Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The rise of me-tail - By Ian Simpson, Managing Director of Catalogues4Business

Customisation in marketing is not a new or particularly ground breaking concept, however, it is becoming increasingly important with the rise of social media. Most businesses have adopted the use of personalisation as an engagement technique with consumers, personalised mail, log in details and thank you emails being some. The next stage is to incorporate personalisation into a customer retention strategy; this is where me-tail comes into practice. Me-tail is personalisation, it is the ability to track purchase behaviour, measure consumer reactions, store that data and tailor each individual’s sales cycle.

Customers value brand above all else, and the bigger the brand the more the likelihood of detachment from their customers; this has to be realigned. Consumers want to be indulged during their shopping experience and for the information to be spoon-fed to them. This may sound simple, but the information cannot be universal to all, it has to be specific. Customers wont appreciate generic material; they will feel devalued and abandon the sales cycle. Me-tail is beginning to revolutionise the way we shop, whether it’s online or through direct mail such as catalogues.

According to an article by Adobe, 52% of digital marketers agree that “the ability to personalise content is fundamental”. So, why are companies so slow to introduce this into their marketing campaigns? Here at C4B we advocated catalogue personalisation twenty years ago and have consistently noticed an increase in product demand and brand recognition for companies who adopt it.

As many respected marketing sites have declared me-tail as a top marketing trend for 2014, each and every brand will be attempting to adopt it in their marketing strategy. But to guarantee effectiveness, brands must ensure that their personalisation is precise, relevant and well judged; customers will feel uncomfortable at the thought of being tracked or monitored on the internet and equally they don’t want irrelevant suggestions.

Probably the most pivotal use of me-tail was in 1995 when Tesco introduced their Clubcard. With the introduction of the Clubcard Tesco were able to keep track of every purchase that the user was making. Two subtle strategies that Tesco introduced was up-selling and cross-selling, examples being; (Up-Selling) If a consumer frequently purchased budget brand butter, Tesco would send vouchers for higher priced branded butter such as an approach to introduce a superior product. (Cross-Selling) If a customer used their Clubcard to buy petrol, Tesco would place car insurance adverts and offers into their voucher book in an attempt to cross-sell their product.

Practices such as targeting, segmentation and analytics have always been fundamental components of marketing strategy. Me-tail has also been a part of how a catalogue functions, especially in a B2B environment there has to be a high level of relevance and engagement or the catalogue will be thrown away. But it is worth noting that one large retailer saw a 25% uplift in sales simply by personalising the catalogue cover – that’s huge!

Digital marketing has allowed an increased number of brands to connect with consumers via social media sites. This approach accompanied with website tracking software gives brands greater insight into consumers’ personal lives, including their browsing activity, ultimately increasing the opportunity to communicate with valid and relevant messages.

Ian Simpson is Managing Director of Catalogues4Business who specialise in producing highly effective, marketing-driven catalogues.
C4B’s catalogue design offers brands the maximum effect to sell their products.
For more information either phone 0845 2300 258 or visit their website

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Driving transformation - Guest Blog by Rohit Talwar

I was recently invited to deliver a keynote address and act as a firestarter and thought leader at an event on driving genuine transformation when you're a market leader. A number of global brands such as Apple, Emirates, Puma and Salesfoce.com had gathered in Dubai to spend two days exploring how leaders can drive change to fundamentally different strategies, brand positionings, business models, cultures and ways of working. Here are my key take aways from this and other similar recent discussions with a number of clients.

