Category Archives: Virtual Teams

The shift in Work Area Recovery

Last month in advance of a seminar on Work Area Recovery for the BCI London Forum, I conducted a survey of London area Business Continuity Institute members.  The seminar was a sell out.  It seems that a lot of companies are re-evaluating their strategy for coping with denial of access to their building (usually through fire or flood) or some other melt down that requires staff to work in alternate locations. Companies like SunGard, ICM and IBM must be seeing a decline in traditional outsourced work area recovery where those companies’ sites are kept on standby for customers in the event of ….

Two factors seem to lie at the root of that decline.

  • Much closer scrutiny of costs in the past two years caused all budgets to be reviewed for value for money.
  • The increase in home working and hot desking have obviated the need for traditional office environments.

The biggest concern in the survey regarding home working was network load – network traffic at the last mile and in the server room.  I can’t help but think that capacity will rise as demand increases to a point where, if disaster strikes, provided it doesn’t affect everyone (in which case, our problems are bigger than our businesses) and provided the company has mirrored IT, there will be sufficient bandwidth at both ends to cope with spikes.


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Prezi, an antidote to boredom

You know the feeling. Another PowerPoint. Another on screen treatise/eye test. Too many words. Too few pictures. What’s for lunch?

Launched two months ago, Prezi is a Hungarian made tool that helps prevent you, the presenter, from falling into the PowerPoint, glazed eyeballs rut. Last week at a seminar to government and financial services types, I used it for the first time in public instead of PowerPoint.

Getting used to how you create a presentation was a little bit of a challenge for someone like me who has been building decks of slides for a couple of decades. Things like drag and drop from the desktop just aren’t there. It is a hosted service. Behaviours and functions you expect in a desktop application don’t work.

To build a presentation, imagine a large canvas you want to stick objects to – pictures, words or movies to support your talk. You lay all your objects on the canvas then create a path to go from one object to another – your presentation. Though it can be a little distracting, the presenter guides you from object to object by zooming out and in. By zooming out all the way, you see the entire presentation’s content on one slide. That is how the presentation begins and ends. The audience gets an overview about what is to be presented and, at the end a reminder of what has been presented. Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.

During editing, there are some oddities. Prezi carries the zooming paradigm a little far by presenting commands and editing modes as a series of circles (the “Bubble Menu”). Another very odd wheel (the “Transformation Zebra”) allows you to move, rotate and size an object. You must remember my brain is wired to doing things differently, and I am sure a child would grasp Prezi very easily. “Frames” allows you to group objects so you can view multiple objects in the same way you might see them on a slide.

Now for the parts that would trip up a six year old. To insert a graph, you first have to convert it to an image file and then import it. I ended up using PowerPoint as an editor, creating the image and adding it to that canvas. Right off the bat, that was extra work.

Because you can zoom, the tendency is to overdo things, creating too many transitions that could distract an audience. This is especially true of text. A normal text slide has a title and bullets you see in their entirety. Its build transitions are usually minor. With Prezi, the temptation is to zoom on a phrase or word, then into another phrase, and so on. People could get dizzy and turned off by gimmickry.

To be able to play the presentation offline, Prezi creates an executable for you. Sharing that file afterwards has its pluses and minuses. You assign rights to individuals or make it public on the Prezi site – which can be impractical for many inhouse corporate uses. The obvious step would be for Prezi to make an on premises version.

The main lesson I learnt was to keep the presentation simple. Because the tool is so new, your presentation will stand out anyway and that project might get more support. The extra effort in creating that Prezi file could well be worthwhile.


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Elastic Communications in a Crisis

In an earthquake, well designed buildings in Japan absorb shocks by separating the building from the base, by using deformable building materials or with internal counter balances.  Buildings are more elastic.  Communications in a crisis also need to be elastic, to absorb shockwaves. In a crisis, services, technology, people and resources you take for granted may not be available where they are needed.  Computer networks, email systems, phones and power – any of these may be degraded or lost through a crisis, or they may be the cause of a crisis.  Obtaining intelligent awareness of a situation, working collaboratively towards decisions, conveying instructions and obtaining feedback depend on timely, accurate and digestible communications.  A crisis that limits usual communications choices necessitates resourcefulness.  It demands elasticity in the way individuals, teams and organisations think and act.  It demands elasticity in our infrastructures, our processes and policies.  Elasticity buys time and rigidity spends it.

