Build virtual service teams

Build virtual service teams

I'm sure many of you are too young to remember the old television series Have Gun - Will Travel, which featured a gunfighter-for-hire named Paladin, played by Richard Boone, who traversed the Wild West righting injustices for his varied employers. But I'll bet many readers have spent too much time following today's motto of the itinerant IT-services contractor: have laptop - will travel.

Paladin's profession relied on his adept use of gun and wits, and the only rapid form of long-distance communication was the telegraph. Unfortunately for Paladin, neither his occupation nor the available communication technology let him accomplish his objectives while comfortably ensconced in his San Francisco abode. Today, more than a century later, are we stuck in the 1870s?

Activities such as hardware installation and certain troubleshooting clearly require a physical presence. However, most of the value we create is represented in tailored software packages, custom software, or systems configurations. Most of the systems that we build or maintain are connected to our new global IP infrastructure or can be reached through the worldwide telephone system.

So why do many projects still have 10 to 20 per cent of their total cost tied up in travel expenses?

Even that figure doesn't include less tangible costs like travel time or increased risk brought on by not getting the right talent applied to project challenges at the right time. Today's projects typically have a greater number of specialised technologies that create a greater demand for expertise. Even worse, in today's hot job market, fewer IT professionals are willing to make travel a way of life.

Moreover, a distributed virtual team that is not bound to one place at one time may perform some activities best. Let's apply current technologies to help!

To be successful we must address a greater range of interaction than traditional videoconferencing, and we need to develop some guidelines for effective use of communication technologies.

The approach needs to satisfy human requirements by recognising the following:

Some activities - contract negotiation or team building, for instance - are best done in personRemote workers must build trust through consistent deliveryAll team members must be easy to contact on demandDistributed meetings require different ground rules.

We should also address these technical requirements:

Collaborative technologies like distributed whiteboards and application sharing, conforming to the T.120 data-conferencing standard, are essentialVideo and audio conferencing, conforming to the H.320 (ISDN), H.323 (IP), or H.324 (POTS) standard, is also essentialWeb-based repositories are extremely helpful.

One possible solution uses Microsoft NetMeeting v2.1, a Connectix or Intel video camera, a pen-based digitiser tablet, an ISDN terminal adapter, and typical Internet IP bandwidth. If you have high-speed bandwidth like T1 connections at participant locations, you can skip ISDN.

This solution costs less than $US1000 per workstation and enables you to hold virtual meetings where participants can see each other, draw on a shared whiteboard, share any desktop application, and chat interactively.

Are these technologies ready? Although NetMeeting is capable of simultaneous audio, video, and data conferencing, you should also use ISDN videoconferencing and a good speakerphone to ensure effective meetings. Turn off audio and video in NetMeeting for best performance.

Videoconferencing is optional for routine work where teams have met before. But remember that you need to combine this with a responsive and responsible team. Add some simple distributed-facilitation techniques - ie, "Does anyone disagree?" rather than "Does everyone agree?"

Soon, have laptop - will travel will seem as anachronistic as the telegraph.

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