  • 1. Things must get Messy - If everything feels comfortable, there is no disruption and you never face internal or external conflicts then you probably aren't delivering true transformation.
  • 2. Start with Tomorrow - Big businesses struggle to change a winning formula and will keep trying to pull you back to it. To challenge current assumptions, a clear, deep and compelling view of future factors (forces, trends, developments, ideas and weak signals) driving the future is essential.
  • 3. Unwavering Vision - However you craft it, the top team need to own a clear vision of the future we want to create and emphasise constantly how it differs from the current model.
  • 4. Leaders don't Follow - If you are genuine leaders that you can't get to a truly differentiated and defendable brand positioning by following the rules that others play by - change the game itself and then let it play you.
  • 5. Depart Before your Ready - Don't wait until everything is perfectly resolved and ready. Take early and massive action to move things forward, act fast with changes or commitments that really indicate how things could be different.
  • 6. Fail Fast and Cheap - The future cannot be created in a single pass. Experiments will be required with a range of possible solutions - these should be conducted quickly with a focus on maximising the learning and early testing of new ideas on those who they might impact e.g., customers, staff or other stakeholders.
  • 7. See Me, Know Me, Help Me - Staff need to believe that the organisation cares about them at a personal level and that the transformation will actually make their life better.
  • 8. The Power of One - Grand transformations are often derailed by internal challenges - particularly those related to IT systems. If the internal conversation is dominated about why 'we can't do that' because of IT related issues, then radical surgery is required. The solution is adopting one platform for each core activity from sales and distribution to HR and finance and then flatly refusing people to develop their own sub-systems.
  • 9. Data or Die - Genuine expertise is required in the management and exploitation of big data and predictive analytics to drive short term decision-making in key areas such as marketing and sales. Those that can't unlock the value are sowing the seeds of their own destruction.
  • 10. Create Magic - Customers, staff and partners need manifestations of magic in their experience of you to stand out from the pack. Who are they telling stories about over lunch, in the bar and in the social media?
  • 11. Express your Desires - Be clear with your entire ecosystem about where you see yourselves in the future, how you plan to get there and the stakeholder relationships you want to nurture. Engage them in the conversation about how to realise those desires in a manner that truly benefits them as stakeholders.
  • 12. Act Fast on the Naysayers - Some in key roles may simply not understand or buy into the vision. Making them part of the core team can help turn them into evangelists. If they simply cannot change them help them leave with respect for what they've done in the past and acknowledging that it's best for both of you if they go.
  • 13. The Revolution can be Televised - The true signs of change will come in numerous small examples of people internalising the vision and translating it into real action. Have them capture and share these stories in whatever way they want - blog posts and video are popular tools.
  • 14. Find an Orchestra Conductor - A central programme director is critical to co-ordinate the many parallel work streams in a genuine transformation programme. A critical challenge will come when transformation activity butts up against current customer facing activity. The key is always resolving these conflicts in a consistent manner that honours the vision.

post by Rohit Talwar,CEO, Fast Future
rohit@fastfuture.com
www.fastfuture.com
Twitter https://twitter.com/fastfuture
Blog http://widerhorizons.wordpress.com/
LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com/in/talwar

Monday, 3 March 2014

Stand up for better meetings by Dominic Irvine, founding partner of Epiphanies LLP

Not so smart

It’s not as if we didn't notice: The ‘smart’ phone vibrated on the table as each message arrived. The sequence was always the same – a furtive glance at the message followed by some exaggerated nodding to pretend he was listening to the speaker before he then tapped out an email on the laptop in front of him. Finally, just as we thought the topic was done, he interjected with some point vaguely related to the topic that left everyone slightly bemused. And this was the team leader. This went on all day. Oh how tedious!

So many meetings are inefficient, ineffective and largely pointless due to either a complete disregard or a misunderstanding of what constitutes value or a misplaced sense of capability in being able to do two things at once.

It seems there are three problems at play in the scenario described. The first is:

  • a) Many people in business do not understand the price of what they are doing in terms of the sales that will need to be made to pay for their time

  • b) There is a mistaken understanding of how effective it is possible to be when multi-tasking

  • c) Technology is both an enabler and a severe constraint on effectiveness. We need to work out how to use it to enable high performance and avoid the distractions it offers

Meeting the cost

Let’s do some maths. Let’s suppose the ten attendees at the meeting described above were senior managers in a large supermarket chain. A one-day team meeting with 10 people in attendance is 80 hours of wasted time. If we assume they earn £75k including benefits and employee contributions and allow for holidays then the cost of the meeting in terms of their time is roughly £3200. This excludes room costs, travel etc. Now let’s suppose the average basket of shopping is £30 (which it is for some of the leading supermarket brands) and the profit on this is 4% after everything has been accounted for (again, typical for the big supermarket chains). Then almost 2700 customers have to go shopping to make enough profit to pay for the meeting. Multiply this up by the number of pointless meetings held a year and it’s a vast number of shopping trips that need to be made to pay for very little value. This is aside from the opportunity cost. Inattentive behaviour in face-to-face meetings is very expensive. Face to face meetings do have substantial value.

