Tim Kridel: Data based decisions

AUTHOR: Tim Kridel
TK data based decisions

As some companies pursue dual headquarters and other geographically dispersed workforces, others are consolidating. Tim Kridel explores the need for quantifying AV’s impact in all of those scenarios.

When one company acquires another, it’s not buying just its products and customers. It’s also paying to get the people who sell, support and dream up those products. If they struggle to work with their new colleagues, eventually many of them will quit—a brain drain that undermines the acquisition’s return on investment.

That risk grows when the company has two headquarters, a model that T-Mobile plans to follow once it finishes acquiring Sprint. That’s ironic because in 2004, Sprint tried having two headquarters after merging with Nextel.

“Having dual headquarters has hampered teamwork and the integration of legacy cultures,” then-CEO Dan Hesse wrote in a 2008 memo explaining why it was abandoning that model. “It has increased travel and real estate costs. And, dual-city headquarters has hurt our ability to execute well in the marketplace.”

Collaboration technology has come a long way over the past decade. So has employee familiarity and comfort with those technologies, partly because they use consumer versions such as FaceTime to interact with friends and family.

Even so, there’s no consensus about whether collaboration technology can unite far-flung employees the way being in the same building does. On the one hand, T-Mobile and Amazon are two examples of companies convinced that a dual-quarters model is viable. On the other, Unilever is among the latest to consolidate.

Quantifying the effects

Geographically dispersed workforces create opportunities for pro AV. But to make the most of those opportunities, AV firms need to fundamentally rethink how they sell and support the collaboration solutions that help keep employees happy and productive.

This new strategy isn’t limited to clients going through acquisitions. It’s equally viable with businesses, government agencies and other organisations that have a significant amount of remote workers, telecommuters, huddle rooms and videoconferencing suites—in other words, pretty much any client and any workstyle.

The new strategy centres around quantifying collaboration’s impact on the organisation, such as increased productivity, reduced travel expenses and lower employee turnover. This analysis often isn’t easy, but it’s a powerful way to convince clients to spend more to expand their collaboration systems.

“You could use the analogy from marketing where I know that 50% of the money I spend on marketing is effective, but I just don’t know which 50%,” says Byron Tarry, Global Presence Alliance executive director. “As an industry, we’ve been a little bit guilty of that.

“We know these technologies are tools that are doing good things in organisations—that they help drive efficiency and collaboration and so on—but we don’t necessarily know what and where. If we become more accountable for being able to measure and show outcomes, that’s a good thing for the customer, and as an industry we can make money on that, too.”

Measuring a collaboration technology’s impact also helps when selling to department heads and executives who prefer to make decisions based on data.

“People are trying to figure out the right number of rooms to build out and to what degree, and the right technology,” says Alfredo Ramirez, Vyopta president, CEO and co-founder. “Data should drive those decisions: trend analysis over existing conference rooms and then making decisions about what sorts of technologies are getting used by what type of employees in which locations.”

Usage data also is helpful when the sales process involves executives who don’t have an AV background, such as CIOs and IT managers. “If we can’t get better at showing not just the data about the speeds and feeds, but also data about outcomes, then we all struggle to convince those executives—[including] ones we might not have been dealing with in the past,” Tarry says.

Analysing workstyles to maximise RoI

There’s a growing selection of tools that enterprises or their AV providers can employ to track usage of collaboration systems such as videoconferencing. The challenge is showing how that usage affects the company’s bottom line. For example, some AV/IT managers survey department heads to see if they’re spending less on travel because more meetings are conducted virtually. The savings can be significant, judging by vendor case studies.

One example is BAUER, a manufacturer of irrigation and wastewater equipment that deployed Cisco’s cloud-based Collaboration Meeting Rooms solution to facilitate meetings between its Austrian and German teams. “You don’t need to spend six hours in a car to attend a meeting,” says Andreas Schitter, BAUER CFO. “Travel costs have dropped by 50%.”

Travel savings are the low-hanging fruit. Quantifying other types of bottom-line benefits requires a lot of legwork but can pay off big if it shows a successful initial deployment that then convinces a client to spend more. A handful of products and consultancies have emerged to help integrators and enterprises with that analysis. One example is Vyopta’s Room Insights tool, which enables companies or their AV service providers to track usage.

“There are collaboration rooms that are used well below 10%, so there’s probably an issue regarding the quality of experience, [such as] ease of use or quality of the communication,” Ramirez says. “We can expose those insights so our customers can use those to drive the necessary changes or investment to support better, broader collaboration across their entire workforce, whether it’s contractors or full-time employees.”

