The past week I had the pleasure of living down the street from the golf course where the Barclays tournament is being hosted. It was a traffic nightmare as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and about 250 other players embarked on my town. Streets were blocked off and I was barricaded in to a so-called “gated community” complete with police checkpoints that required a valid form of ID to enter.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I truly appreciate their concern for our safety and preventing our neighborhood from turning into a parking lot; but this made my commute to work a little difficult to say the least.  Not only did I have to drive 15 minutes out of the way because my normal route was closed; I had to deal with the increased traffic, mass confusion of people and pedestrians everywhere.

After dealing with same madness as I made my way home, the thought of getting up and doing it all over again was nauseating. Then I realized how stupid I was to venture out to the office in the first place as I would work the rest of the week from home because I had the technology.

One of the most frustrating parts of working remotely is not being able to tell if people are available for a quick chat. When you’re in the office, you can peek your head around the corner to see if they’re free; but at home, you’re out of luck.  Or maybe not. Thanks to presence information in our nifty instant messaging application, I can tell if my boss is busy, stepped away for a few minutes or is at his desk anxiously awaiting my call. I was able to quickly touch base on certain projects and have brainstorming sessions on blog topics just as easily as if I was in the office.  It was great!

Later in the week I had a meeting with a couple people from our team. We usually meet in one of the conference rooms but I asked if we could switch to video so I wouldn’t have to trek into the office.  After they agreed, I set up a video meeting straight from Microsoft Outlook which, I would like to add, was easier than trying to reserve a conference room.  The meeting went perfectly, everyone was able to connect and we finished in record time; probably because it’s not as easy to get off topic.

As I went for a jog this morning, much easier since my commute consists of walking down the hall to my office, I realized just how awesome, amazing and lifesaving unified communications solutions are. It’s Friday already and the weekend is almost here.  Over the past three days, I haven’t even felt like I was working from home because I was able to do everything I was able to do at the office.  If I missed human interaction, all I had to do was video one of my coworkers or walk down the street and say hello to the state troopers, park police and code enforcement.  Needless to say, I’ll be happy when this is all over; but, it hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be.

If collaboration was so easy, everyone would be doing it and great ideas would grow like flowers on a sunny spring day. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple and great ideas are not guaranteed; no matter how collaboration tools an organization has in place. In an HBR article, Nilofer Merchant lists “Eight Dangers of Collaboration” which are really roadblocks that need to be overcome.

This leads to two truths that must be accepted in order to successfully collaborate. 

  1. Ambiguity is inherent
  2. Conflict is inevitable. 

In most instances where collaboration is needed there is no right answer; multiple plausible options and a few great options will exist. The challenge is combining different characteristics of these options to create a solution.  As a result, there is an inherent ambiguity that is associated with collaboration that must be accepted. 

Collaboration involves “complex problems that are beyond the function of one domain or expertise;” meaning team members must be comfortable not having all the answers. This can be difficult for driven individual who like black and white answer, enjoy being the “expert” and vehemently argue their point of view in order to garner support. However, accepting the fact that ideas from a variety of participants will contribute to a comprehensive solution allows team members to open their minds. As a result, they are able to see different sides to the project they would not have distinguished on their own.   

On the other hand, team members should not be afraid to be the expert from time to time. A high-performance team will consist of members with multiple background and areas of expertise; therefore, each individual must be an expert or a leader at one point during the collaboration. Otherwise, why are they even on the team? Successful collaboration hinges on different leaders and experts stepping up to offer ideas; but, relinquishing control to another expert when the time comes.

The inherent ambiguity and multitude of options are going to lead to conflicting opinions. Debate among opposing idea and possible solutions is what makes collaboration successful; if everyone just agreed, important aspects could be missed.  It is important to note, however, that debate and argue are two very separate things. Arguing is closed-minded and based on an “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality while debating is open-minded and based on a “devil’s advocate” mentality. One is productive, the other is destructive.

Constantly challenging assumptions is what drives innovation and debating different points of view is necessary for multi-faceted problems. However, there is a balance between challenging assumptions and going down the wrong path. Opposing views for the sake of opposing views can quickly become unproductive. Teams must be able to recognize when a consensus has been reached and leaders must be able to redirect the topic if collaboration has run awry.

Accepting ambiguity and conflict allows for the limitless collaboration that sparks innovation and creates competitive advantages. Resisting ambiguity and conflict leads to stagnant collaboration that can leave an organization vulnerable.

As we embark on another school year, many colleges and universities are working feverishly on an engaging curriculum that will prepare students for the fast paced and ever changing “real world” they will enter upon graduation.

With video conferencing becoming a staple in today’s business environment, it’s really no surprise that the country’s leading business schools are investing in the technology. Video-enabled classrooms not only introduce students to the technology but allow them to interact with people they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

Remote campuses can connect two video enabled classrooms; allowing enhanced collaboration and group discussions. For example, a classroom in New York could connect with a classroom in India or Japan to discuss globalization or world economics creating a unique learning experience for all participants involved.

