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Sharing Information -- Across Borders and Time Zones

March 1, 1998
Related Topics: Managing International Operations, Featured Article
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Susan Hasenwinkel senses the anticipation of the group -- the rapt attention, the shared excitement of the trainees. As all eyes focus on her, fingers poised to press keys and activate modems, she inaugurates an era. She launches 56 managers from around the world into the global communications age of AA Online, the Arthur Andersen intranet site. The site was one of the first -- back in 1995.

To “oohs” and “aahs,” Hasenwinkel, knowledge manager for the international executive services group (IES) at Chicago-based Arthur Andersen LLP (www.andersen.com), began to train the company’s global HR professionals. She and other knowledge managers quickly taught more groups to use the technology, continually encouraging new users to enhance their skills. Soon the company’s 650 professionals in IES were using the restricted-access site to share information and ultimately to serve their clients better.

Arthur Andersen, like many evolved firms, constantly assesses its use of technology to meet its business goals. Hasenwinkel says: “Our competitive advantage is what the organization knows, not what one person knows anymore, especially because our clients are so sophisticated now.” This requires technology that facilitates information sharing.

Unquestionably, global companies face significant challenges over and above their domestic counterparts. Not the least of these is operating across vast distances and time barriers. HR professionals who take the challenge seriously are finding technology offers solutions that can maximize the efficiency of their people.

Global companies are creating Internet sites and corporate intranets, expanding video conferencing facilities, looking at next-wave technology such as virtual private networks and finding ways to help their employees be successful working in real and virtual teams in real and virtual offices around the world. Managers are combining technology and face-to-face gatherings. And they’re working to build corporate cultures open to information exchange and communication.

“It’s not the specific technology so much that’s important, but more a discipline. It’s a mindset [in which] the organization realizes at the highest levels that it must put human procedures, cultural procedures and technology in place to leverage the knowledge information it has,” says Jackie Fenn, vice president and research director of advanced technologies for the Gartner Group, a consulting firm based in Burlington, Massachusetts.

People in scattered locations must have reliable channels of communication and equal access to resources to avoid duplication of effort and redundant costs. Employees need to be able to collaborate with each other across great distances. And, to be competitive, companies need a technological infrastructure that helps them maximize productivity.

Eliminate redundant costs by centralizing data.
At Arthur Andersen, global HR managers using AA Online can access a huge database, search libraries of survey and policy information, read procedural data, and use bulletin boards to post and read announcements. It was one of the first global firms to harness technology’s power to centralize information. Sharing data via its intranet and in turn via the company’s Internet site and other tools, global managers and consultants can reach 40,000 clients, employees and international assignees. Imagine the savings in postage costs alone.

And the savings become exponentially larger when you look at companies like Viacom International Inc. The $12 billion New York City-based entertainment and publishing conglomerate (www.viacom.com) has proven that wires and cables can enhance a company’s collective wisdom and capability. A huge, decentralized organization, Viacom’s largest divisions include Blockbuster, MTV, VH-1, Nickelodeon, Simon & Schuster Publishing, Paramount Pictures and Paramount Parks.

Viacom’s international HR group was created only two years ago, with its mission being to assess the different international HR issues and their implications for all divisions. In 1996 this group helped to create an international human resources Web site. The connection of widely dispersed HR professionals through the Web site saved the company untold dollars because it allowed divisions -- which until then had operated as completely separate companies -- to communicate and share resources.

The surprising advantage came when individuals discovered that divisions were ordering duplicate information from vendors and paying for it multiple times. This included country data, cost-of-living tables and compensation surveys. In addition to the duplication of costs, international assignees who worked for different divisions of Viacom had different compensation and benefits packages based on different assumptions.

“One of the main goals of our Web site was to centralize the collection, maintenance and dissemination of relevant HR information,” says Pamela Prestininzi, manager of international human resources. Working with vendors that provide a variety of information (including Hewitt, Hay, Korn Ferry, Price Waterhouse, Craighead, ORC and Runzheimer), Prestininzi now selects data from a range of resources depending on her group’s needs. In addition, international HR managers are finally able to offer uniform information to their assignees.

The password-protected site allows between 40 and 50 HR managers to share information regarding employment benefits, compensation and living conditions in almost 40 countries. Interested in hiring someone in Belgium, for example? If you worked for Viacom, you’d simply look at the country information section of the Web site and find local salary data, employment law conditions and the elements of a contract.

Centralizing data is a powerful function of technology, but certainly not its newest application. In this competitive era of global business, companies need to be able to select the best employees for the job to work together on projects. Today’s technology allows them to do this, even when the key players are on different continents.

