posted 1 Jun 1999 in Volume 2 Issue 9
Diversity in technology has transformed BP Amoco into an effective virtual knowledge pool. Video conferencing, intranets, web cameras, audio conferencing have all helped to create a dynamic virtual environment where body language and the unseen nuances vital to clear communication can still exist. Chris Collison, Catherine Robertson & Robin Yellow outlines the development of the virtual corporate backbone which transcends 'the dichotomy between localisation and globalisation.'
Large dinosaurs had small brains... In 1993, British Petroleum underwent a dramatic organisational evolution into a flat, federal structure of eighty discreet businesses units. CEO Sir John Browne, who oversaw the transformation believed that that smaller, semi-autonomous businesses could work more efficiently and creatively, and the business conditions required an uncompromising emphasis on performance.
In their ground-breaking book, 'The Knowledge Creating Company'1 , Nonaka and Takeuchi remark on 'the importance of transcending the dichotomy between localisation and globalisation.' This aptly describes the challenge that Browne faced. How could eighty empowered business units share knowledge and insights effectively in a delayered company without a middle management layer of functional experts? The new structure had exposed a deep need - the need to mobilise and share knowledge across this federal organisation - the need to create globally available local experts.
At the close of 1994, Browne sponsored a research project entitled 'Virtual Teamwork'(VT), the aim of which was to create new ways of working through the introduction of new technologies and behavioural coaching. The programme allowed easy, impromptu face-to-face discussions with teams in different locations. In this context, 'teams' included key engineering partners and suppliers, in addition to geographically distributed BP staff - the project scope deliberately embraced the 'extended enterprise'.
From a technology stand-point, the project introduced desktop video-conferencing tools capable of supporting an electronic white-board environment, and tools for sharing applications in real time. This would enable contractual iterations, redlining and discussions to occur in real time on a real document, and support a 'whites of their eyes' level of open communication through video link. A scanner was added to the environment to support the exchange of paper-based information, and a Lotus Notes environment - new to many parts of BP at that time - was included to support asynchronous collaboration.
Behavioural coaching formed a vital part of the process, whereby staff were individually supported and challenged to work in new ways, and to consider sharing and collaborating with staff whom they had never previously been able to meet at this more intimate level. The combination of effective communication and appropriate tools significantly improved the effectiveness of these teams. 'At first we were quite concerned about people dropping into our office from all over the world, but we managed to get over that. The ease of communication that this has given us has enabled us to work far more effectively with our design engineers and reduce our normal down time. We get a very, very quick resolution of any problems we have, which in turn has helped us to become more efficient and has also reduced manpower costs. To give some idea, the manning levels at the moment are currently at 50% of the projected manning levels that we would be running at this time.' At the close of the project in late 1996, Virtual Teamworking was acclaimed as a highly successful learning experience, and moved from entrepreneurial experiment to a formal service offering, available as an option to all staff. Today, over 1200 staff use this environment as an unremarkable part of day-to-day work, directly from their offices. One critical aspect of work in the virtual organisation is identification of 'who can help me'.2
Searchable home pages
BP Amoco make heavy use of an employee-driven knowledge directory known as Connect, comprising of detailed home pages for nearly 13,000 (20%) staff world-wide. This resource makes it easy for staff with low intranet editing skills to voluntarily project themselves into the company in a way which reflects individual preferences. These searchable home pages contain a spectrum of information, photographs, CVs, work experience, informal personal interests, contacts and favourite links. As a set of unique intranet pages, Connect forms the basis of a 'people layer' on the intranet, integrating with countless other intranet sites - this ubiquity results in high usage. There is a hit on a Connect page every three seconds, day and night.
The end result is a global, agile organisation that can mobilise knowledge rapidly, regardless of business structure and geography. Connect provides the 'who', whilst the suite of collaboration tools available provides the 'how'. Another critical aspect of work in the virtual organisation is how to make everyone feel part of the same team. Even when everyone resides in the same office it still is not easy to address this problem.
Moving work to people
One of BP Amoco's latest projects to address virtual teamworking is called 'Moving Work to People'. Assisted by PA Consulting Group it was set up to investigate ways in which the performance could be improved through teams working together across language, cultural and geographical borders. The research part of the 'Moving Work to People' project which was completed in early 1999 yielded the beginnings of a nine point Virtual Teamworking Framework which mapped out the distinct phases of a virtual project: starting, bonding, managing, meeting, working, sharing, tracking, adjusting and closing.
To look at one element of the model, 'bonding' is based on the need for a virtual team to trust one another. The need to build trust within a virtual team is many times more important than in a normal team. Physical proximity to your colleagues allows a person's natural ability to bond with other people to occur. Other findings include:
1. The EU and Swiss Government funded 'IMPACT Programme' (www.achieve.ch ) found that some work styles were more suited to virtual teams than others. They identified a 'flexible and free' worker and a 'traditional 9 to 5' worker. The 'flexible and free' are more likely to thrive in a virtual team, however, the discipline of more traditional work styles is also essential.
2. The Human Communication Research Centre at Glasgow University found that fun-poking in a virtual team could be easily misinterpreted. They found that extra special care should be taken when when using humour directed at individuals within virtual teams.
3. Tools like Microsoft Chat (IRC Internet Relay Chat) (www.microsoft.com ) can help with the bonding process. Non-work related email can also be useful. Frivolous email is sometimes frowned upon in organisations but if you want to build trust and establish rapport, it can smooth out wrinkles in personal relationships. The same goes for laughing and joking in video conferences and audio conference calls.
One of the projects in 'Moving Work to People' is TeamCam currently being tested by several virtual workgroups. Each virtual team member's computer is equipped with an inexpensive WebCam that is connected to the parallel port. Every two minutes an image is uploaded from each camera to a webserver. A web page is created for the team combining these images into a single page. Anyone who views the page sees the latest image from each camera. TeamCam is a derivation of the NCR wormhole project. The wormhole was 'videoconferencing taken to its logical next step' ... a continuously open lease line between two identical offices in different cities, so that you can have a meeting any time you want to. With the high resolution and real-time performance of the link the effect is said to be just like 'being there'.
Another aspect of 'Moving Work to People' involves the rollout of British Telecom's Presence data and audiographic conferencing system (www.syncordia.bt.com) on a similar scale to the VT project. Presence builds on the features of Microsoft's NetMeeting by adding synchronous audio through an integrated voice bridge in the server. The result is a virtual meeting that is like 'looking over a colleague's shoulders'.
BP Amoco's continued investment in these projects like VT and 'Moving Work to People', supports Browne's vision of the new organisation as 'a company of individuals' through high-value connections. Tools such as Desktop Videoconferencing, Connect, TeamCam and Presence allow BP Amoco to connect the disparate parts of its organisation in a new and exciting way. Globally available local experts can be a feature of every virtual team. These new techniques in virtual teamworking do not solve every problem, but they go a long way to heal the necessary 'delayering surgery' of yesterday and the continuous change of today. BP Amoco is one of the world's largest companies, and it continues to grow - organisationally, intellectually and virtually.
Chris Collison is a Knowledge Management consultant within BP Amoco. He can be contacted at:firstname.lastname@example.org
Cath Robertson is Project Leader - "Moving Work to People" within BP Amoco. She can be contacted at: email@example.com
Robin Yellow is Principle Consultant in PA Consulting. He can be contacted at:firstname.lastname@example.org
|1 Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi The Knowledge Creating Company (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)|
|2 Ben Hodson, BP Amoco Exploration - an early adaptor of Virtual Teamworking|