Going virtual for competitive advantage

For me, necessity was the mother of invention. But it wasn’t an easy birth.

I took over a global consulting practice at the same time as somebody in our company discovered cost controls. Where my predecessors had smaller areas, they also had larger budgets. That was a real challenge that was imposed on me. Another wound was self-inflicted. Even though I had taken this job to head up a global practice, I’m insane enough to have thought that I didn’t want to totally give up on being a working consultant. I knew I would have to scale back radically, but I couldn’t totally give it up.

When I became a consultant I knew what it was like to sit on the other side of the desk. I could put myself in the client’s shoes. I swore when I couldn’t do that anymore, I’d give it up. I felt the same way as I went into the “executive ranks”. When I could no longer keep in touch with the real day to day realities of serving our clients, I’d give that up too (but that’s another story).

So I had big area. A small budget. Did I mention that we were in a real crisis? It was a time when we were losing our focus — sometimes even our value proposition.

I knew I couldn’t turn this thing around. I needed a team. And that team had to come from all around the world. It had to bring in the best we had. We had to be able to share what we knew and leverage that effectively. We had to bring in new ideas from everywhere. We had to work more cohesively than we had done for years.

So we needed to work together more effectively than ever before. And to be fair to our CFO, even when we had money, flying in people in was always tough. Days in the air. Jet lag. Leaving the office for a week at a time. Getting calendars in synch? To plan a meeting of 12 representatives from around the world could take 3 months of negotiations and planning. And I’m not sure we always got the results that matched the investment of time or money.

At that time we had was email, Lotus Notes and conference calls. We also had some emerging web enabled tools – primarily the early web conferencing tools. Placeware was the tool (later Live Meeting) and it was primitive, but better than nothing.

I picked up the phone — and I began to learn. Boy did I learn. I got bruised and battered. I made a lot of mistakes. That’s what I did. WE — the team. That’s another story. WE did amazing things. WE proved that large virtual teams could deliver incredible results effectively, quickly and at an enormous cost/time savings.

Years later, when we founded this new company, I took all of that learning with me. I was determined to take it to the next level. Even though I’d gone from big firm to boutique — we were truly a global firm very rapidly. I negotiated deals, set up alliances, conferred with my network, all in a virtual space.

Tools were developing. The idea of virtual teams was no longer such a radical idea. HBR had published a study which claimed that virtual teams were MORE productive than collocated teams. It claimed gains of 25% in productivity, 90% reductions in absenteeism — delivery times that we 1/10th of the time that a traditional team would take. It claimed budgets that were 1/8th of those of a traditional collocated team. Incredibly, it also laid claim to improved results.

I didn’t have any trouble with believing this. I knew that it was possible. Today, we live and breath it. Our clients and consultants come literally from around the world.

But that’s not the most interesting thing. The thing is in how its changed for us. I have people working for me that I have hired, worked with, gotten to know, struggle through challenges with — and whom I have never seen or physically met. I interact with them every day. I’ve facilitated meetings of people across the country through difficulties, through crisis, through incredible achievements — and never seen some of them.

Last year, I closed the downtown office. There was just no need for it. I guess there is somebody who might need to see bricks and mortar to work with us — I had a sales rep who felt this was essential. But you know, I’ve met a lot of people in our offices that have given us zero in the way of business. Besides, I did the math. When we stopped paying rent on a downtown office, if we really wanted to impress people, we could take them out for lunch or dinner at the best restaurant in the city — and we’d still be saving money.

It has it’s challenges. We’ve had to learn – we are continually learning. But I’m absolutely amazed as I look at it about how far we’ve come from the days when I heard that to have a team, you had to be able to “shake their hands and look them in the eyes.”

It’s not that I don’t meet with people. But I don’t need to do it. I know that this is still disconcerting to some. Even when people live near me, I have found that their need to have physical meetings is — curious. I can hear it in their voice when I propose that the day is too packed to meet them for coffee, but we can have coffee in our offices while we talk. I still remember one of our consultants saying to me as he was about to start an assignment — “don’t you think we should meet?”

I thought we had. I had checked references. I had tested, prodded and probed. I had reviewed prior work. If anything, someone I hire virtually may get a better vetting than some hires I’ve made in my career. But I’ve learned. I met him in person. It was pleasant. It didn’t change anything for me.

Woody Allen may have been right when he said that “90% of life is just showing up.” If he was, I can tell you that the last 10% may be the most valuable. The HBR study proved what my experience had taught me.

And the world is catching up. I read an article in July that said that 10 percent of Canada’s labour force — 2.5 million people — work outside the office at least one day a week. (Robert Fox, Canadian Telework Association) Teletrips, a Vancouver based company, claims a company can save $6,000 to $9,000 per flexible worker. They go on to say that a worker can save 160 hours in commute time each year — four working weeks! Plus you save 3,000 kilos of carbon dioxide.

The same article by Michelle MacLeod goes on to list other benefits. Reduced attrition. Ability to attract great people who wouldn’t face the commute to get to your office. It goes on. And that HBR article keeps coming back to me. Faster delivery. Better results.

Virtual aren’t second best anymore. And I have a feeling that we are just scratching the surface. We have build the tools and the processes. We know how to live, work, network and even facilitate in this space. More and more of our consulting finds its way into tools. processes, strategy and ongoing coaching and development of virtual teams.

When the internet was just starting up, Ayelet Baron (now at Cisco) and I collaborated on building one of the first websites. Years later it would seem so primitive that it would be embarrassing to show now. Then, it was leading edge and won some international acclaim for our firm. That was good, because although we’d begged some investment from partners in our firm, if we hadn’t printed the pages they would have never seen what we had done.

The other day I heard a radio host say that “no matter how comfortable we had become with the new virtual world, people of my generation would always be immigrants on the internet.” Our children were citizens. So no matter how far I’ve come, I realize that this has a long way to go yet.

I hate hype. I don’t want to say — if your company isn’t doing this then you are losing money. But I’m not sure its hype anymore. What was leading edge is now every day. And if you’re not maximizing the benefits from virtual teams, I’d love to know why not.

Gotta go. I have that 30 second commute.

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Filed under Organization, People, Process, Technology

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