OUR CHANGING WORLD: VIRTUAL MEETINGS AND ELECTRONIC TEAM DEVELOPMENT29
Computers and the Internet bring a double-edged sword to the workplace; while they bring together people from around the world who would probably never communicate with one another, they also inhibit genuine human interaction. Research indicates that by 2010, 70 percent of people in the United States will spend 10 times longer per day interacting through computers. Though data are not available worldwide, it is likely that the trend will ripple around the world. People at work are more and more interacting with virtual team members. At IBM’s intranet, one of the largest in the world, they sometimes bring groups of more than 7,000 together. IBM estimates that it has cut travel expenses by $20 million a year through Web conferencing. Team development for virtual teams presents some unique problems and opportunities. Virtual teams miss nonverbal communications such as tone of voice and body posture. Since it is just as easy to communicate with team members in a country on the other side of the globe as it is with someone in the next cubicle, cultural differences pose another set of dynamics for team development. THE GENERAL ELECTRIC APPROACH General Electric Co. is using computer-based collaboration tools in a way that will change the way it works internally with its 340,000 employees and how it interacts with customers and suppliers. The program will be worldwide, operating across 12 divisions and thousands of suppliers and customers. The goal of the program is to improve information sharing for the company across geographic and cultural barriers. The tools will immediately impact the way GE works with suppliers and customers. GE’s program will electronically bring in customers and suppliers behind the firewalls that protect its computer systems to work as part of GE’s internal project teams. One example of the system is at GE Industrial Systems.There the system supports about 500 projects involving 700 users in 300 teams. Partners “will be working as if they’re part of our team,” said Chris Fuselier, who is general manager of technology at GE Industrial Systems.“We think it will change the whole paradigm of how we work with suppliers. It’s going to get us a lot closer to our customers.They’re going to be more involved, more frequently. We’ll be much better able to meet their needs, and we think it will result in great customer loyalty.” COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE AT PROCTER & GAMBLE P&G has 7,500 people located in 20 facilities in nine countries. Its researchers meet on a company Web site called “communities of practice” (COP), which is a scheduled meeting devoted to a specific subject. People get just as much credit for giving ideas as for turning ideas into better products. The method has resulted in divisions in different parts of the company collaborating with one another to come up with new products.The home-care division came up with a new product, Mr. Clean AutoDry, thanks to help from the scientists in P&G’s Pur water purification unit and Cascade scientists who know how to get dishes to dry without spotting. Other new products that have come from COP include Glad Press’N Seal (a super-sticky food wrap) and Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (a spot remover). LET YOUR FINGERS DO THE TALKING Other companies are using a somewhat different approach. They are trying an unusual approach to meetings, one that encourages frank talk (“I’ve had enough—I’m looking for another job”) and fast fingers. The approach calls for networking 20 to 50 personal computers around a horseshoe-shaped table. Participants sit at a personal computer and type their messages for all to read.There is no talking because all communication takes place through the computers. A computer program tracks and sorts the topics typed by participants. It then displays the messages on a central projection screen. The source of the message stays anonymous. To make up for lost nonverbal communications, the sender can add symbols to signify laughter, anger, boredom, and a smile. At the end of the meeting, everyone gets a printed synopsis. The electronic meeting is different from traditional e-mail in that the participants are in the same room, looking at one other over their computer screens. No one knows who is typing what.The approach can be brutally honest. One user says that the anonymity of talking through a computer “turns even shy people powerful.” Companies are finding that they can get valuable, unfiltered information. Managers get feedback that can be threatening or insightful, depending on what the manager chooses to do with the information. Some managers have taken improvement courses because of the feedback. Even managers who shrink at the process give the meetings high marks for efficiency. When you have to type everything that is communicated, the process tends to cut down on chitchat. A study of IBM and the University of Arizona found that the electronic meetings are as much as 55 percent faster than traditional meetings. Phelps Dodge Mining Co. held its annual planning meeting electronically. Usually the planning session takes days, but it lasted only 12 hours when held electronically. More companies, like Greyhound, Dial Corp., IBM, and Southwest Gas Corp., have tried the meetings. IBM is perhaps the biggest supporter of the idea. It has built 18 electronic meeting rooms and plans 22 more. Those taking part at IBM include the chairman and 7,000 other IBMers.A project manager at IBM says that the electronic meetings have “brought people together” who traditionally skirmished with one another. Though anonymity has its advantages, there are also some drawbacks. People who are computer shy are reluctant to get heavily involved in the process, and the participants have to be able to type. When participants come up with good ideas at a meeting, the system of anonymity makes it impossible to give them credit. One participant at a meeting typed: “It’s sad that we can’t talk without sitting at terminals.”
1. Compare and contrast the methods used at GE, P&G, and the other companies.
2. Do you think the approach where electronic meetings are held in the same room could be used in an OD team-building session? If so, how?
3. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of virtual meetings?
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