Enabling the Virtual Company

October 5th, 2010 4:34 pm Category: Operations Research, Optimization, Optimization Software, by: Jim Piermarini

Jim Piermarini
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At Profit Point we are in the ‘Science of Better’, and we are always looking for new ways to do business, both for our clients, and for ourselves.  When we started, we had the challenge of being a virtual company, that is, we have never had a corporate office space. Since 1995, each of us has always worked from home.  While there are numerous benefits of this style of company architecture, including having a family that actually knows who you are, and keeping the company’s overhead to a minimum, it also has its drawbacks. Like forcing each person to make the deliberate decision about when to start work, and harder still, when to stop work each day. We knew when we started this company that we wanted to keep our overhead costs low, so a virtual office seemed like the natural choice.

More recently, we have been faced with another challenge, how to reduce the cost of the projects we do. Projects in the supply chain business require a certain amount of industry and company specific knowledge.  Until recently, we had been building into our projects ample on-site time where the project team could gel and collaborate and build the trust that is needed for the free flow of ideas.  But the world has changed, and we have changed with it.   No longer are big travel budgets a normal part of the projects we see. So the challenge was: how to reduce the travel expense line item, without sacrificing the project speed or quality?

In the consulting business, there is sometimes no substitute for ‘face-time’.  So travel to the customer site perforce happens.  Over the course of the last 15 years, I have seen a marked drop in the amount of time that we need to travel, going from 60-70% a decade ago to less than 20% currently, and this has been brought about primarily by two factors: 1) Companies simply do not want to pay the travel expenses. Since 9/11, most major companies have been slashing their travel budgets, and expect their consultants to follow suit.  One particular project comes to mind where I had seen travel expenses that were as much as the consulting bill each month. But in general, we see pressure to reduce the travel expenses that are generated by projects across the board.  2) ‘Remote Touch’ Technology has provided the means to travel less.  There are some great remote desktop control tools that allow two or more people to have a telephone or VOIP conversation, and look at the same computer screen, to discuss and collaborate on ideas and tools.  These web based telephony and remote control tools have eliminated the need for travel to a greater extent than you might think.   Many of our projects today have only two face to face meetings, one to kick it off, and one to present the results or close it out.  Some of our clients are handled successfully without any face time. I must say though, that in our experience, low face-time projects only work well within the culture and language: that is, when language and culture barriers exist in the project team, face-time is the best way to bridge these gaps, and mitigate the risk of project overruns and delays.

In business, technology comes into being as a means to enable better business processes.  The processes that we use that are enabled by this remote touch technology includes an agile approach to solving business problems or developing software solutions.  We use several readily available web based tools every day in our business, and boy have they allowed us to reduce the travel expenses.  These include:

GotoMeeting.com

This is the best remote touch tool out there in our opinion.  Until a robust free app comes along, this will remain the best value for the money.  The best part of the app is the recent addition of the integrated VOIP, where you can use a head set (I would recommend the Logitech ClearChat PC Wireless Headset: http://www.logitech.com/en-us/webcam-communications/internet-headsets-phones/devices/4226) to join the integrated telecon line.  This has the advantage of freeing up your phone, and being instantly connected to the telecon as soon as you start it.  No more long telecon numbers with their passcodes! We use this many times every day, and it is the primary reason why we can travel less.

Box.net

This is a simple to use and secure web based file storage and sharing application that fosters and supports collaboration with people both in your company and externally.  We love this app, and my clients seem to as well.  Just drop a file into this app, and share it securely with anyone with an email address. Use it when email attachments just will not do, due to size limitations, or just when the email hassle is too much.

PivotalTracker.com

This is a terrific project management tool that is designed for agile projects, and makes it simple to create and manage user stories for tool development.  While inviting new members can be a hassle (since their email seems to get caught in many spam filters), once they are in, these folks have made a stellar user interface to manage the tasks in a project of nearly any size. Use it to track bugs too. We have done several projects using this tool. and we will be using it for many more.  Great tool.

TableauSoftware.com

If you like to look at data, like we like to look at data, then you will want to look at Tableau.  You can think of it like a pivot table / chart on steroids.  You open it, connect to you data, (whereever or what ever data you’ve got, it can connect to it), and then you start to explore your data like you’ve never been able to before. Like a pivot table, you can drag and drop fields, aggregate data along dimensions,  and make sums, etc, but the really cool part of Tableau is the part where it suggests new ways of the looking at the data.   Go ahead, make maps, heat charts, time phased graphs, whatever.  Then you can assemble the graphs into a dashboard. Dashboards are the best.  Want to see a ton of data distilled down into a very compact visually stunning view suitable for management? Get a copy of Tableau, and you can make that view in minutes.

Used appropriately, these tools, and others like them, have enabled us to travel less, and work faster and better. (and more!)

If you have other great apps like these that enable better business processes, I would love to hear about them.

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