Another example is Collabogence, a startup whose process begins with analysing how an organisation’s employees interact before a collaboration technology is deployed. This establishes a baseline for comparison once the technology is implemented, but just as important, it also helps pinpoint where the technology can provide the most benefits.

Collabogence extracts data from email, Skype, Teams and other systems to understand who interacts with whom and how. European laws prohibit companies from tracking many employee activities, but that’s not a hurdle for Collabogence because it can work with data that’s stripped of names, phone numbers and other personal identifiers.

The analysis also looks at the strength and reciprocity of those interactions. For example, if certain employees send a lot of emails and files to colleagues but rarely get anything in return, videoconferencing probably won’t enhance their working relationship. This insight steers the budget to areas with a higher RoI. There are also a few rules of thumb about certain jobs and the inter- and intradepartmental interactions they entail.

“Product managers or account managers tend to be highly cross-functional in the nature of the work they do,” says Peter Smit, Collabogence’s founder. “You see them going much more across departments and connecting with a much broader base than many other [positions] do. Finance has a tendency to be neighbour based: a very high percentage of people who need to talk to each other.”

Robert Half Management Resources is seeing an increase in interdepartmental collaboration, particularly among executives. That’s partly because of trends such as digital transformation, which are forcing departments out of their traditional silos.

“Professionals want to collaborate, and the business environment demands it,” Tim Hird, Robert Half Management Resources executive director says. “We see finance leaders, for example, taking on larger roles with their human resources and information technology teams. For business to get done, employees must work effectively with colleagues in other parts of the company.”

Employers could help identify the positions with the highest potential RoI by including collaboration expectations in their job descriptions.

“A job spec should identify whether it requires high levels of collaborative performance or whether it’s infinitesimal,” Smit says. “If you have 50 people who don’t need to collaborate a lot, don’t expect them to score high [post implementation].”

Once the collaboration technology is deployed, Collabogence does another round of analysis and compares those metrics to the baseline. “We’re looking for an increase in the strength and number of relationships, an increase in the strength and number of clusters—these types of things,” Smit says. “Ultimately I want to tie that to KPIs in the business to be able to get closer to actual productivity.”

Change is a journey, not a destination

Analysing usage after implementation isn’t the only way to maximise RoI.

“An often neglected, or at least underused, aspect of introducing new technologies is change management,” says Hird. “No matter how great the presentation for a new tool is, many people will be naturally hesitant to use it.

“Concerns range from the new tool meaning adopting a new process, a potential struggle to understand and use it, the risk of looking bad in front of colleagues, and even a fundamental change to an employee’s job. Managers need to explain to their teams the reason the business is using the new tool, the changes it will bring and how employees can benefit from it, in addition to offering training on it.”

Surveys of employees and their managers also are key for maximising usage and thus RoI. This is another example of a value-added service that integrators could provide to clients that can’t or don’t want to do this research themselves.

“Once the new tool has been in place for some time, ask employees what is working and not with it,” Hird says. “This can help measure adoption, see what else is needed to meet employees’ needs and shape future decisions.”

Back at the office

The dual-headquarters debate is just one example of how some companies are questioning the viability of dispersed workforces. For instance, some research suggests that telecommuting peaked around 2016.

“Newer data in 2017 is now suggesting that some of that may be reversing as some employers— Yahoo, Bank of America, Aetna, IBM—pull back on telecommuting and try to re-emphasise the headquarters model,” says Sean Wargo, senior director of market intelligence at AVIXA, which published a Market Opportunity Analysis Report about the enterprise collaboration market: bit. ly/2MjoF3F

But when employees move back to the office, it often doesn’t look like what they remember—or loathe. For instance, cubicle farms are giving way to huddle rooms and other ad-hoc collaboration spaces.

“Companies want to create these fun and engaging environments that make a statement about their corporate identity,” Wargo says. “I think that if the data is saying anything, it’s the rise and importance of AV integrators to do that upfront homework: have the conversation with the company to understand all those workstyles, demographic issues, how it wants to have its corporate identity play out, what types of things is it trying to emphasise. All that absolutely spells opportunity to a savvy integrator that can move beyond just bringing in a technology.”

For example, in addition to analysing workstyles to understand how a technology can maximise productivity and camaraderie, integrators also could quantify its effect on employee turnover.

“In this day and age—especially with low unemployment—metrics that are creeping in are things like employee satisfaction, retention, even net promoter scores, as companies want to create places that are enjoyable for their staff,” Wargo says. “So I think the metrics are changing away from perhaps what would have been a very strict RoI type of model in the past more toward what some might call soft metrics. But they are very real considerations for companies these days as they try to recruit, retain and motivate.”