Encourage collaboration by giving team members the tools they need to stay connected.
Centralizing country-specific data on Viacom’s IHR site was helpful, but HR managers from different divisions also needed to be able to share anecdotal feedback with each other. For example, if HR at Paramount wanted to send someone to Germany for the first time, the site would enable its staff to post questions for colleagues in other divisions who have experience with expat issues in that part of the world.

Taking this idea to another level, Northern Telecom (Nortel) is a master at using technology to facilitate teamwork. Brampton, Ontario-based Nortel (www.nortel.com) has used the Internet for a decade to communicate internally. It boasts more than a million active Web pages used by the company’s employees. Like Arthur Andersen, and so many others, the company is currently investing in a large intranet environment as well.

The telecommunications firm has 350 locations in more than 60 countries. Imagine the complexities of teamwork. Not surprisingly, employees use teleconferencing extensively. It’s cost-effective and effective, especially when combined with the Web-based data network. (Employees also use video conferencing, but they view it as a more expensive tool with greater potential in the future.) “Once you have voice technology, you have the ability to do work,” says Eugene Roman, vice president of employee services at Nortel. “You have the ability to conduct teleconferences and do project meetings all via a voice channel.”

Nortel has developed a large data-networking business, and it maximizes this expertise for internal use. The company has created a software toolset called “conference” with which an individual can post a presentation on the Web and have people virtually participate as the presentation unfolds. Observers log on to the site where the presenter uses a pointer to indicate the exact concepts in real time. Participants dial into a voice conference phone line to hear the presentation.

Through the use of additional technology, team members can annotate documents from their desktops, and each member can see the comments. After the project leader processes the comments, the group revisits the project and begins anew. Or, a project might be posted on an open forum for everyone to see. The project leader chooses the format most appropriate to the work.

Managers insist that virtual team members actively participate in the creative process. “We encourage people to think about how they’re communicating with the technology,” says Roman. He explains that employees are encouraged not to make their work look like a finished product, but rather a work-in-progress. The idea is that it’s critical for teams to take the time to allow the creative process to happen.

It’s also Nortel philosophy that work in a virtual world requires face-to-face meetings between team members so they can develop relationships that will continue when they return to their separate environments. “We believe this type of work environment develops a level of understanding and creativity that really creates and takes advantage of the global village,” says Roman.

Beat deadlines by using time zones to your advantage.
As everyone knows, time is money. Finding new ways to use technology to complete projects on time supports a productivity objective few could argue with.

Companies have adopted all sorts of time saving programs and devices over recent years. A popular example is using the Web to broadcast announcements company wide. The Viacom site has a job board so divisions can post open positions in locations all over the world and invite candidates to self-identify. It’s a quick way of initiating the recruitment process.

Another time saver is on the way for the company’s international business travelers. Viacom’s Prestininzi is developing some Web pages that will include consulate phone numbers, passport applications and expense reimbursement forms. Future generations of the site will open up sections for everyone in the company, allowing internal customers to gain access to the information they need in a timely manner. And through its self-service approach, it also will save time for HR.

But the latest development is integrating several technologies into a process known as following the sun. It’s a ’90s perspective on time zones. Rather than viewing time differences between locations as a nuisance, some teams have begun to see them as an opportunity. They have learned to capitalize on the idea that at any given time, somewhere in the world it’s business hours, and people are at their desks working. Instead of employees collecting project notes and redistributing the comments to everyone on the team, the work moves from member to member through time zones.

Nortel’s teams have projects that work this way. And Arthur Andersen also is experimenting with the idea. Susan Cuthill, director of International HR Consulting Services for Arthur Andersen in Chicago explains that she recently had a client with an urgent request for some policy comparison data. Arthur Andersen has a database in the United Kingdom, so at 7:00 p.m. her time she sent an e-mail to some U.K. colleagues asking them to work on the project first thing in the morning so that first thing in her morning she could get back to her client.

“They got the e-mail, pulled up the data and did the analysis. When I walked in, [their response] was in my e-mail. I just had to add the client information. I had the fax on the client’s desk by 9:00 a.m. Amazing,” she adds.

Whether you’re employing state-of-the-art technology to push past existing boundaries or simply using competent tools in a highly proficient way, it’s possible to realize cost savings, to foster a collaborative work environment and to improve productivity. Perhaps your organization is facing a different set of priorities. Even so, it’s likely that the ability to share data and knowledge between co-workers is essential to meet your business goals. Exchanging information on a global scale is a daunting proposition, but with today’s technological wizardry, you can shrink the job down to a manageable size.

Global Workforce, March 1998, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 12-18.

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