Tomorrow’s Leaders: Managing Teams Remotely

ILM          City and Guilds

The Institute of Leadership and Management (an organisation after my other blog’s own heart) on the demands and opportunities for a new generation leadership in an era of Dynamic Work. The report is titled ‘Tomorrow’s Leaders: Managing Teams Remotely’ with the sub-title of “20th Century Bosses Hold Back 21st Century Working Practices”. It features both survey statistics on UK organisations as well as a number of case studies (BDO Stoy Hayward, South West Water, Circle Anglia) and tips for aspiring trailblazers. The abstract summarises:

“The ‘Tomorrow’s Leaders’ study, undertaken by Henley Management College, shows that managers are struggling to reinvent their working patterns to get the best from a growing army of remote workers, with visibility and presenteeism still used to judge performance.

According to today’s findings, remote working is on the rise. Three quarters (73%) of managers say flexible working is common in their organisation, and, more strikingly, 37% of all managers now look after teams who are either entirely or predominantly based away from the office.

However, although the majority of managers are working with teams that include remote workers, nearly half (44%) of respondents say managers are unprepared for the supervision of remote teams, and only 25% had received any training on how to manage such a team.”

Community Productivity

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Microsoft has been talking about the ‘New World of Work’ for several years now and as time and conditions have progressed so has the vision. An updated presentation came from Katherine Randolph, Josh Henretig and Nicole Brown in a partner blogcast called ‘Enabling Telework Through Unified Communications. Good for Business. Better for the Earth’.

I particularly liked Katherine’s opening line, “The office is no longer a physical place, but more an environment where they can collaborate whether they are face to face or whether they are remote.”

For me the NWOW represents a natural progression in Microsoft’s ‘productivity’ vision. At the outset, Microsoft was all about ‘personal productivity’ and the cornerstone product was Office. But the ‘XP’ generation introduced capabilities that were less about the tool itself and how an individual user used it and more about how the software was used in a context of a team or organisation. At this point, the vision of ‘productivity’ really expanded to one of ‘organisational’ productivity and paralleled the rise of Microsoft tools as an Enterprise standard not just on the desktop, but also on the server with products like Exchange, Sharepoint and SQL Server.

Now I think Microsoft’s vision is expanding even beyond the walls of the organistion. The benefits to the new approaches to work accrue not just to the bottom line of the P&L, but also to the broader social welfare, environment and economy. Sort of a ‘Community Productivity’ if you will.

Above are a few of my favourite slides from the presentation (click on the slide graphic to see expanded, easier to read version)…

The Apprenticeship Problem

Sorcerers Apprentice

One of the most prevalent obstacles I hear in terms of highly skilled knowledge workers adopting more flexible working practices is what I would refer to as the ‘apprenticeship problem’. At a Working Families event, a partner at a London law firm explained to me the dynamics of senior partners passing on their expertise no quite through osmosis but the physical proximity plays a huge role in involving the more junior associate in conversations that pass on specialised knowledge.

I have heard the issue raised a number of time since, most recently in a discussion at Dow Jones were we were discussing concepts in dynamic working. Gren Manuel, Editor Spot News, referred to it as the ‘kitchen issue’. That so much expertise is passed along informally during breaks in the kitchen where people share perspectives on work. Sort of a derivation of the ‘water cooler’ problem. But while the ‘water cooler’ issue alludes to the downside to the employee that by being out of the office they miss out on the fun of impromptu social interaction as well as entertaining and useful office gossip. The ‘kitchen’ problem refers more to the corporate loss from impromptu and informal knowledge transfer.

The matter of geographic proximity enabling subtle knowledge transfer is a very important matter. I do not think it need stand in the way to more flexible working. First, flexible working does is not an either-or, black-and-white matter. Rather it is a shaded gradient of how much flexibility is appropriate for a given role, company, context, etc. My premise in this blog is that modern technologies and practices can enable a greater degree of flexibility across all scenarios. So, in companies and jobs where this ‘apprenticeship’ dynamic is central, a strong degree of ‘face to face’ time will likely be key, but that does not have to mean 100% face-to-face time is the ideal blend.

Second, the ‘kitchen’ may be a key catalyst to knowledge transfer, but that doesn’t have to mean that there aren’t better ‘kitchens’ than the one stuck in the office space. It might be that dynamic work introduces new ‘kitchens’ outside the workplace that inspire similar if not better conversations and skills transfer.

Finally, I think the matter represents a challenge to these industries and new leaders in these fields will find ways to innovate around new approaches and techniques to knowledge transfer that just the time honoured impromptu face-to-face coaching.

