Monthly Archives: January 2009

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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Not Using Open Source Software? Must be nice to have money to burn!

If your manager of HR came up to you and said, “I’d like to send every employee out for a $500.00 to $1,000.00 training program in the coming year,” as a business owner you would probably wince. After all, times are tough.

What if the HR Manager said to you — “by the way, there’s an free training alternative that may be just as good. But I still want to spend this money.”

I’m not sure what you would do? Fire him/her on the spot? Call for a paramedic? Or would you just throw him/her out of your office.

In those terms, it sounds like you’d have to be nuts to be that HR Manager, right?

So if that’s true, why aren’t people up in arms about software? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing Microsoft bashing here. But I still don’t get why companies will spend a small fortune on “name brand” software when the “generic” (Open Source) is often free.

And if people are telling you that its because Open Source isn’t ready to run a “real business” — let me be the first to say it. That’s nonsense.

As I pointed out on someone else’s blog — I’m a power user of Office. I do things that 90% of your employees wouldn’t even know how to do. And I use Open Office almost all the time. But 99% of your employees aren’t “power users”. The last time I checked, the average worker was using less than 10% of the functions of office software.

Now do the math. Microsoft Office costs how much? Open Office is free. Yes. Free. Free as in “can you save more money than free?”

Why pay a premium price for functionality nobody even uses? Even if you factor in the cost of switching over — and some training, can you really lose out?

I want to say it’s funny, but it’s really sad. The objections are, as my kids would say – lame. Take the question of training. Did you do any training on Office? How about when it made it’s big shift to 2007, which baffled the hell out of me. Did companies do training? Or did it just arrive on the desk? So what is the big worry about shifting to Open Office? I still recommend training – but it’s not a barrier.

Or the one I hear all the time. Open Office — there might be bugs. Who will fix them? Are you serious? Do you really think MS Office has no bugs? And who fixes those? Personally, if I had to bet on fixes, I’d stick with the Open Source community. Although its funny that somehow that community is not seen as serious by some. Newsflash. For those who must have a corporate involvement, Sun Microsystems is a big sponsor of Open Office. IBM and others are big players in the Open Source arena in general.

Or the big final one. The world is Microsoft, you say? Guess what. I save my Open Office documents as Microsoft docs before I send them out to all my friends who have money to burn. In fact, I have less problems going between Open Office and Microsoft Office than I have in going between versions of Microsoft Office. Try sending a 2007 document to a 2003 Office user. Now that’s a pain.

If it were only office. I use an open source (free) anti-virus, not because it’s cheaper, but because I can’t stand the paid alternative. My list goes on and on.

In fact, I started this journey not because of Office, but because of Sharepoint. We needed a document management type of system in our office and since we had access to a Sharepoint license, we installed it. Now we are IT consultants. But within a week the technology consultant who implemented the Sharepoint system was in my office telling me we had to hire an administrator to take care of the system. It needed specialized skills to get it up and running. We would have spent thousands.

I threw it out and went Open Source and never looked back. I (or any other reasonably intelligent techie) figured out Drupal (the Open Source CMS) in a weekend. It cost us nothing in licenses, was a dream to install and a year later, we do everything ourselves.

I could go on and on. Scalix replaces Microsoft Exchange. Our CRM is SugarCRM and even though we do pay for a license (we use the Enterprise Version) it’s still a gift in terms of price compared with the much more expensive (just so I’m not picking on Microsoft)

Mind mapping? I use Freemind. As in free.

Even this blog? Word Press. Not costing me a cent.

Don’t get me wrong. We will pay, when there’s value. We have a secure email system that does cost a few shekels, but it’s remarkably reasonable. We pay for our conferencing platform, but that still saves us a ton of money and time. It allows us to do business all around the world.

The one barrier for most companies is that they just don’t know. But there is no reason for that anymore. We’re offering a license review where we’ll do a review of all your software licenses. This isn’t just individual licenses. We go into the corporate licenses as well. You would be surprised what we find. We’ve found duplication, over purchasing, maintenance programs that are way more than the company needs — sometimes you’d be shocked at what these are costs. Heck, we’ve found software that nobody is using that is still being paid for with maintenance charges every year. Hey, a few thousand here, a few thousand there — soon, you are talking about real money.

Now we’re adding an Open Source audit as well. We don’t expect our clients to just jump and replace all their software with Open Source. There are learning curves, due diligence, training and all of that. But we do expect that they will do a business case and have a strategy to migrate over time — or a damned good reason why not.

We offer this service to companies around the world. Our Open Source VOIP phone system allows us to reach anywhere and do this type of work. We offer — not everyone takes us up on it. But then, some companies have money to burn.

If you DON’T – give us a call. We’ll even pick up the tab for the call. With the money we save on phones, I don’t sweat what we pay for our 1-800 line — it’s VOIP anyway.  So call us at 1-800-741-9375 ext 1000

You have nothing to lose — and a lot to gain.

Update: March 5, 2009 Here’s a link to an article that someone sent me. It deals with some of the wrong headed ideas about open source and some hope about how our federal government in Canada might be waking up.

Jim Love, Managing Partner, Performance Advantage

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