Saturday, November 29, 2008

The financial meltdown, a trigger for remote collaboration

Everywhere I keep hearing about travel restrictions. Amex just released a study pointing out three quarter of corporations intend to cut or freeze travel budget. In the current circumstances, this is probably the right thing to do for businesses, and, although it may not make airlines happy, it will help the bottom line of many of them. However, the question remains, are businesses ready for large scale remote collaboration and do they have the tools and experience required to do so. Are we also increasingly going to see remote visits to customers. This is going to be interesting, and we all have to experience and learn a lot in the process.

Being in a global role, I am often ask to go and meet a customer to share best practices, to update him on new technologies & processes, or to discuss key processes with him. Up till now, these meetings have happened face to fact, but with the current clamp down in travel, we are highly motivated to do this remotely. Well, I have two hurdles to overcome. I first need to convince my sales teams that this can work and that we can have the level of discussion we used to have face to face. I don't know how your sales people are, but I can tell you many of ours do not like surprises, so when they are confronted to the idea of doing a remote sales call, many of them get extremely frustrated.

Once the sales people are convinced, it is time to go and suggest this to the customer. And here we have two types of reactions typically. Some customers (typically the ones that have similar travel bans), understand and are prepared for the experience. Others have the feeling they are not important because we do not travel to HPIM4433their site. And you may have to discuss the policy with them, the reason why we do that etc. some of them will never understand. It's up to you to judge how important this customer is and whether it is necessary you circumvent the travel ban.

How the meeting takes place and how to make it work is dependent on the technology used. If you are able to use telepresence, you can just run the meeting as any other. The only thing you will nit be able to do is exchange business cards and shake hands, but frankly, you can do without that.

If the meeting happens over the telephone, I would suggest you put a couple things in place. Here are some suggestions:

  • If you present something and the customer does not know you, put your picture in one of the first slides. This will allow the customer to see how you look like and to imagine the person behind the voice.
  • Try to have your local sales person in the same room as the customer, allowing him/her to capture the body language of the customer and the dynamics in the room
  • If possible, use an instant messaging tool for the sales person to communicate to you some of the reactions in the room
  • Be extremely sensitive to the tones of the voices, as they may tell you how your message is being received and may allow you to correct things quickly.

In any case, do a debrief with your sales team to understand how well the meeting went. They are your eyes with the customer and you need to rely on them to understand the dynamics. You may want to discuss with them before the meeting about what you expect them to do and how they can communicate with you. If you cannot use instant messaging for example, you may want to define some code phrases to be used to warn you about the way the customer reacts.

These are just some ideas on how to make the best of having to work without traveling. Some more can be found on Ken Molay's " the webinar blog".  I do hope all these are useful.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Must Google die?

Earlier in the week I ran into an interesting and intriguing article, titled "Why Google Must Die" from from John C. Dvorak. The least I can say is that the article made noise in the blogosphere and on the internet in general. Several sites included detailed discussions about why John was wrong (Sphinn, Newsvine, NamePros to name a few). Some even go to point out this is Google bashing.

Frankly, I have personally experienced the symptoms John describes. I have been on the phone with a colleague, thinking I could use Google rather than dictate or send him a long and complex address. By a matter of fact, while researching for this post, I ran into a number of articles that had nothing to do with the subject. And let's be honest, Google is out there to make money, as much as possible. So, I am only half surprised they push forward the sites that make them most money. What irritates me is that they do not recognize this fact. HPIM5435

Well, maybe this is an overstatement. Interestingly enough, I received yesterday an e-mail from Forbes drawing me to an article titled "The Verdict of Google SearchWiki". On its own blog, Google presents this new facility as a way to "customize search by re-ranking, deleting, adding, and commenting on search results. With just a single click you can move the results you like to the top or add a new site. You can also write notes attached to a particular site and remove results that you don't feel belong." I have not had the opportunity to use it, as it is not yet rolled out in our part of the world. Now, is this the solution that John is looking for?

Frankly I do not believe, as the SearchWiki is, according to Google, strictly private. They don't say what they are doing with your changes, as I am sure they are tracking them and use them to their advantage.

However, if we take the web 2.0 promise seriously, and if we believe Tim O'Reilly's definition that the user adds the content, we may want to seriously think at helping WikiaSearch out. They rely on trusted user feedback from the community to improve their search results. And if we refer to the Wikipedia example, they may turn out to be quite successful in the long run. Will that make Google obsolete?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Second Life "Affair", mixing real and virtual

Last Friday, I was in London and read the Times and the Guardian. In both newspaper I found an article about a couple that was going to divorce because the husband had a virtual affair on Second Life. Googling the Internet, I was astonished to find loads of comments, starting with Lewis Wallace's blog, who got plenty of comments,  FoxNews and CNN. Is this event worth the press it gets? In an older article MSNBC asks the question whether a virtual affair is real-world infidelity? And there lays to me the real question.

