Engineering company Beca is embracing the newest communications technologies to stay in touch with subsidiaries around the world and with young engineers on their “overseas experience” who might return once, as CIO Robin Johansen puts it, their “homing pigeon instinct” kicks in.
To stay in touch with its nomadic engineers, Johansen has embraced Facebook and LinkedIn as well as internal “communities of interest”, which, Johansen says, are similar to Facebook except they are employee-only.
While Johansen is a LinkedIn man, he says he would be happy to be anyone’s Facebook “friend” because that’s the way young people communicate now.
He has no truck with objections that social networking is time waster — “that’s a management issue not a technical issue,” he says.
Work should be outcomes-based and managers should not be concerned with people spending a little time on Facebook or LinkedIn.
“I’ve got grey hair and I can remember when not everyone had a desk telephone and managers used to worry about people using phones for private conversations.”
While Beca’s recent uptake of IP-based video-conferencing was a planned project — with the company now running a desktop video-conferencing pilot across New Zealand, Australia, China and Singapore — its social networking use is developing more organically. It’s something Johansen flagged at a recent CIO conference, where he led a discussion, controversially titled “Social networking — heaven sent, devil’s spawn or necessary evil?”
Johansen is on the angels’ side here, but many CIOs try and ban social networking.
“A lot of young people see it [Facebook] as their primary way of keeping in touch, not only with friends but with associates who work in the same discipline… so if you cut that off then you’re depriving everyone of opportunities… [and] it will become a disincentive for young people to come into the business.”
Johansen sees social networking as a great business tool that is entwined with the changing nature of work. For example, Beca has a lot of remote projects as well as offices around the world — seven offices in NZ, three in Australia, one in Singapore, one in Indonesia, soon to be three in China, and one each in the UK and Bahrain.
Then there are the lifestyle issues Johansen sees every day, like young engineers wanting go home to bath the kids and read them a story before doing a bit more work from home.
But the biggie is problem-solving.
“If the day is not confined… [to 8.30am to 5pm] then neither is the communication, and if you are, say, a transport engineer and you want to talk to another transport engineer, particularly if you are trying to solve a nutty problem, then social networking is very valuable for being able to tap into people with similar skills and ideas, and challenges… you can find people who can share with you proven techniques to solve problems,” says Johansen.
“It’s very fast, very low-cost and very efficient. Everyone benefits from it; clients benefit because you’re not trashing around trying to re-invent the wheel.”
Johansen says he’s also astonished at people’s amazing willingness to share their knowledge — and how fast they respond. He puts it down to people being fundamentally social creatures who love to engage with others who share their interests.
Beca has an internal CAD “community of interest”, similar to Facebook except closed to outsiders, which is intensely engaged with this type of online problem-solving and social engagement, he says.
While Beca’s embrace of social networking is developing slowly and organically, the company is much further advanced in its use of modern IP-based video-conferencing.
The latter has had a tough start, with resistance from those who can recall the clunky, pricey 1990s’ ISDN-based video-conferencing systems.
But today’s technology is very inexpensive, and set-up is so simple you can almost be spontaneous, says Johansen. Beca uses Tandberg’s 1700 MXP technology, which offers high-definition video and runs on a widescreen PC-style screen. He rates both audio and video quality — and it doesn’t require huge bandwidth, he says. Setting the equipment to 384kbit/s allows Beca to run three to four video-conferences at a time.
Johansen says the company is pretty green — he mentions in-house worm farms — and video-conferencing makes a big impact on Beca’s carbon footprint, by cutting back on air travel.
It also helps the company deal with the cultural and languages issues. Johansen cites the example of a young Singapore engineer who struggled with audio-conferences but is fully engaged with video-conferencing.
“English is his second language and I think he subconsciously lip-reads… Suddenly, he can read the body language; he can lip-read, and this transforms the way he can interact… [before] there would be no response.”
Because Beca runs virtual teams, video-conferencing helps greatly here — a job can be physically located in the Middle-East but require design input from Christchurch, Singapore and Australia.
The company is now starting to mix its Tandberg solution with unified communications. This involves integrating Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) with Tandberg; one person can use the OCS webcam to talk to others who are using the Tandberg equipment.
OCS is good for one-to-one and one-to-many communication, but you need a proper Tandberg-type set-up for many-to-many, says Johansen.