfish initiative."

An especially daunting challenge was keeping up with many projects stemming from new regulations. Bank employees were using Microsoft Project for some of these, but found it inadequate because of its single-project focus, when the same people were working on multiple initiatives. And communication was still occurring through an overwhelming number of emails.

"We would go into meetings and get into a discussion about something, and we'd spend 10 minutes trying to find an email," Herring said. "We were using project management software, but we were missing that key component of the conversation that helps identify where those projects stood. We were looking for something that would pull all that together."

She also wanted to be able to view her personal to-do list alongside updates of all other projects going on in the organization, with their due dates, status and stakeholders.

A friend showed Herring a software product called Asana Project Management, which she liked and asked her IT manager, Johnny Cox, to take a look at.

By reviewing Asana, Cox realized what Herring wanted, and looked for a similar product that did not run in the public cloud -- one that he could deploy on 1st Franklin's own private cloud.

"I don't want the information to ever leave here," he said. "The more security training Ginger lets me go through, the more paranoid I become."

He ended up selecting collaboration software from Redbooth that would run behind 1st Franklin's firewall. "That gave me peace of mind that I could sleep at night and we'd be fine," Cox said. Redbooth also had another feature Cox was looking for — encrypted mobile apps to let employees safely access information remotely.

The Redbooth software lets Herring assign tasks to certain groups or to the whole company. It helps her see where everything stands. "It keeps it in front of you instead of things getting lost or forgotten or whatever," she said.

To help with communication among parties, Redbooth integrates with Microsoft Outlook for emails and calendar items. Due dates set in Redbooth, for instance, show up as calendar events in Outlook. It also has a chat feature that 1st Franklin has yet to experiment with.

To carry through projects already being handled in Microsoft Project, 1st Franklin asked Redbooth to integrate its software with Microsoft's. That integration has been done and is in testing.

Redbooth gives employees a dashboard that shows them all the projects they are working on and their status. Users can choose to get alerts when activity occurs on a project or when a task is due. They can also choose to get reports on a daily or weekly basis or never.

The new software gave Herring the bird's-eye view she needed. "Being able to have action items in there, whether they were mine or someone else's, gave me the visibility I needed to stay on top of those and follow up where I needed to follow up," she said.

Implementation of the software was simple, Cox said, given Redbooth's handling of the integration with Microsoft Project.

Getting employees used to the new software and a different way of working was tougher.

"We've been around 75 years, and we're very blessed to have 30- to 45-year employees," Herring said. "Getting them to change to a new application was difficult. We've done it in stages, slowly to get buy-in." Some people embraced the software, others just want email.

She decided to make use of Redbooth voluntary, to allow people to get used to it.

"At some point it may be mandated," she said. "But I wanted people to get comfortable and realize this was a tool for their benefit, [that] it wasn't meant to make their life more difficult. All we ask is that they give it a chance."