Yes, video-conferencing, telephone conferences and the like have an important role to play in communication, but face-to-face meetings remain the most powerful mechanism for communication in business. A face-to-face discussion reveals so much more by way of verbal and non-verbal communication. It is far more effective in developing trust between team members. The advantages come from both the formal time spent in meetings and the ad hoc conversations that take place outside of the meeting. We should never lose sight of the fact that we are social creatures and need social interaction and contact with others. Don't forget, people can behave just as badly in virtual meetings as they do in face to face meetings – it’s just cheaper!

Top tip:

Next time you are faced with poor behaviour in a meeting, get the attendees to do the maths and calculate the cost of the meeting in terms of the profit from sales. Show them the price of their arrogance.

The nonsense of multi-tasking

I’ve had enough of people pretending to listen whilst interacting with their phones, so these days I don't bother trying to have the conversation, I simply stop talking. If you ever want a demonstration of how people can't concentrate on two things at once try it. Invariably they fail to notice for a minute or so before realising that the conversation has stopped. The way I see it is there is no point in talking if they are not listening, and if what I have to say is worth hearing then I need their attention.

In an excellent white paper on ‘The Future of Meetings’, authors McEuen and Duffy use the term ‘switch tasking’ to describe the way in which the brain does not parallel process both doing something on the phone and talking to someone else but instead switches between one task and the other. Given there is a constraint to how much information we can process at any one time, the outcome is neither task is done well.

It’s one of the very sensible reasons why mobile phone use is banned in cars. The evidence is overwhelming – when using mobile phones, our ability to process what’s going on around us is significantly impaired. This is the same as when we are unsure where we are going when driving in a strange town – we intuitively slow down, because we can't read the street names, navigate the roads and drive safely at the speed we can drive a familiar route.

Top tip:

Don't be afraid to stop talking when people are busy on their devices during a meeting. Have the confidence to know that despite what they may claim, they cannot process both the what you are saying and what’s on their screen effectively.

Technology as an enabler

I like to use an iPad to take notes. The notes are stored in the cloud and accessible for me easily after the meeting from whichever computer I am working from. This I find really useful. However, for some, this can be an excuse to covertly check emails whilst taking notes – I know – I’ve seen them do it (and done it myself). The technology also allows us to access quickly and easily our schedules, stored information and the like – all of which can be incredibly useful. So simply asking people to turn off their devices seems to be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Where I have seen it managed very well is by strong leadership from the team manager. Their example of leaving their phone in the bag and very obviously just taking notes onto their iPad set a strong example for others. They lived what they expected others to do. Such common sense is not common practice.

When the team manager is easily distracted by their devices then I’m afraid it’s down to your own self discipline. In time, greater use of devices like smart watches that meet the craving for being connected by displaying incoming alerts but without the distraction of a keyboard to ‘dash a reply of there and then’ will help. But perhaps there are some more radical things we can do.

Let’s make a virtue out of the problem

Stand up! Stand up for your meetings. It’s hard to use laptops, when standing. iPads or their equivalent are not much easier. Smart phones are the easiest of all but their use when standing is much more conspicuous than when seated behind a table. There is research evidence to suggest a significant drop in performance when attempting to use touch screen devices when standing when compared to being seated. However, they are still available to attendees should the need arise.

The benefits of standing go way beyond maintaining focus on the discussion at hand. According to some research done in the late 90’s stand-up meetings produce decisions just as good as sit-down meetings but in far less time. In 2012, Dunstan, Howard, Healy and Owen published an article called “Too much sitting – A health hazard”. It seems the amount of time we spend on our backsides is having a serious impact on our health.

We need to be moving around more. In the Compendium of Physical Activities in which the effort required to complete everyday activities are compared against doing nothing, sitting in a meeting expends not much more energy than lying horizontal. Standing up increases the activity score, not by much, but every little helps.

Of course not everyone can stand and we should be sensitive to the needs of these individuals. For most of us, it’s not a problem. So give your backside a rest and your legs a chance and stand up for your next meeting. Watch how much more energy there is in the room and how much shorter the meeting is.

Top tip:

Stand up for better meetings. Stand up to get better value from your meetings. Stand up for better health. It’s a win-win all round.

This post is by:

Dominic Irvine founding partner of Epiphanies LLP © February 2014. All rights asserted.

Contact via:

PR Week’s Ones to Watch
Ian Payne, Associate Director, McKenna Townsend
e. ian@mckennatownsend.com

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Ten tips to master the art of persuasion

When is the last time you had to persuade someone in a business situation? Perhaps you want to increase you sales, or maybe convince your team to adopt new processes, or maybe you’re hoping to persuade existing shareholders to re-invest. Whatever the situation, you will need to master the art of persuasion.