A couple hours later, I received an invitation to attend a Second Life conference about eco-friendly innovation to take place on December 4th. A banner nicely explains how you can build your avatar, or that you can request a pre-made avatar by e-mailing a specific address. I don't know what I will do yet, but this last point made me think.

Indeed, the newspaper articles contained photos of the couple as well as of their avatars. And guess what, there was not really a resemblance between both. If you can also "borough" an avatar for a conference, how do you ensure you are you in Second Life. This question may sound silly when you are speaking about video games, or whether, as adults, you may want to have fun. I will not even start discussing the danger of having children and teenagers being put in contact with unknown people.

Second Life users can interact and form relationships with other players' avatars.But frankly, to use this tool as a collaboration tool, it is critical that you know who you are dealing with. You need be able to trust the other people with whom you are working. Information will be exchanged, strategies will be exposed, points will be discussed, how sure are you the other people are who they pretend to be? You may argue that this can also happen in real life, when you meet somebody previously unknown to you. Most often you develop a protocol to recognize each other, like holding the good old newspaper. On TV people are not who they are supposed to be, but how often does this happens in real life.

In Second Life it seems to happen way more. Indeed, for many people, Second Life seems to be the place where they enact their fantasies, where they pretend to be somebody else, and where they live their dreams. Our society may have a need for such environment, I do not dispute this. But, frankly, I have difficulties imagining this environment to also serve as a global collaboration tool. It is difficult for me to imagine mixing real work and fantasies. And even if people can make the difference, using the same tool may make it difficult for them not to flip-flop between both. I would strongly recommend to separate both thoroughly.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Use what you preach...

As I mentioned previously, with an American friend we developed a training module to demystify Web 2.0 for a leadership training course. Unfortunately, my friend could not be physically present in the meeting room and provided his contribution to the training remotely. As the session was going to take four hours, we referred back to POTS, the plane old telephone system, as we wanted to make absolutely sure the connection would stay open for the four hours.

At the start of the session, one of the attendees asked us why we did not use some of the technologies we highlighted, such as Skype, to give the training. We pointed out the need for reliability, and by a matter of fact, we were proved right, as some of the assistance got difficulties keeping their wireless Internet connection up and running for the duration of the training.

This got me thinking. In my previous post I spoke about advanced, 3D, collaboration tools. They are cool, but we all know they require quite some bandwidth, which may occasionally not be available, resulting in delays, crashes and frustration. Now, if it is to play a game, or having fun, that's perfectly fine. But when yDesigning for People - 500 Telephoneou have 30+ people in the room, expecting you to make the best out of the time allocated, and deliver them a perfect job, you can just not take the risk of having problems. And Murphy's law applies here too. If something can go wrong, it will at the worst possible time.

To make a long story short, the session went well and the participants gave excellent feedback. They felt they really learned something. We had no major hick-ups and the POTS did its work perfectly. The lesson I learn out of this, test out and play with the latest technologies, as it is important to understand what is out there and when to use it. But when you need to do a professional job, make sure to go back to some proven technology. The technology used by NASA in space shuttles is also old and proven.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Do I look like my Avatar?

In my last post we talked about NetMeeting and the fact it was rather old fashion. Let's now move to the other extreme, the use of 3D virtual collaboration software such as Qwaq, Nortel's Web.Alive or environments such as the ones that can be found in Second Life. In her blog entry "Restoring the Meaning of Virtual Collaboration", Patti Anklam speaks about Sun's Project Wonderland, another attempt in this area.

What is different is that, using a personification of yourself, called an avatar you basically work in a video game. You can walk through a room, where your presentation is hanging on the wall and stop, together with the avatars of the other people you are working with and discuss what is being displayed.

Is that science fiction? Actually not, early versions of such software is available today and companies are starting to use such collaboration approaches. The fundamental question in my mind is whether we actually need such fancy approaches or not. I am sure the younger generation, who grew up with video games, is fully acquainted to work that way. Others need to get used to it. I am asking myself what the added value is of going this far. Testing out some of the environments, I found the inclusion and update of the work documents rather slow.

Being able to share a common document or application is critical for virtual collaboration, being able to take control, enter information, perform changes etc. is mandatory. But do I need to have my avatar running around in a virtual room to achieve this? That's what I am absolutely not convinced about. I can already hear some of you telling me I'm old-fashion. And you may actually be right, but I am trying to separate hype from usefulness. And I cannot find the added value of my avatar.

Working remotely with somebody is unnerving for people that are not used to it, in the sense they are working with somebody they do not see. To address that, I used to swap photos with my remote collaborators. You may argue that this is the reason of the avatar. And it could be, unfortunately, you can choose any avatar, so there is no resemblance between your avatar and yourself. In that sense it defeats the purpose. Do you agree with me?