posted 12 Jun 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 9
KM on a global scale
How to keep worldwide employees on the same page
Network Appliance employs almost 2,500 workers in over 50 locations around the world. The problems associated with engendering a shared sense of culture and exchanging knowledge across such a broad geographical area prompted the company to develop a technical infrastructure to support the collaborative activities of its workers. Chris Carlton describes the company’s experience so far in creating its enterprise content delivery network.
Network Appliance (NetApp) is an industry leader in enterprise data storage, with a global presence in more than 90 countries. Its growth has come rather rapidly, and has left the company with a series of challenges that all global companies face: how do you instil your corporate culture and a sense of belonging and participation in employees scattered across distant geographies? How do you help them to perform as team members? How do you make it easy for them to share knowledge, expertise and experience? And how do you maximise your business success through that empowerment? At Network Appliance, we used our own solutions – NetApp filers, NetCache devices and powerful data management software, brought together in an enterprise content delivery network (ECDN), to help us solve these challenges.
NetApp’s intellectual capital is distributed among 2,400 employees at more than 50 sites worldwide, including four remote development facilities. On any given day, hundreds of sales reps and other employees will be working from home offices or hotel rooms. NetApp wants its people in all these locales and situations to be connected, informed and able to contribute to the company’s activities in other parts of the world; for them to think and act as one company. For these reasons, NetApp is using its own technology to build an ECDN that has transformed the way it communicates and does business.
The ECDN knowledge management concept is simple, powerful and adaptable. Caching devices at the edge of the corporate network enable NetApp to stream rich media, including live and on-demand video of very high quality, to employees at remote sites. NetApp uses video production facilities at our California headquarters and at regional offices to conduct live corporate-wide meetings, regional meetings or even very focused sales or engineering meetings across multiple time zones at very little cost. The company stores knowledge in the form of video-on-demand (VOD) web-based presentations by experts for easy access by employees worldwide. The power of this communication cannot be overestimated.
The NetApp ECDN pilot project: a live, global All Hands meeting
CEO Dan Warmenhoven launched the development of the NetApp ECDN by commissioning NetApp Human Resources to lead a project that would create a corporate infrastructure, entirely behind the firewall, that is capable of originating high quality live video and delivering it simultaneously to all Network Appliance employees and offices. Internal communications manager Francesca Karpel was tasked with broadcasting the company’s ‘All Hands’ meetings to all remote offices over this global ECDN. The goal was to increase participation by employees at remote locations who had been listening to All Hands meetings over a conference-call network.
NetApp launched the ECDN in May 2000, with its first live global meeting at the Great America amusement park in Santa Clara, California. Video and audio of the meeting were streamed live to employees at Network Appliance offices in Munich, Germany and Hoofddorp, the Netherlands, and to the facility in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Remote employees reacted enthusiastically to the high-quality, real-time video. They laughed, applauded and responded to the gestures and facial expressions of the speakers and their audience.
Buoyed by this response, NetApp rolled out the ECDN infrastructure to additional offices and refined its technical quality. The stream is now extremely clean. “It’s just like watching TV,” Andreas Koenig, vice president for central Europe and based in our Munich office, said at the time. The result is that employee participation in the meeting has risen to a gratifying 75 per cent.
NetApp has since built on the success of these HR streaming events. Live webcasts are common occurrences. In response to the growing demand for training, announcements and messages to be broadcast over the web, the company built a small studio and video processing facility that enables us to record, edit and stream meeting content in the form of short clips as VOD. NetApp also streams audio-only delivery to locations with low bandwidths, and has extended partner communications by placing informational and training videos on our customer-facing website.