According to Christina Hession of Toastmasters International you should start by asking yourself why should an audience listen to your presentation and, most importantly, what do you want them to do as a result of listening to you? Structure your presentation on points of relevance and concern for your audience to ensure maximum success.

Here are Christina’s ten tips to help you persuade audiences to support your views:

  • (1) Purpose: Be very clear about the purpose of your presentation. Do you want to inform, motivate, entertain or inspire? What do you want the audience to think or do as a result of your talk? If you don’t know – then don’t blame the audience for looking confused.

  • (2) Sincerity: Be authentic. Do you engage your audience with passion and conviction about a subject which interests them? Can you believably sell its benefits?

  • (3) Authority: Be sure to inform your audience of your speciality and qualifications in a brief introduction before your presentation.

  • (4) Logic: An essential component of effective persuasion. This can be, for example, a) linear reasoning - set out a number of individual aspects of the particular problem, before linking them to their causes and solutions, or b) fact-based thinking - include relevant statistics and cite credible sources for your assertions.

  • (5) Speak to the heart: Make a point, then tell a story. Audiences love personal stories and anecdotes, because they engage our emotions.

  • (6) ‘You Focussed’: Make your presentation ‘you focussed’ in other words focussed on your audience. Using the word ‘you’ instead of ‘I’ or ‘me’, makes your presentation more personal and conversational.

  • (7) Humour: Humour is a very effective device in engaging and connecting with an audience. It will serve to lighten the tone, but a word of caution here; humour should not be bawdy, politically incorrect or poke fun at audience members.

  • (8) Empathy: Get your presentation off to a flying start by researching your audience. Who are they? What are their needs and expectations? Take some time to mingle with your audience members. If possible, ensure the seating is arranged to facilitate maximum participation.

  • (9) Delivery: Smile. A smile is like your personal handshake with the audience. Speak firmly at a measured rate and vary the pitch, and establish direct eye contact – all of this will help to engage and persuade the audience.

  • (10) Confidence: Your presentation begins from the minute you leave your seat to walk to the podium. Walking with your head up and back straight will convey to the audience that you are a speaker who is confident with your subject matter. A confident speaker is a persuasive speaker.

Christina Hession is a member Toastmasters International and is District 71 Toastmaster of the Year, 2013.
For media enquiries please contact Chantal or Sophie at Panpathic Communications – Chantal@panpathic.com / 020 8544 0091 or 07788 184 649

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Adapting your business personality for the better

Every individual has their own unique qualities that they bring to the workplace. Whether they’re an introvert or an extrovert, the office environment wouldn’t be the same without them.

As with any walk of life, however, there is always the opportunity for personal development, be it improving awareness and identity or enhancing talents and potential.

We looked at a new business personality quiz from Hiscox to see how employees can adapt their business personality for the better…

How would your friends and colleagues describe your attitude to work?

  • Driven, sometimes over-the-top
  • More like creative play than work
  • Slightly less important than the people involved
  • Also your hobby

The first option is the trait of the Go-Getter. These are single-minded individuals who focus on their objectives, and will do whatever it takes to achieve them.

But while they get results and take the initiative, being too over the top in their approach to work could have some downsides.

Go-Getters should perhaps take the time to communicate more with colleagues, place trust in others to handle jobs, and also take a step back now and again in order to think things over.

How do you feel about email?

  • A useful tool to get information across quickly
  • An excellent way to expand ideas and to get them to many people at once
  • A necessary evil - you prefer face-to-face communication
  • An ideal way to deal with people and projects without the face-to-face

The last option is the sign of a Thinker. Such people have sharp, analytical minds, and are great when it comes to problem solving.

However, they tend to prefer privacy when working and can be overly cautious in their decision making.

Thinkers should therefore try to integrate more with their colleagues, both inside and outside the workplace, plus be more vocal when getting their opinion across.

If there were objects around your workspace to inspire you, what would they be?

  • Reminders of past, successful projects or campaigns
  • Inspirational photos, such as space-flights, mountain-climbers or tropical islands
  • Green plants and photos of family, partner, friends or pets
  • Something quirky or rare, such as miniature train models or antique matchboxes

The first option is the mark of a Visionary. These individuals are great lateral thinkers, allowing them to see new angle on old ideas.

