Monday, June 30, 2008

Multi-Media Collaboration, myth or reality?

IMG_0794 Today I was talking with one of my colleagues who did just hang up from a call with his boss. Wouldn't it be so much easier to see his face on my screen when I talk to hem, he pointed out to me. And indeed, he is probably right.

Including video in communications is something that is done daily today. Friends, who's son is currently living in Cairo with a small child, are seeing their grand daughter growing day after day through Skype. They love it as it really establishes a relationship between them. Why is that not used in the corporate world? It's actually a good question.

In our company, the video portion of NetMeeting is disabled to ensure we cannot use it. When asking around, two key arguments come up. The first is, not surprisingly, cost reduction. It seems such video feeds take quite some bandwidth and would clog the corporate network. The Internet isn't, so why would the corporate network be? And with all the fiber in the ground, capacity is cheaply available if required. The second argument is security. And here too, I have my question marks. Knowing that our phones are tapped, our SMS's followed etc. what is the security issue here? Is it really such an issue if somebody sees my face? Or is it the IT department that is not eager to have things done outside their control?

The fundamental question is really how much we could improve productivity through the use of more multi-media collaboration techniques? I would like to argue that the potential additional cost and risk of using such tools is easily offset by the benefits gained from higher productivity and improved communication.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Kill the Business Trip? ... Really

In yesterday's on-line issue, Forbes Magazine ran an article entitled "Kill the Business Trip", speaking about web-based conferencing technologies such as Polycom and Webex. I've had the privilege to use both on multiple occasions, and frankly, I am not sure what to think about them. Yes, they are a little more reliable than NetMeeting, but depending on the load on the Internet, the time of day, the amount of people in the conference, they can be very slow. As they are often used for presentations, I have ended up a number of times watching to one slide while the presenter (to whom I am linked via the telephone) is already talking about the next one.

IMG_0265 It's actually a good brain exercise, as it forces you to remember the key points to look at in the next slide, when that one appears. I am rarely using such web-based conferencing in cross continent activities as they are not reliable and often make you loose quite some time or irritate some of the attendees. I have a tendency to send the slides ahead of time and point out to the audience when I move from one to the other. That has actually given me much more satisfaction than the tools described above.

But to come back to the original question of the article, will such tools kill business trips? Well, I do not believe so. Yes they facilitate working together (when everything goes well), but do not replace personal contact in any way form or shape. So, my answer, as you probably realize, is a plain no.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Actually meeting your virtual partner

Years ago, I started working with a team that was based in Bangalore and was given the name of a contact with whom I was supposed to arrange the use of Indian resources in EMEA projects. I will actually never forget my first call to him. First it took me quite some time to get through, and finally when I got him on the phone, I kept hearing horning and noise on the line. I had the impression he was sitting in the middle of the street, with cars buzzing all around him. And he must really be in a strange position as all those guys needed to horn to get around him. My imagination went wild

IMGP1341 It's only six months later, when I finally went to Bangalore, that I started to understand. The building in which we had our offices were not really air conditioned in those days, as it was quite difficult to ensure a consistent supply of electricity. So the team was used to open the windows, and those were facing a busy street (actually, are there any others in India?). I also understood the two fundamental rules of driving in India (The bigger the more priority & Horn any time you do something), and its implications on the environment of the team that quickly became friends.

This short story to illustrate the importance of never to assume things. Actually, imagination is not really a good thing when working with remote people as it may get you believing things that are far from reality. I learned about the importance to visit the people and understand in what environment they are operating. Now, if visits are impossible, photos and short videos can be used to show remote team members what the environment is and how the person on the phone looks like. Pragmatic approaches should be used for people to understand each-other environments and habits. That's what I learned then.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Our Staff meeting

HPIM4337 Every other week, we have our staff meeting, but being a highly distributed team, this happens over the phone. Occasionally we complement the call with the use of a "virtual meeting room" in which we can share documents and presentation material. As we know each other quite well, we actually achieve a lot of work during those calls. We update each other on what we have done and are doing, we agree on the way forward and come up to consensus. But this is only achieved because we have an operations manager who is very good at moderating the meeting.