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Dynamic Management


Gary Hamel, renowned author of ‘Leading the Revolution’, has just come out with a new work, ‘Management 2.0’. If any one think that I am being a bit radical in my proposals for changing the modern day workstyle, then they should have a read of this book. I had the pleasure of hearing Gary present on the topic at the recent Leaders in London event, and the extremity of his thinking made me feeling conservative and tentative.

He started with the slide of the following points…

Can You imagine…

· Having employees rate their bosses, and then publishing the results online

· Allowing employees to say no to any order or request

· Inviting thousands of outsiders to help your company develop its strategy

· Giving managers 60 direct reports

· Abolishing all titles and ranks

· Publishing the details of every employee’s salary and compensation package

He then went to explain that every one of those practices liste technology h d were currently in place in companies. He talks extensively about how “Bureaucracy is failing us” and “Management as essentially stopped evolving.” But what he is constantly driving at is how to break down the conventional inflexibility and drive greater innovation in how companies operate which is at the core of Dynamic Work. While this blog focuses on the day to day work of the modern day workplace, Gary presents a vision for the management approaches that make such work possible if not necessary.

Dynamic Operations

Agile Operation Hitachi

I recently spoke at a meeting of Microsoft Alliance Partner Hitachi Consulting on the topic of Dynamic Work and Andrew Barlow, Hitachi’s Head of Strategy, shared with me their whitepaper on ‘Building an Agile Response to Change’.

What I like most about the paper it’s reinforcement that ‘agility’ comes from a number of different perspective and dimensions. In ‘Dynamic Work,’ I have looked the parallels between increasing flexibility in computer systems (eg. SOA) and ‘human’ systems (eg. flexible working), but Andrew takes the concept even more broadly. At the outset, he proposes…

“Agility is derived from two core enterprise-wide competencies:

· the physical ability to act quickly and appropriately (what we call ‘response ability’)

· the intellectual ability to find appropriate things to act on (what we call ‘business insight’)”

He goes on to explore four ‘pillars’ (see diagram above) of which the ‘Reconfigurable Structures’ piece particularly evokes the principles of flexibility in both system and organisational design…

Agile Operation Pillars

Dynamic Cities


Microsoft UK recently released a study done by The Future Laboratory’ called ‘Microsoft: Work and Mobile Cities’ which looked at how the trend in mobile and remote working would impact the actual landscape around us.

Bill Gates used to quote the line ‘people always over estimate the impact of technology shifts over a two year period, but under-estimate them over a ten year period’. My explanation of this syndrome is that people often lose sight of the broader ‘ecosystem’ dependencies and obstacles. They see a demo of some nifty technology fresh from the lab and expect to see it in people’s hands across the land overnight, but they forget the dependencies on producing at scale, distributing the product, training people how to use it, often the contributory components like connectivity. Conversely, once those elements have sorted themselves out over a bit longer period of a few years, people can see the direct uses and impacts, but often neglect to consider the secondary and tertiary effects that those uses then foster.

The ‘Microsoft: Work and Mobile Cities’ report attempts to look out beyond the current trends and gadgetry and try to extrapolate to this ‘beyond ten year’ horizon. One of the notable longer term effects anticipated is how the work practices interplay with the environment. Not the carbon footprint and saving the planet environment. But the cityscape environment in which we live and work. The study actually has crafted artist visualisations of London, Brighton, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester, Newcastle, Plymouth and Birmingham.

In much the same way that Service Oriented Architecture is changing the topology of the conventional IT’s spaghetti of static and complex systems. Dynamic work is similarly rewriting the inner working and layout of the urban schematic and Future Laboratory has laid out an intriguing sketch of how this might evolve.

Credit Crunching

Credit Crunch

Some compelling numbers on the economic imperative for dynamic work in the imposing economic conditions from insurance company RSA highlighted by Katie Ledger in her Portfolio Working blog.

“When asked about the prospects for their businesses during this economic downturn, one third (34%) of respondents thought they would definitely be able to grow or maintain their level of business…A possible reason for self-employed home workers not feeling the effects of the current financial climate might be the advantages they have over larger corporations. Respondents felt the top two advantages are being able to provide a more flexible service to accommodate client needs and clients knowing that the owner-manager is the single point of contact.”

The respondents cited both flexibility on how they work as well as the economic, social and ecological benefits of less commuting as two of the top benefits to working outside the traditional office.

Dynamic Meetings

Microsoft Live Meeting

Bill Gates also used to comment that the power of the Internet was not in doing the same stuff in a different way (ie. taking orders over the web versus taking them by phone), but rather the interesting stuff was doing those things that you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do without the capability. Reaching customers you wouldn’t have otherwise have reached, offering them something that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to offer, processing the order in a way that you wouldn’t have otherwise have been able to do.