But they can sometimes change their mind when it comes to the big decisions while often being slow to initiative.

Visionaries should try to be more confident in the workplace, looking back on their past successes to prove to themselves that they can do it.

Not sure what your business personality is? Take the quiz and find out!

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Changes within the role of the CIO by Matt Graham-Hyde (CIO of Kantar)

The transformation of the social economic environment is technology based.

It has been the practice when predicting the future use of a technology to look at the capabilities of the technology itself and its intended use. This has been reasonably predictable until quite recently. It has not been necessary to look at the impact of an individual’s ingenuity. However that has changed. With technology now in everybody’s hands, it is not enough to understand technologies based on their technical capability and intended applications. It is also necessary to understand the impact an individual using the technology can have and how they can do unexpected things.>/p>

At a recent meeting with Aske van der Werff, who is the Global Shopper Insights Director at Unilever, Aske said something that I think typifies the changes happening around us. In her role, she is a member of the innovation board and therefore needs to pilot and try new things. Today, most often she can’t predict the outcome, the outcome isn’t prescribed; she is looking for the unexpected and doesn’t set out necessarily with a known goal. (This in itself can present an interesting funding conversation in many organisations.) In this case the unexpected is based on what a consumer is likely to do, something increasingly influenced by their unpredictable use of life-integrated technology. The rise of showrooming is an interesting example with some local businesses blaming it for the loss of their businesses.

Personally I love the Amazon app on my phone, scan the bar code and get a price comparison and user reviews before purchase in local store or not, it’s a wonderful thing unless you own the store!

Evolution and invention has moved out of the labs and onto the streets. Our society structures in business and in government are not keeping pace and our laws and regulations, institutions, and business models and becoming obsolete.

As the CIO at Kantar, I am fortunate to work with some really thought leading people and businesses. One of which is the Futures Company who’s CEO Will Galgey I am indebted to, for allowing me to use their extensive research when developing my book ‘The Essential CIO’.

The insight of The Futures Company in their paper Technology 2020 is that social change enabled by technology, is happening faster and is more influential than technology change. This is a powerful new idea.

If I think about my childhood and most of my adulthood, they weren’t that different even though there were lots of new gadgets and improvements. The amount of social change in the way we lived and interacted was very small. That has definitely changed over the last decade and the social change now appears much faster than change in business and technology.

As digital technology evolves, connectivity is enabling it to unbundle itself. Devices, data, screens and sensors are becoming separated and connected machine to machine, to create silicon neural networks.

The development of 4G cellular communications offers much faster network speeds on mobile devices. Increased security and better multimedia support. Practically, what this means is that people will have the internet access on a mobile device equivalent to their high-speed broadband internet they use in the office or at home.

You can no longer predict technology advances based on the technological capability of the system or device. You have to look at how society might adopt the technology and how that adoption may drive further change and development.

The causes of the behaviour changes are in part the large amounts of data that it is possible to collect on individual behaviour. Cloud computing means this can be stored, shared and analysed with sophisticated open source tools to gain a greater understanding of pattern, trends and predictors and little or no cost.

Computers have changed to be essentially any network-enabled device such as mobile phones, tablets, cameras, etc. capable of having access to collecting, communicating and connecting information anywhere.

Tasks that are often slow to perform today on the mobile device will become dramatically faster and this ease of use will increase demand and functionality. The research by the Futures Company suggests there will be a whole new range of tools available to us as a result. In particular, once there is a sufficient critical mass of 4G users, location-specific services and applications that depend on an intelligent understanding of physical context will move from being a niche proposition to a mainstream one.

This will mean you will become part of the Internet.

Already there are basic new types of screen or reception technology providing new and absorbing ways of projecting information on a different range of devices like Google Glass, 3D, VR and Hologram glasses. These will become an extension of you in the 4G world.

Network enabled self-powered sensors embedded in the majority of everyday objects. These sensors are capable of sending and receiving information on every aspect of human behaviour.

These changes will influence and be adopted by society in ways we cannot predict based purely on the capability of the technology itself.

That is a fundamentally different place for businesses investing in such technologies.

For businesses all these changes will impact how the customer experiences your product and in large part, the technology function is going to have to take account of local social and engagement needs more than driving, globalised one size fits all inflexible systems. In the global vs local debate, these technology advances are shifting the power to local.