Indeed, the issue of teleconferences is that people do not see each other. In the photo above, the drummers need to see the leader to follow the pace. This is actually a very good analogy. The moderator gives every person on the call a prompt when the person can talk. We go around the room several times during the call. If you do not do that, the most vocal ones (and we have a number) are the ones who take control, and the others do not get their say. Putting discipline in the meeting is mandatory to make it smooth and productive.

Now, let's be honest, we still have some control taking going on, occasionally. One of the people in the team has the tendency to use a hands-free phone, one of those with a mike and a speaker. Now, one thing to know, is that, in most of those phones, the speaker is disabled when the mike picks up sound. So, when he starts speaking, he cannot hear what the others are saying. So, he speaks, and the only thing the others can do is wait till he has finished. This is frustrating, and often results in the fact people are not listening. So, one of my key learning: never use a hands-free phone, our chances are you do not get your point across.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Virtual Conference Presentation

IMG_9586 Today, I do a first, at least for me. And this consists in presenting at a conference in Las Vegas from the comfort of my home office. I am a little afraid as I have no idea who is at the other end of the line and whether they can hear me well. I did send them my presentation ahead of time, so they will be able to follow and get plenty of animation to ensure they don't fall asleep. But I have no idea what it will be for them, not having the speaker standing in front of them and looking at them in the eyes. The advantage for me is that I don't need to dress up. They will not realize I don't wear a tie.

We have done a first series of sound checks, unfortunately we realized I could not hear the audience. Little problem. I felt blind and deaf. They just sent me an e-mail telling me they have fixed it, but the previous speaker is now on, so no way to test. At the half hour we will test again. let's cross the fingers, and hope for the best. I really don't line not being fully prepared and sure that the technology works. Should be used to it, working for a technology company. But this is one of the lessons I learned over time, always check the technology if you want to avoid surprises. From my side, I just silenced the home phone in my office to ensure that one does not ring while I am presenting. I also asked the children not to disturb me. The last thing I want is having them making hearable comments while I am presenting. So, now it is waiting time. We are supposed to be all set.... Oh, and one last thing. As I don't trust net meeting or any of those tools, they will advance the slides for me, avoiding potential Internet delays and other surprises. Don't want them to be three slides behind what I am telling them about.

Ok, the time arrived and I was nicely introduced to the audience. Things went well, I warmed up, as always, after the second slide and got things going pretty well. Unfortunately I could not hear any return from the conference room which was a little awkward. I started pacing up and down in my office as I would have done in front of the room. So, it sounded business as usual. Unfortunately about 20 minutes in the presentation, the line went down and I got the beep-beep-beep signal suddenly. Since I have not heard from them. So, I let you to judge... success or not success? But was an interesting experience anyway.


My name is Christian, and I work since many years in an American multinational. For the last 15 years or so I have been doing European and now Global jobs. With those I have not only the opportunity to travel a lot, but also to work in geographically distributed teams. In that process, I learned a lot about collaboration and want to share some of that with all of you, my readers. That's the objective of this blog. Simply share experience on working in multi-national roles and collaboration around the globe.

HL104860 By the way, the photo on the left is NOT my home, don't worry about that, I live closer to an airport. However, one of my hobbies happens to be photography, and I always have a camera with me when I travel, so I hope you don't mind if I share some of those photos with you along the course of this blog.

The reason I choose this one, that was taken in Switzerland in March by the way, is that, when working remotely with others, we often feel living in the middle of nowhere. But we are still expected to be as productive as if we were in the middle of the office.

Over the years I have seen people being requested to use their home office, people being recruited as part of geographically distributed teams, people being expected to work with resources in lower cost countries etc. But how often have those people been given training to take on their new job, role or responsibility? I have never seen it, but have encountered frustration, misunderstanding, de-motivation and stress, due to the inability to coop with the changed environment. If through this blog we can reduce that, I would have reached my objective.

Tell me what you think and give us your comments and feedback. They are really welcome.