International travel. Time zones. Language barriers. Cultural nuances. Communication technology snags. These challenges – in addition to the usual job-related pressures – can complicate the day-to-day duties of a senior executive in a globalised world. Mark van Bavel, Dimension Data’s Global Chief Information Officer (CIO) says immersive telepresence has gone a long way towards helping him and his team navigate international waters and raise the sails of productivity. In fact, today, it’s an integral part of his life as CIO.
It’s not unusual for the senior technology consultants and systems architects in a multi-national organisation to spend significant amounts of time meeting and collaborating with people from around the world. In a typical six-month cycle, my team interviews at least a hundred people from across the business, and runs two to three technical workshops per month, spanning several days at a time. Sometimes, these sessions are multi-regional and involve representatives from a number of geographies including the UK, South Africa, Singapore, Australia and the US.
My team collaborate with their regional counterparts to build and roll out new IT infrastructure across the business. So the focus of the workshops falls strongly on transformation and change management. They’re largely aimed at gathering information to understand the requirements of various business segments, as well imparting knowledge by demonstrating a new system or functionality to regional colleagues. These sessions are intensely collaborative and interactive and, at Dimension Data today, a large number are very successfully conducted via immersive telepresence.
A tale of two regions
Telepresence has allowed my team to minimise long-haul flights, and spare the environment a significant amount of unnecessary carbon emissions. It’s also boosted our productivity. A good comparative example is the ongoing roll-out of a new global ERP system that will replace regional instances across the organisation. We first demonstrated this system to our Asia-Pacific and Australian regions. The Australian team, in particular, had some concerns about its reporting capability, so there were some change management challenges we needed to solve.
Headquartered in Singapore, Asia-Pacific’s telepresence facility couldn’t yet accommodate as many people as the more advanced rooms in Australia and South Africa. So we travelled there and conducted the workshops with four team members from our head office team and four to eight representatives from Asia-Pacific per session. But given the cost involved in travelling and accommodation, we had to fit all the workshops into a period of two weeks, which was very taxing for everyone involved.
The workshops in Australia were the opposite. Like our headquarters in South Africa, these offices – situated in Melbourne and Sydney – each have immersive telepresence rooms. These rooms were specifically implemented because the region’s management are divided between the two cities and wanted to reduce the amount of travelling from one to the other.
The Australian workshops via telepresence were dispersed over a longer period. We conducted 28 sessions over four weeks, each lasting 2-3 hours. This was less disruptive, thanks to the way in which the sessions were scheduled between the time zones. The workshops occupied the Australian team’s evenings and our mornings. So, with more – and shorter – workshops, both teams were able to carry out their usual daily duties.
We were also better prepared for each session because we weren’t fatigued owing to travelling or extended mental exertion. Telepresence also affected follow-up sessions positively too. That’s because stakeholders grasped the information more effectively, which allowed us to reduce the number of sessions – making them more cost-effective and easier to justify.
The ‘face’ of technology
Speaking from a user’s perspective, I believe telepresence interactions are about 80% as good as meeting in person. The key is that you can make eye contact with your colleagues, thanks to the way in which the cameras and the large screens are positioned. The sound follows the direction from which the speaker is talking, while the line of the conference table continues onto the on-screen projection. So it really gives you the sense of being in the same room.
You also have clear visual cues to help you gauge body language and facial expressions. This may seem redundant under ordinary circumstances, but if you’re operating in a multicultural environment in which language barriers are a reality, the value and power of telepresence should not be underestimated.
Overall, when I first used telepresence some years ago, I thought the experience was impressive.
It still is today, but it’s now become an integral part of my life as CIO.