Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Needed: a virtual assault on global warming

NO SMOKE-BLOWING: Virtual teaming is the new green energy
As I zipped between airports on my way to Research Triangle Park this week, burning jet fuel in an oxymoronic quest to tell the world about the benefits of working virtually, scenes of the massive oil spill unfolding in the gulf haunted me on every public TV I passed.

I think this event has the potential to be a wake-up call for us in the IT industry, start-up and established players alike.

We can't afford to wait for next-generation energy sources to be discovered, developed, and commercialized. That shift from fossil fuels to green energy will take a generation.

Meanwhile, we have to conserve energy and protect the planet now. And that means we have to establish the next-generation workplace now -- one that makes good use of virtual collaboration technologies to cut fuel-burning, emissions-belching travel. How much of our business travel is actually necessary? I dare say a small fraction of it, once a virtual workplace is factored into the equation.

We need to step up as a society, and show the world it's possible. We need to stop talking about the mobile, high-performance workforce, and start empowering it. And it's not just about flying. It's about driving and railroads, too.

We recently had one of our life sciences customers in the Mid-Atlantic area take stock of how much commuting was going on between their New Jersey and Pennsylvania campuses. It wasn't that far, as the crow flies. But multiply that by thousands of employees, thousands round trips per week, tens of thousands of hours of productivity lost, untold gallons to fill 'er up (along with however many tons of carbon emissions), and now we can say, "Houston, we have a problem."

Most industries are publicly committed to working virtually, whether they call it telecommuting, the mobile workforce, or virtual workplaces. In meetings with top brass at global companies, I hear time and again that "virtual teaming" is a key strategy of these organizations. But the frustration and disillusionment sets in when people attempt to spend a day on platforms such as WebEx, GoToMeeting, etc.

There are two fundamental problems that surface. First there's the notion of spending a day "on" WebEx (or what have you). Whenever you work virtually with a 2-D "flatland" meeting product, you are "on" something but not "in" anything. Second, there's the squishy use of the word "meeting" to describe these tools. In truth, they're not collaboration platforms. They're screen-sharing programs. Big difference.

Compare this conceptually to a 3-D workplace powered by ProtoSphere. The team members are invited "in" to their virtual office. It's a place (not a screen) where they can see their coworkers come and go, sit and talk, share ideas, work on documents and projects together, and collectively tap the businesses other IT assets. They can also work with data in 3-D, as visualizations, gaining perspectives and insights that are simply not available in 2-D.

That's not a sales pitch. It's a definition of the gating factors that dampen the adoption of virtual teaming, and a statement of the opportunity we have to overcome these gating factors -- and the opportunity to have a measurable impact on the environment -- by teaming in 3-D.

We can now work with anyone anywhere, without burning fossil fuels, and without losing our humanity in a 2-D flatland screen share. The time is right for bold business leaders to set the pace, and lead by example. We can empower a massive and highly productive remote workforce with a 3-D high-performance workplace like ProtoSphere. And doing so would have a measurable impact on the planet, not to mention the bottom line.

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