Elastic thinking is the ability to recognize new priorities quickly, to broaden peripheral vision, to make fast decisions and to act appropriately.  If appropriate, security gives way to expediency, best guess becomes good enough,  quick and dirty wins over detailed and thorough.   Elastic communications is the ability to switch media to minimize the loss of your normal media choices.  If your corporate email is down, can you easily switch to a public mail system such as Google Mail? If it is necessary to communicate two way rapidly with employees and their loved ones over public instant messaging or SMS, can that be easily done in a Starbucks? Do you even have those instant messaging addresses on your laptop?  Are they a facebook or LinkedIn group? If your continuity plans are held on internal servers, are they also on third party servers “in the cloud” or on usb sticks, or handhelds?  How would you use Twitter to broadly disseminate information and solicit rapid feedback in a crisis? 

Elasticity is the least expensive path to build resilience.  It is provides a higher return on investment than building infrastructure.  Bespoke infrastructure contingencies are expensive.  Using multiple, off the shelf, public services are cheaper.  Elasticity builds agility. An elastic organization is a more open one, one that listens to customers better, responds more quickly and works more collaboratively with suppliers.   The benefits of elasticity go far beyond those of organizational resilience and the ability to withstand large seismic shocks.

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The YouTube Symphony Orchestra as a Virtual Team – an insider’s view

I confess to owning two blogs.  One is my work blog, and the other, this, a more whimsical personal blog.   As sometimes happen, there is a blog item that falls between two stools.  Here I blog about virtual teams (and of course, Nasrudin), and there I blog about sales channels – sometimes known as routes to market – how products and services reach end customers.  What is the connection between virtual teams and sales channels?   A channel ecosystem is a large virtual team, with a vendor at the heart of it, trying to motivate, cajole, coral, train and support third party companies to do their bidding and add value.  Plus I have this YouTube Symphony thing whirling in the background.  So this time, a blog on virtual teams, sales channels and the YouTube Symphony as an example of a large virtual team went to my work blog.

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Changing roles

Sometimes taking a team member outside the role in which they are most comfortable falls flat on its face.

The German French horn player, Bruno Jaenicke (1887-1946), was, for many years, the principal hornist of the New York Philharmonic and a truly great one. He can be heard on many of Toscanini’s recordings. He rarely missed a note and was held in very high regard by the profession. In November 1931, at a concert with the guest conductor, Erich Kleiber, Jaenicke was booked to play Strauss’ first horn concerto.  Standing in front of the orchestra, he was completely unnerved, fumbled, missed notes and sounded like an amateur. After the first two movements, he walked off stage and didn’t return. It was announced to the audience that Jaenicke was unwell and that the piece would be dropped from the programme. Backstage, Jaenicke was seen smashing his horn by jumping on it and later reportedly got blindingly drunk. It was at least a week before Jaenicke reappeared. He returned to the section with no explanations and resumed his career as America’s finest horn player.

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I found my horn on YouTube

A single spotlight illuminates a lone man, naked but for his jockey shorts, clutching in front of his privates, bell facing towards him, a French horn.   “I found my horn” best-selling book, now play begins, the true story of a mid-life crisis in which Jasper Rees, the author played by Jonathan Guy Lewis, ponders what becomes of youth’s passions. Would he die, not having achieved anything of substance, of bravery?  It was time for him to dig out the horn from the attic, where it had lain dormant for twenty-five years and prove he could achieve something of importance for himself, rather than for others.  On the journey, culminating in a performance in front of the British Horn Society a year later, he discovers a brotherhood of men who share the madness of knowing there will never be perfection, where there is honour, courage and foolish folly.  Hornplayers. The musicians of Elysium.

