Productivity barriers in distributed teams

For more than 10 years I have worked as an R&D manager taking care of a software development site. My mission has been to ensure the team makes outstanding products within committed timeframes with the highest possible productivity. To achieve that, I provide the best possible work conditions for people who have the right attitude, aptitude and method.

Years ago, team projects were done on a single site. To collaborate, all that was required was to raise your head and start talking with your colleague. Or, in extreme situations, you would get together in the meeting room and share content on the table. But this simple world has changed: Now we have customers 10,000 kilometers away, there are project managers in a different office, and our partners have offices in a different country.

Those are not the only changes. Technology has increasingly become more complex requiring different skill sets that were not available in every location. Projects started to involve people scattered in offices around the world: Barcelona, Paris, Chennai, Sydney – all working for a customer based in Buenos Aires.

In this situation the biggest barrier to productivity was communication. Or really, lack of communication.

Occasionally, people have to meet face-to-face with customers, partners and colleagues in distant places. This creates enough involvement to facilitate later remote communications. But you cannot travel every time you need to have a conversation. The most obvious solution is the telephone. You pick up the phone and you call your party. That’s enough in many cases. But before, in the old times, it was very easy to get three of us working spontaneously on a certain design. How do you do that with a customer in Buenos Aires, a software team manager in Barcelona and a project manager in Paris Orly airport? True, mobility is not new. I’ve had many phone conversations in airports around the world.

The problem was solved in an easy way by using a phone, but a phone alone is not effective enough. To reproduce the same scenario we had when everyone was in the same office, we had to call all people involved and say, “I am going to open a conference call. Please call number x and dial access code y.” Once done, we opened the conference and waited for everyone to join. We waited between a couple of minutes and half an hour. Once everyone was on the conference call we started to talk. The problem is, any diagram we wanted to share had to be explained in words. This is not always an easy thing to do. A meeting that should last 15 minutes could run more than an hour long. Multiply this for the salary cost of people involved and you will get the price you pay by not having the right solution.

Then we added Netmeeting, a good tool at that time, but today not supported anymore. The problem with Netmeeting was that first you needed to share your IP address, not so simple when you have a conference with multiple participants, especially if they are not technically savvy. Netmeeting was not integrated with your conference system and it was a little bit tricky to use.

Videoconferencing was also available, and it is very important as it is the best communication tool after face-to-face. Here, the problem was the probability that it worked was limited and you usually required a technician booked in advance in every site to be sure that it was going to work.

Add to all of that that, I was driving a Telecom R&D team, the people that designed the communication tools and were used to all the tricks to make them work. Change the team profile and you can imagine the difficulties that professionals in distributed organizations encounter when trying to work as a team in a single place.
We need strong communication tools to keep motivation up, to manage knowledge and to be able to follow the right common methodology. This is a key competitive advantage for companies today with an impact that is much bigger than what you can measure in cost efficiencies.

When we talk about “conversations” at Alcatel-Lucent, we mean how two or more people can communicate remotely as if they were all together with simple and easy to use tools. A simple app that can work on any device: PCs, tablets, smartphones or deskphones. An app that supports any required media: Chat, voice, video, and collaboration with the support of phone and social presence. An app adds and drops colleagues into a conversation in the most intuitive way. This is what OpenTouch™ is about and this is how Alcatel-Lucent helps break productivity barriers.

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