What experience has taught us about the use of the ECDN
Now, NetApp has had sufficient experience in the use of our ECDN to look at it with a sense of perspective. At least one thing is obvious: global employee response has been truly phenomenal. It has enabled the company to build what I like to refer to as a global networked community. We can characterise its benefits on three levels:
- Building trust in the corporate culture. Employee performance – more specifically, the ability of employees to act in concert to achieve corporate goals – is largely based on trust. To win and sustain that trust, NetApp wanted global communication that would bring employees and the executive body together visually, and in real-time. The ECDN makes this possible by giving everyone in the organisation an opportunity to see senior staff on at least a quarterly basis, as well as providing the opportunity to ask questions. It allows local managers to do the same thing on a regional level, pulling their teams together and giving them a greater sense of community;
- Taking action as a company. NetApp now has the ability to move more quickly than ever on a global scale. The response to changes in corporate direction, announced and explained over the ECDN, has been truly remarkable. One example was informing all employees of the need to reduce discretionary spending during a period of economic downturn. In Karpel’s words: “It was as though someone had turned off a faucet. Discretionary spending simply stopped.” NetApp will soon be using the ECDN to inform our people of a significant change in marketing direction. Based on past experience, we are confident that our employees will both clearly understand and quickly respond to the new strategy;
- Global interaction without the costs of travel. Today everyone understands that while globalisation makes better enterprise-wide communication an essential, travel has become very costly in terms of time, dollars and stress. The use of the NetApp ECDN enables the firm to maintain a sense of global community without the need for key executives to spend a great deal of time on aeroplanes. Internal messaging has become immediate, powerful, inexpensive and much more frequent. As an example, every month, NetApp tapes a talk by a member of the executive team that is made available to all employees over the ECDN in the form of VOD.
Instant help: building global sales teams with the ECDN
An example of the way the ECDN brings NetApp together globally is worldwide co-operation on sales projects. In the NetApp sales environment, workers share intellectual capital to reach common goals – an aspect of knowledge management that drives the company’s top line. NetApp is able to capture skills on video, enabling people worldwide to access it, in addition to allowing sales reps to communicate in real time to meet challenges and solve problems.
“I can give you examples of ways in which we’re using those tools today to reduce our project lead times and lower the costs of sales training,” says John Mascarich, NetApp’s senior director of learning. “We shorten the sales cycle and reduce costs by not having to fly people to classroom or meeting environments. For major accounts, for example, our sales teams can hold weekly account reviews and updates from distant offices by conducting WebEx conferences over the ECDN through our web portal, reviewing files and on-screen documents together. They can collaborate much more frequently, effectively and inexpensively that way.”
The WebEx document sharing environment is only the basic level of sales collaboration. Today every NetApp office has a LAN with caching capability, which means people at all offices can view streamed audio or video, access the NetApp collaborative environment, and take web-based courseware. The media streams are very clean, which means that collaboration is free from distractions such as delays and picture break-ups. The screens are indistinguishable from high quality cable television. We use these tools to enable NetApp sales people all over the world to share best practices, contributing their knowledge to our collective intellectual capital. We expand our knowledge base as we extend it across the global enterprise.
“We do conduct traditional, structured web-based and classroom training where appropriate, particularly for new hires,” says Mascarich. “That training is necessary and helpful, but it may not help you with the specific problem you have to solve today. Collaboration is a much more effective tool for enhancing sales. If sales reps can initiate a one-hour ECDN conversation with their counterparts all over the world about a specific problem they need to solve, they will get questions answered in real-time and be able to take action right away. This is really a form of sales training, but it is supremely effective because it is focuses on what our people need to know today to do their jobs. This represents the single greatest impact that ECDN technology has had on our sales environment: much better collaboration among worldwide sales teams.”
What really makes this collaboration work is the NetApp culture. If a sales rep posts a need, a problem or a question to the corporate sales distribution list, NetApp people will respond. The sales rep will receive feedback, and the next step may be a live meeting with knowledgeable people from around the world, using the ECDN.
And the value of the ECDN for enhancing sales activities goes much further than real-time collaboration. Suppose, for example, that you are planning to make a presentation to the CIO of a financial institution, and you need help right away. Half way across the world, another sales rep has made a similar presentation, which we’ve recorded on video in a role-play format, converted to VOD, and made accessible over the ECDN. You can call it up, watch it and benefit from your counterpart’s preparation. The learning portal includes a broad vision solution that tracks your requests and proactively offers you relevant videos and other information stored on the portal. On a parallel path, managers use these videos to critique their reps’ performances, helping them to make continuous improvements in their sales presentations.
Together, these knowledge sharing devices save time that would be lost in duplicated effort, helping to make NetApp more agile as a company and to move ahead in performance and results. As Mascarich points out, the ECDN and its related tools are a perfect match with the needs of the company’s selling environment. And they strengthen the worldwide sense of community and shared culture.