Recently, my Microsoft team embarked on a bold new way of having team meetings through unified communication technology. We used Microsoft’s Live Meeting combined with its Roundtable device to hold a remote virtual meeting. The approach certainly presented some challenges to how to conduct such a meeting. How manage the conversations, how to cope with network latency, how to get the best out of the technology.

But the bottom line was that the tools did allow us to do something we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. We were able to incorporate team members who would not have been able to be in the office itself that day (one had a doctor’s appointment for their ill child and another one was in Australia). Most importantly, on the day, many of us could have come into the office, but the only real reason was for the team meeting. This way we were able to have the meeting with out the expense, time and carbon footprint of the trip into the office.

The whole thing was a bit like a conference call on steroids. We could chat to each other, share presentations, all compose on a shared space and most importantly could all see each other on video. Yes, most of the time, it was just a ‘talking head’ looking not quite directly at the camera. But there is something about having someone’s face present that changes the whole feel of the interaction. It made it personal and ‘real’ and even a bit more enjoyable.

The meeting had its ups and downs, kind of like a person just learning how to drive a car and lurching forward in fits and starts. But at the end, 88% of the team categorised the meeting as ‘Some key learnings to make the next one better.’ And I think that that is the key here. What I used to say about the Internet to companies when it was just starting out was that it was critical for them to engage actively even though it then was quite immature. But, just as important as the maturity of the technology was the maturity of understanding it and its dynamics and how to make best use of it. That learning was best started early so that when it did become mainsteam (and it did become mainstream), then the company was ready and equipped to take advantage. I think the same dynamic applies to ‘live meetings’ and unified communications. Some day we will laugh at how rickety and unfamiliar things were today, but it will evolve into a business tool as central as a email, the mobile phone or wireless networking. And we will learn new skills to exploit it as we have with searching the web or hammering out texts. And with unprecedented pressures for costs savings, environmental conservation and family pressures, the demands for these new ways of working will accelerate very quickly.

Colleague Mark Deakin has a great list of ‘Top Ten Tips to Using Office Communicator’ for just such leading edge work and meeting modes.

Dynamic Licensing

Microsoft Virtualisation Licensing

One of the big motivations for starting this blog on ‘Dynamic Work’ was my observations of the parallels between the changing nature of how computers are and can work (more flexible, more modular, more dynamic) and how humans do. While organisations can change the processes, architecture, operations, etc. of both their IT systems and their people systems, one of the considerations that often gets it the way are commercial restrictions. In the human world, a classic example of this is union rules which constrain changes in work practice. In the IT world, an equally prominent constraint can be licensing restrictions on the technology.

And licensing considerations do hit one of the biggest technology opportunities to make systems more versatile and ‘dynamic’ – Virtualization.  At the core, software companies have long struggled to figure out the most appropriate way to license their products. To buy just about anything, one needs a price per unit and then people decide how many units that they want to consume. In the world of software, it is hard to figure out what ‘unit’ to ‘count’. Companies have licensed by machine, by processor, by user, by transaction, by MIP, by hour and a whole host of other ways. Microsoft offers many of these alternatives in licensing its software (which makes for more choice, but adds frustrating complexity).

The new technology of ‘virtualisation’ introduces new challenges to how and what you ‘count’. The software doesn’t necessarily get ‘installed’ on a particular piece of hardware so you can’t count boxes. Furthermore, most licensing has some constraints on ‘moving’ the software (‘I’ll use this piece of software here for a little while and then when I am done, I hand it over to you to use for a while…’). These constraints can fly in the face of one of the great potential benefits of virtualisation which is dynamic load balancing that involves constantly moving software and workloads to systems best suited to handle them.

Microsoft has already pioneered what many analysts have praised as innovative and pro-customer licensing terms around virtualisation.  It started a few years ago when it announced that multiple instances of the OS would be allowed with each purchase.  But this past year, Microsoft extended the flexibility even further by (a) enabling application mobility for 41 Microsoft server applications under volume license agreements, and (b) Waiving the 90-day movement rule for eligible servers licensed under the Per Processor licensing model. This announcement is a big step forward for companies that want exploit virtualisation to dynamically manage a range of workloads with unprecedented versatility. 

Gas Prices Encourage Telecommuting


Good piece from MSNBC on telecommuting subtitled ‘Employers reconsider traditional in-the-office work week’ looking at the economic drivers to more flexible work.

“Some employers are reconsidering the traditional five-days-in-the-office pattern as the national average price for a gallon of gas hovers around $4. The idea is to whittle down commuting costs for workers by allowing them to work from home or switch to four days of 10 hours each… The [Telework Coalition] estimates that more than 26 million Americans now telecommute at least some days, which would be about 18 percent of people employed nationwide.”  

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