A French horn player is like a professional golfer.  There is no such thing as a perfect performance or a perfect round. There is always something that niggles, something that could be improved upon, a point where luck and fortune wobble.  And so it is with a Mozart Horn Concerto.  Listening yesterday to a live recording of Dennis Brain, a man who created aural ambrosia from brass plumbing, I heard the occasional stumble, a couple near misses and yet the overall package is sublime, better for flaws born out of bravura.

And so to my own romantic foolishness, an attempt, courtesy of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra virtual auditions, to create a decent rendition of one movement of Mozart’s earliest horn concerto – commonly known as the second.  It was maddening.  I discovered how to create semi-watchable video and passable audio, in my dining room.  And how to concentrate for five minutes, never an easy task.  My result is here for the world to pick over.  There I stand, naked but for my underwear.  You may see with your eyes a man relaxing in a comfy cricket jumper, but hear with your ears a man starkers.  If we survive this climate meltdown,  a grandchild make recover those bytes and perhaps wonder why Grandpa did something so silly as to expose his foibles so.

And now the battle commences.  The competition is trooping in. Bring on the tyros, the stars of the world’s conservatoires  and knock the old man off his precarious perch.  Let them try his fiddly bits, his extended phrases and surpass his ancient output.  This is my Rocky Balboa with a dash of X Factor.

In February, you get the chance to vote on the players. In March, the battle will shift to Google, the people who came up with this mad, fantastic idea.  Creating a virtual orchestra is a huge task. It is like trying to create a virtual basketball team.  Musicians rely on real time interaction to get in the groove. Breaking the team into component parts and expecting it to perform as a whole, no matter how cleverly spliced, is impossible. It misses a key point of music making and many other types of teams, which is that feeling you get when you face a challenge together, shoulder to shoulder and create something of beauty and goodness.  But Google understood that well, which is why those selected to become part of the first YouTube Symphony Orchestra will gather together in New York in April to make music rather than solo recordings.  Google’s didn’t just do no evil – they did good. Let’s wish everyone, Google, the youngsters, the romantics, the aspirants, the pros who put so much work into this, and me, luck.

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Virtual Teams in Music

Music is not often thought of as a field where one sees virtual teaming yet there are plenty of great examples. Studio musicians are very familiar with working in a virtual team. They often lay down tracks without the co-presence of other musicians.  Between 1985 and 1987, I had the privilege to be part of a live virtual music team.  When Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical CATS was first staged, the design of the set in that theatre made it impossible to accommodate a pit orchestra in front and below the stage, so the musicians were housed offstage.  The conductor and the stage were kept in touch via video links. That had an added benefit. Those mixing the music could play with the balance of the sound because the band was piped into the auditorium.   When the show was mounted in Toronto, the band of seventeen was housed in a separate studio.  I was moonlighting at night there as a musician and played around 550 CATS shows.   You might ask why not just record the band and play that? In a live performance many things can and do vary, so it would be too easy for the musicians, dancers and singers to get out of synch.

Earlier this month, in partnership with the London Symphony Orchestra and YouTube, the “YouTube Symphony Orchestra” was announced.  By submitting YouTube videos, players audition for a chance to play in a live performance at Carnegie Hall on April 15th, 2009.   It bills itself as the “world’s first collaborative orchestra” which is a stretch since all musical groups are collaborative, but it is the first time that the internet has been used as the exclusive audition medium.  Prospects must submit two YouTube videos by January 28th, 2009, one being their part in a newly commissioned piece by Tan Dun, who composed the music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Musicians get the benefit of watching the piece played on YouTube by the London Symphony Orchestra as well as master classes by that orchestra’s principal players.  Audition hopefuls play along with a silent YouTube video of the composer conducting his piece.  In addition, they must submit a couple of standard, out of copyright audition pieces.   In February, entrants are screened by a marketing agency, and top scoring entries are submitted to a panel of musicians.  They are hoping to whittle that down to 200 finalists who will be submitted to the YouTube audience for public voting between February 14th and February 22nd 2009. Some entrants may find themselves as soloists in the Live Event.  Final say of who will be invited to play will rest with the live event’s conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas.   Those participating get their travel costs paid for.

This is an exciting use of this medium to reach out to music hopefuls, and I am eagerly looking forward to how this turns out.  Could the same process be used to screen candidates in other fields?

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