Matt Graham-Hyde, is the CIO of Kantar and has over 15 years’ experience as a CIO in major international businesses. Matt is the author of “The Essential CIO” (£14.99 Panoma Press) which is available from Amazon now!

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Virtually successful by Dominic Irvine

Working hard towards failure

In 2012 I nearly lost my business, it wasn’t through a lack of work – to the contrary – we were very busy, it was due to a failure to find a way of working effectively. We had abandoned our offices as no-one was ever in, instead we were all out on the road with clients and perfectly capable of working from home in between. This meant more time with their families rather than yet more travel to an office. As a people-centred business, wanting to apply best practice, this seemed to be the best idea. It is one of many advantages of virtual team working offering flexibility both in terms of where people work and when people work. It’s the old concept of ‘flexi-time’ but on a whole new level.

Whilst virtual team working suited everybody better in terms of the work/life balance we did not the mechanisms in place to work together virtually - we lost our mojo. During this time some of our best people left and I ended up buying out my business partner, our sense of connection, shared purpose and ability to address issues as a team had faded.

Whilst staring into the ashes of the crisis wondering if the phoenix was going to emerge I realised we needed to do things differently. I began to look into virtual teamwork and the more I read, the more I realised how important it was that we improved or virtual capability. I also came across clients struggling to find effective ways of working with their colleagues on other sides of the world.

Here is what I have learnt over the last 18 months:

Virtually the same

We prefer to communicate face to face, evolution has led us to a place where “synchronous face to face communication has been the primary mode of communication” (DeRosa, Hantula, Kock and D’Arcy). To put it another way, the more face-to-face communication we can achieve – the more likely our interactions will be successful. Unsurprisingly then, email is a very poor way of working together - it’s about as bad as it gets. You will have experienced an email exchange getting out of control as each part misinterprets the words and fires a challenging missive back that in turn generates more ill will in a vicious cycle of mutual self destruction.

So the challenge is simple – find technologies that enable you to communicate as close to face-to-face communication as possible.

Top tip
Telephone calls are better than email, and video calls better than telephone calls. If you have a choice – upgrade the communication medium to the highest possible available to you.

The challenges of technology

Technology on its own is not enough it brings its own challenges. When my own business was imploding due to an ability to work virtually we did have some technology solutions in place, we used ‘chat’ services and face to face tools such as Skype. However it was not as easy to use as it is today, the technology had glitches, it was unreliable and harder to use than email or making calls and therefore we stopped using it. We learned the hard way that the technology has to both work and be very easy to use. As Nunamaker, Reinig and Briggs noted in their article on effective virtual teamwork “technological glitches will cripple the productivity of even the most knowledgeable and motivated virtual teams”.

These days we use Google+ it has integrated into our email system and it is easier to make a video call than it is to pick up the phone and dial. Too frequently we have problems getting connected or sharing screens or obtaining sufficiently good image quality, however, its ease of use means it is our first port of call for contact.

Making a video call has become the equivalent of sticking your head around someone’s door and asking “….have you got 5 minutes?” Video calls have been one of the things that has made the greatest difference to the business. We have two team video calls each week. On Monday morning it’s about business administration issues and work coming up that week. On Friday morning it tends to be focused on specific client issues. In between we communicate as often as we need via video, conference call, phone, email, or SMS – in that order of preference.

Top tip
Use technology that is as easy to use and reliable as possible.

Distractedly present

As a facilitator, years ago the challenge was making sure people stayed focused on the topic in hand. I remember on one occasion, before mobile phones were day-to-day objects, someone trying to read a newspaper surreptitiously in a meeting. These days it is the lure of the flashing LED, the quick vibrating buzz that announces to the owner someone wants to tell them something and then the furtive attempts to unlock the phone, casually open the right app and read the content all the while nodding and pretending to listen. It’s tedious. You can either concentrate on your device or the meeting, but not both.

Similar things can happen in virtual team working sessions, for example if the medium is a telephone call, people can mute the microphone and go and make a tea or coffee, or respond to an email. Even when using video software, if everyone is looking at a document on screen they can't see when other people are no longer concentrating and are engaged in something else. A large screen can help here as it allows you to both view the document in common and also have on the display the other people on the video call.

What we’ve found works is simply telling everyone you need to respond to an email or message and then people can either continue the discussion or wait until you are ready to resume. Some honesty is required to make this work. Sometimes things come in which do require a quick response and with the team present it is possible to get a bit of input from them and deal with it.

