Walk into any customer meeting and odds are you'll find the same thing: the vendor on one side of the table, the customer on the other. Victories are celebrated and mistakes are magnified. Blame is placed and defensiveness blooms. Each side keeps their cards close to their vest. All eyes are fixed firmly on the past.
But Michael Sullivan, vice president of global strategic accounts at Schneider Electric, has his eyes fixed squarely on the future. Sullivan had the idea of Schneider Electric engaging with Performance Methods, Inc. (PMI) to harness the Internet platform Second Life. The mission? To facilitate the first-ever virtual collaborative meeting space between Schneider and its customer, IBM. In this economy, Sullivan's idea of Schneider Electric employing Second Life saved money for their client and themselves and helped PMI run a successful event—extremely close to a real life gathering—for both sides.
How Can We Move Forward?
Answering this one simple question, PMI has created and perfected their Collaborative Planning model focused on the future, growth, and mutual value. Instead of the vendor developing a plan and presenting it to the customer as the solution, PMI has asked, "How can we get the customer involved in the process?" Ultimately, they bring the customer and the vendor together at the planning table to:
1. Identify areas ready for improvement.
2. Vet these ideas and make sure they are the right ones.
3. Create a real action plan for growth.
Essentially, Second Life is a virtual world. People create and operate digital likenesses of themselves called avatars, which can move, communicate, fly, and teleport wherever they need to go. For some, Second Life is an incredibly advanced video game. For others, it’s the next frontier for the global business community.
The virtual real estate and technology tools for the PMI-facilitated meeting were developed by Anders Gronstedt of The Gronstedt Group. During the event, participants communicated with one another in text or via Second Life's 3D spatial voice chat. The technology allows private conversations to be held among specific groups even while the keynote speaker addresses the group at large, allowing subgroups to share thoughts, ideas, and reactions in real time. For international business, Second Life supports multiple languages and offers real-time text chat translators.
Three forces combined to inspire the use of Second Life for this Collaborative Planning meeting:
The economy. In today's economic climate, money must be spent wisely. In this case, you have an in-person meeting that used to last two days and incur travel, hotel, hospitality, and work-time lost expenses. On Second Life, the collaboration took three hours and a small fraction of the overall cost. The merits of a travel-free venue also advance the campaign for a greener planet.
Capable technology. "With Second Life, you can recreate the classroom in the virtual world," says Gronstedt. "You can do anything you want. Why bring in the constraints of a traditional classroom when you can have sessions at the beach?"
"You can create virtual role-plays for training," he continues, "view and explore products, build virtual briefing centers, and walk on top of a bar chart." Indeed, after the meeting, participants were invited to tour and experience IBM's Green Data Center in Second Life. Interactivity laid the foundation for the meeting's success.
The newness of the Second Life technology played a role in each company's excitement for the meeting, as well. When the forum began, it looked and felt immediately like a collaboration, with all of the players engaged casual conversations. "There was power in that informality," recalls Steve Andersen, PMI’s president and founder. "It established the tone of camaraderie and cooperation."
Nonetheless, "Second Life isn't utopia—it's a tool," remarks Craig Jones, senior partner at PMI and the meeting's facilitator. Because the meeting doesn't take place in person, Jones notes, you can't see people’s expressions, which generates a natural limitation.
"As a longtime facilitator," he explains, "I will say there is nothing better than a face-to-face meeting. But if you compare it to a teleconference or web meeting tool, Second Life stands above the rest because it's as close as you can get to reality.
"You can hear the voices, see who’s talking and move [your avatar] around. When you call for participation, you see everyone react. And unlike a conference call, you know the participants are 'there' and they're responsive to you in real time."
Andersen notes that the technology isn't over the head the average computer user. "If you know how to work your BlackBerry, manage your e-mail and shop on the Internet, you can participate easily in a Second Life meeting," He says. "As with any new platform, you'll need to learn some new skills and terms. But with a few practice rounds, you'll be ready to go."
The art of collaboration. IBM has been a Schneider Electric customer for 20 years, a strategic account for 10, and a partnership-level strategic relationship for five. As part of their worldwide partnership, Schneider Electric provides IBM data centers with power, cooling, lighting control, security, HVAC controls, energy saving/monitoring, experts, and project managers.
Critically, the preparation for this meeting began long before the participants took to their avatars—and this was a critical step. "Before you can even talk about the meeting, you have to look at the pre-work phase," explains Andersen. "Each side typically shows up with a few issues, and we insist that they clear the air before the Collaborative Planning meeting begins. This forum is an opportunity to grow the business relationship, and it just can’t be done until both parties are ready to move forward together."
Both Schneider Electric and IBM did their homework prior to their Second Life collaboration. They each came to the meeting prepared and armed with one vision: the co-creation of value for their work together. With the goal of growth, the vendor and the customer were ready to stand side-by-side in Second Life, collaborating to generate solutions and mutual success. In effect, IBM presented their objectives and Schneider Electric agreed to align with them. These areas of agreement, or places of intersection, hold the real value.
Another tremendous benefit for both companies: During the meeting, Second Life captures all data in real time. For example, in a live or teleconference setting, a facilitator hears, interprets, and records items according to their understanding…while the audience patiently waits their turn to contribute. In Second Life, participants expressed their thoughts at will and in concert with each other, and the technology transferred their text verbatim to the public white board. The facilitator forges ahead and uses the data real time. More importantly, all voices are heard in their original form and given equal access.
"As we move toward solutions, it becomes very important to be able to co-create with customers," says Sullivan. "The process with PMI helped Schneider Electric do this in a structured way. We created a team with our customer and shaped new solutions around the customer's business drivers. We became a partner with our customer, and only because of that, we can do new things that we couldn’t do before and can't do alone."
This expansion of client relations, teams and value affects the bottom line directly, offering new services and capabilities. For Schneider Electric and IBM, it started with their desire to move forward together. The powerful technology of Second Life supported the activity. It was successful because of PMI’s process of Collaborative Planning. The result drives growth and innovation for everyone—from the companies themselves to the end user.
The New View
In Second Life, the meeting room sat right on the beach, the attire was comfortable, and all voices were heard. There was no delineating "table" in the middle of the room, so the vendor and customer were able to intermingle at will. Present were white boards covered with the issues at hand, as well as the participants’ brainstorms, intentions, and plans. Instead of spending their time sparring with each other, the teams worked together to identify potential areas of growth and tackle the obstacles that may have been holding back their mutual advancement and success. Ultimately, the two sides unified to move forward.
Virtual collaboration sessions aren't for every client and every customer, but when they work, they provide a powerful and cost-effective way to communicate and get things done.
Dave Stein is an SMM columnist, the author of "How Winners Sell," and the CEO and founder of ES Research Group (www.ESResearch.com) in West Tisbury, Mass.