These classrooms also allow distinguished professors to reach a larger group of students. A leader in economics or biology can teach the same class at two locations without having to commute across the state or country. As a result, students have access to a wider range of classes that can contribute to a well-rounded education.

Additionally, many business leaders and subject matter experts are scattered around the globe making it difficult for colleges or universities to arrange guest lecturers or panel discussions. It can take up to two or three business days for guest speakers to travel to campus plus delays or last minute commitments can disrupt plans and potentially cancel the event.

A virtual lecture hall creates a forum for students to interact with presenters in a way similar to a traditional lecture hall. Question and answer sessions are seamless through push-to-talk microphones that zoom up on the speaker when activated. Remote participants are able to clearly see and hear the speaker, sometimes better than a traditional room due to the cameras.

The only difference is a guest lecturer can connect from a telepresence system anywhere in the world; whether it’s at their office, university or a public room near the last minute business meeting they had to travel to. Not only does this eliminate time consuming and expensive travel, it drastically reduces the potential of a last-minute cancellation.

See  a virtual lecture hall in action below!

Additional Resources:
Virtual Collaboration Room Brochure
Custom Telepresence Solutions

With the Olympics taking place in London this year, many local businesses throughout the city braced themselves for the increase in tourists and potential disruption of daily operations. While the actual totals are still being calculated, the total population of London was expected to expand by a third, with approximately an additional million people using the “Tube” or subway each day. What was normally a 10-15 minute commute to work could take 30- 45 minutes; placing a significant burden on employees and corporations alike.

Advanced planning and preparation were needed prior to the Olympic Games to keep corporations and other organizations running smoothly and avoid lost revenue or extended downtime. The Cabinet Office released a guide which addressed many potential obstacles companies might face in areas affected by the Games. Preparing Your Business for the Games suggested continuity plans that could be implemented to minimize the impact of increased traffic, technology failures and supply chain interruptions.

A significant concern was employee availability, as staff wanted to take time off to attend or volunteer at the games, or simply because they did not want to deal with the increased congestion traveling to work. As a result, many organizations allowed more flexible work options; such as working from home or at a different office, or altering work times to off-peak hours. Unified communications (UC) and video conferencing solutions provided an optimal platform for staff to stay engaged at work while avoiding congestion from the Games.

Karen Bond, a Director at the London office of an international consulting firm, said she encouraged most of her employees to work from home during the Olympic Games. “It was just easier than dealing with the traffic and the Tube. We kept in touch using email, phone calls and instant messaging but I did miss the face-to-face interaction with my staff.” says Ms. Bond.

Another concern was a technology failure; according to the Cabinet Office “it is possible that internet services may be slower during the Games or in very severe cases there may be drop outs due to an increased number of people accessing the internet.” Some businesses turned to cloud services to support the collaboration solutions in place by addressing network dysfunction. These services ensure video calls and other systems run over the network go smoothly no matter how much or how little traffic exists at a given time.

As the Olympic Torch has been extinguished and employees return to business as usual; companies can still use the Olympics as a learning experience. Doing things a little differently for a short period of time can offer unexpected rewards. Maybe the increased use of a video conferencing has reacquainted companies with all of the benefits video offers; from reduced travel time and expenses to a highly functional remote workforce. Or, perhaps implementing a business continuity plan prepared organizations for an unexpected power outage, snow storm or other natural disaster.

I had to work from home yesterday because the baby-sitter called in sick and my wife had an important meeting. I figured it was no big deal because the kids could just play with their toys and then during my back-to-back meetings I could put a movie in to keep them settled.

First meeting of the day was a weekly status with my sales manager. We were discussing how to proceed with an important account when my cat Ziggy jumped up and knocked into my camera. I put Ziggy back on the floor, fixed the camera and continued my meeting; but, Ziggy jumped right back up and started hissing and clawing at my computer screen.

He really isn’t a fan of new people, I’m not sure why but he gets defensive. My friends told me I should apply to get on some cat whisperer show but that seems a bit excessive. At any rate, I grabbed Ziggy, put him outside the room and then closed the door so he couldn’t get back in and the rest of the meeting went smoothly.

Note to self: make sure Ziggy is secured before my next meeting because I’d really like to keep the door cracked in case the kids need me.

Later that day I had a call with two of our engineers about a client’s project and. I made sure Ziggy was secured and things seemed to be going well except every now and then I kept seeing them smile a little. I didn’t think much of it; maybe someone in the office just said something funny. About fifteen minutes later, Anne starts laughing. Now I know something is going on so I finally asked what was so funny.

Apparently my children had infiltrated the room and were making funny faces behind me. Fish faces, crazy eyes, the whole works. Wonderful.

As I turned around I could hear them scampering off. I apologized for the distraction and both Jason and Anne laughed it off saying how adorable my kids were. It worked out okay but thank goodness this was just an internal call. I can’t even imagine the level of embarrassment if I had been on a call with an important client or, even worse, a potential new client.

That’s when I learned the importance of self-view. It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on what’s going on behind you. Perhaps it’s your children having fun, an errant pet or an angry co-worker thrashing around. You just never know.