Top tip
Be honest with everyone – if you have a pressing email that needs attention – stop trying to do it furtively, get permission to take 5 minutes and deal with it.

When the numbers start increasing

Currently, our business is working on a fun project to try and break a 46 year old speed record. It involves a large team and briefings take place via conference calls. In these circumstances we use a simple table like a school register with everyone’s name on it. After each discussion point we use the register to check in with each participant to ensure their views are heard. Whilst it feels a bit mechanical it does make sure everyone’s voice is heard and all viewpoints are considered.

In a face to face meeting you could just look around the room. On a conference call this is not so easy and it’s quite possible that someone gets dropped from the call and no-one knows until too late. In video calls it helps to check in with people with the same formality as deployed during conference calls. Whilst the technology is getting better all the time, it is still possible to miss someone’s attempt to get on the conversation.

Top tip
Use checklists of attendees to make sure you have involved everyone in the discussion. Check in with everyone regularly. It doesn’t require a big response from each person.

Be disciplined

It doesn't matter whether the meeting is face to face or virtual. Being clear about the purpose of the meeting and the outcomes sought helps ensure the time together is efficient and effective. This is particularly important in the virtual environment where digressions and tangents are not so easy to get back on track.

Top tip
Virtual meetings benefit from clarity and precision about the purpose of the discussion and the outcome sought.

Keep it simple

In virtual communication it seems even more important to make sure people are speaking a common language. In one memorable occasion I recall an extensive discussion taking place on the merits of a series of options. The debate became more heated and people more frustrated until the penny dropped – they were both talking at cross purposes. It sounds tedious and a touch pedantic but it’s worth occasionally checking what people mean by a particular term and concept. Just this morning my colleagues were surprised by my lack of enthusiasm on a topic – it took a while for them to figure out I hadn't seen a significant email and for me to realise I was missing something. Once this misunderstanding was sorted, normal service resumed.

However clear you think you are being you should assume and be prepared for misinterpretation. According to Nunamaker, Reinig and Briggs “Virtual team leaders must communicate directions in painstaking detail” this has certainly been our experience, even more so when working virtually with our customers in other countries where conversations are conducted in people’s second or third languages. On this note cross cultural differences apply to the virtual world as much as they do to face to face communication. It’s important to be sensitive to cultural nuance.

Top tip
Consider having a lexicon of commonly used terms to ensure everyone understands what is meant when a given term is used. Don't be afraid to check what people mean by the words and concepts they are using. If you feel unsure – the chances are others will too.

The future of virtual teams

Last year, Venkatesh and Windeler published the results of a longitudinal study into the use of technology in virtual team collaboration, in particular comparing 3D technology with other more widespread tools. The findings are intriguing. It seems that the use of Avatars (a graphical representation of the user) can facilitate engagement. It seems that if your avatar is attractive (whatever that looks like!) you are more likely to self disclose. If your avatar is tall then you are more likely to be confident in a negotiation. What’s more, with an avatar people tend to be more comfortable expressing themselves. What is clear is that whatever the technology is used, it can help drive team cohesion.

Top tip
The pace of change in technology is rapid, keep in touch with developments. Be curious to try and experiment with new tools. The more methods we have at our availability to ensure high quality interaction between team members, the better.

It's about people

I loved the concluding point to DeRosa et al’s article: “No matter how complicated the new technology may seem, it is still the human that is the most complex, flexible, and adaptive part of the system. To the extent that we can adapt communication technology to ourselves, we will, and to the extent we cannot adapt the technology, we will adapt to it.”

Top tip
People are adaptable. Help them learn how to use what’s available and they will be able to use it. Have faith in people’s ability to embrace technology, millions now use smartphones without ever going on a course to learn how.

So what about us?

Our disciplined effort to learn how to use the technology at our disposal has paid off. Never before have we worked so effectively as a team. But, and it’s a big but, we have also instigated a regular face to face meeting where few existed previously. This meeting is perhaps the foundation of our success as a team with the use of technology allowing us to maintain the cohesion, effectiveness and enjoyment of working together between times.

Top tip
Face to face communication is still the best.

Dominic Irvine Founding Partner of Epiphanies LLP 16th December 2013 All rights asserted

Pippa Gibb
Senior Account Executive
McKenna Townsend
PR Week’s Ones to Watch
t. 01425 472 330
f. 01425 470 766
e. pippa@mckennatownsend.com
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