Streamed video messaging: fast, inexpensive and powerful
Using ECDN technology to build and maintain the corporate culture is less expensive than it sounds, particularly from a cost/benefit standpoint. Once the infrastructure is in place, it costs remarkably little to capture knowledge on video for live or VOD transmission. It can also be done in a very short time frame – in minutes, when necessary. Where it might take a month to produce web-based course materials, experts and executives may gladly sit in front of the camera for a few minutes and improvise from an outline, bringing life and emphasis to their subjects. Video post-production can often be completed the same day. This is more than just knowledge transfer, because it brings people face-to-face and helps build community spirit in a way that no document ever could.
NetApp now uses VOD to make all corporate announcements about organisational changes and initiatives. Since we have made it the primary medium for internal messaging, we have learnt some important rules about its use as a knowledge management medium:
- VODs must be short. Five minutes is a reasonable limit for most audiences; four minutes is better; our preference is two or three minutes;
- The reality is that it takes practice for communications to be distilled to their essence. So an organisation may start with seven or eight-minute messages, and as executives and others become more comfortable with the medium they tighten up on the time they use;
- VODs often need to be supplemented with additional web-based information such as FAQs and text summaries. This provides additional content for an employee to explore after the stage has been set with the VOD;
- Management team members need to remember that their on-camera personas set models for employee dress and behaviour;
- Employees will not bother to watch dated material. VODs must be timely.
Keeping global teams on the same page
One of the reasons globalisation has become so important is the need to bring on board the best people, no matter where they work and live. It’s important for NetApp to welcome these people to the company culture and empower them to share skills with team members that may be a hemisphere away. In many cases, travel is no longer seen as a practical communications option. High-quality delivery of rich media content, including streamed video, can fill the urgent need for timely knowledge transfer.
NetApp operates development facilities in the Waltham, Massachusetts and Triangle Park, North Carolina areas, as well as at its California headquarters. To keep these development teams on the same page, the company shoots videos of talks and discussions with our engineers on a weekly basis, and streams them live over the ECDN. Engineers who may be reluctant to develop a written treatise are often happier to sit in front of a camera and speak about what they know. The sessions are also recorded for later viewing as VOD clips. NetApp performs a similar service for customers, who can access useful technical information on VOD from outside the firewall.
For corporate announcements, the ECDN has improved communication, increased efficiency and reduced costs. Because all employees see and hear the original message in streamed media, there is no need for supervisors to spend time passing it on, nor will they delay or unintentionally filter the message. Instead, they can review the message with their people to discuss how it can be applied to their work habits and assignments.
“We recently did a corporate announcement, and sent our managers an e-mail shortly before it went out to all employees,” says Karpel. “So although they were alerted, they didn’t have time to view it before their people did. If a manager happened to be travelling, the group would nevertheless view the message at the same time as the rest of the company. The manager’s role changes to that of a facilitator instead of a potential filter or bottleneck. In person or by phone, the manager can focus the group’s energies on executing the message. Replacing delayed, filtered, cascading information flow, this flatter and faster communication helps NetApp people everywhere operate quickly as a company.” NetApp’s responsive culture makes this approach work. After one of our executives taped a recent announcement, for instance, the company informed employees by e-mail. The VOD received more than a thousand hits (representing almost half the company) in 24 hours.
It is important to stress that the cost of preparing a video message can vary widely with its intended impact. To produce a two-minute talking-head announcement really costs nothing more than a little time. NetApp can enhance a video by bringing in a film crew, splicing in photos and music, or by hiring a Hollywood producer to turn out a storyboarded extravaganza. Such instances are highly unlikely, but it serves to show that this is basically a relatively inexpensive medium with great flexibility. At all levels, it is a powerful way to transfer knowledge.
A dynamic, motivating knowledge management system
Following the great success of the live, global All Hands pilot project, the ECDN has quickly become indispensable in many ways. NetApp was already an agile, team-minded company. The impact and immediacy of streamed media have simply intensified those attributes and made the company more responsive. NetApp was already communicating by voice and e-mail across many time zones; now it can meet visually, in real-time, and record meetings so they can be viewed by other groups that may find them useful. NetApp was also already writing papers that describe development work; now it can summarise that information in front of a camera in minutes for global access over the ECDN. As a company, we already felt connected to our colleagues in many time zones; now people feel that they know each other better.
The cost-effectiveness of ECDN technology can be quantified in many ways, including reduced travel costs and reduced costs of sales. But its real benefits are in the form of greater corporate agility, stronger team spirit and a global awareness of our corporate culture. There is simply no way to measure these values. But they make NetApp a much stronger company.
Chris Carlton is senior vice president, People and Places, at Network Appliance. She can be contacted at: email@example.com