Transcript of the live chat session that took place Thursday, September 5, 1996.
These sessions are scheduled for noon-1 PM US Eastern Time (GMT -4) every Thursday.
These sessions are hosted by Richard Seltzer. If you would like to receive email reminders of our chat sessions, simply send a blank email message to firstname.lastname@example.org or go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/businessonthewebchats and sign up there.
For transcripts of other previous sessions and a list of future topics, click here.
For an article on how to make "business chat" work (based on this experience), click here.
Since the chat itself happens at a rapid pace, it's often difficult to note interesting facts in particular URLs as they appear on-line. Here's a place to take a more leisurely look. I've rearranged some of the pieces to try to capture the various threads of discussion (which sometimes get lost in the rush of live chat).
Please send email with your follow-on questions and comments, and suggions for topics we should focus on in future sessions. So long as the volume of email responses is manageable, I'll post the most pertinent ones here for all to see.
Threads (reconstructed after the fact):
We're here to share experiences about doing business on the Internet -- particularly the World Wide Web. What works? What doesn't work? Why? What are the trends that matter? How can you/should you adapt to the Internet culture and environment?
I work for the Internet Business Group at Digital Equipment in Littleton, MA. In that capacity, I end up talking to people from large companies about how they can use the Web for business.
I also have my own personal Web page -- which is content rich and no frills -- which I do for practically nothing and draws a fair amount of traffic and attention. And I'm also a member of the Boston Computer Society, which runs these weekly chat sessions.
In a chat session like this things can get pretty frantic. It's sometimes difficult to follow the threads of conversation. And there's no time to write down interesting URLs and facts. So last week, I took a copy of the raw transcript and edited it to make the threads clearer and posted it at my own little Web site so anyone could take a look. You can see it at http://www.samizdat.com/chat8.html I plan to do the same today. Barring technical difficulties, I hope to have a transcript up later today. I'll post it at the same site, naming this one /chat9.html Those transcripts should soon be moving to a new URL in the BCS space at boston.com
Today, while we'll (as usual) be open to questions of all kinds about business on the WWW, we would like to focus on Virtual Companies. Are there any? How do you define them? How do you run them? What Internet tools are essential for success?
Richard Seltzer (184.108.40.206) - , 11:59am -- If you are interested in this topic and would like to share your experience please identify yourself.
Jim Dorval (email@example.com) (220.127.116.11) - , 11:57am -- Hello.
Richard Seltzer (18.104.22.168) - , 11:59am -- Welcome, Jim. Have you had any direct experience with virtual companies?
Jim Dorval (firstname.lastname@example.org) (22.214.171.124) - , 12:01pm -- No Richard, I have no experience with Virtual Companies. Although there is a tremendous amount of work at Vivo done from home or on the road, we all have offices.
Harris Sussman (126.96.36.199) - , 12:03pm -- Hello, it's Harris Sussman trying to figure out this system
Bruce Platt Comport Consulting email@example.com (188.8.131.52) - 12:05pm Hi, This is Bruce Platt from Comport Consulting Corporation. Richard and I "team" on these sessions, and so I'm here as an invited guest/expert :-) We do Internet / Intranet implementations. firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Tom Dadakis (184.108.40.206) - , 12:25pm -- Sorry to be late. I'm just catching up with the conversation
Richard Seltzer (220.127.116.11) - , 12:07pm -- Todd -- Thanks for the followup on ad prices. I'd really like to know if anyone has data on whether such ads have any effect at all on sales. Considering how annoying I find such ads and the fact that I often turn off graphics or use Internet Fast Forward to blank out ads, I wonder if they are worth anything at all.
Tom Dadakis -- Sorry I missed last week & don't know if I can make 12-1 on Thursday. I have been following the summaries. I am currently leading the development of an Intranet with 6 programmers onsite for a Fortune 50 division in CT (we are under a non-disclosure). However your topic regarding virtual companies caught my eye, so I wanted to relay my experience operating a virtual production line in cyberspace, in case I miss the 12-1 period on t 5. Dave Carr wrote an interesting article in the July 22nd, 1996 issue of Webweek about my experience and others. My email to Dave follows this message. I hope this is what you were thinking of for your topic.
Richard, the discussion forum you host is a great resource; I just wish the chat software would allow threaded conversations so I could follow one conversation at a time. I find your synopsis a great help even for those days I do participate. At the beginning of this year and continuing through the Spring , for a firm under contract to Thomas Register Publishing, as Project Manager, I developed, organized and operated a high volume webpage production line producing 30-50 website catalogs per week supervising 25 programmers ( 5 of which were webmasters). All of these programmers were part-time employees who worked at their own location. They used their own equipment and software.
We were actually virtual production line in cyberspace. The original material was usually prepared for print, came to us in many different formats, such as Syquest tapes, Zip disks, floppies or hard copy. It could be in Quark, Pagemaker or just plain text. I was responsible for planning & allocating resources, project scheduling according to skills, software and hardware availability. The original material would be picked up by the team leaders. The team leaders would get the material to the programmers The programmers then would deliver the finished websites to an ftp site we set up as a drop site which all of us could access.
The website was then processed through a three level Quality Control. The team leader would be the first to review the finished webwork. Either the team leader would make necessary corrections (typos, spelling, proper HTML code, dangling HTML tags). If the team leader approved the work, the team leader would notify the Proofer through email that there was work to be proofed. The Proofer, who had previous experience as a publishing proofreader, would duplicate the review the work for same items as the team leader plus would look for specific conformance with the 10 pages of specifications as required by the client. The Proofer would email the team leader about anything which was not acceptable. After the first couple of sites, the HTML coders understood what was expected. I, as Project Manager, was cced on all of this and would follow the production and corrections at the ftp site. As Project leader, I was the final review and responsible for any corrections or errors which were not made.
Once the site was ready for delivery to the client, it was posted to a website for review by the client online (although they also liked a copy on an electronic medium, either disk or tape as backup). This method allowed everyone to see the final product. The website was password protected to keep the search engines from listing these sites before the client was ready. With everyone working at their own location, this electronic production line would not be possible without the use of a network like the Internet This system was scalable to any size volume. While we had some startup problems (AOL users couldn't ftp their finished work) and some programmers did not do the work for which they were contracted, we were able to operate with multiple HTML coders in multiple locations and operate a virtual production line in cyberspace. If you have any questions, you can call me at 203-622-4717 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Seltzer (18.104.22.168) - , 12:06pm -- That was rather long. But I believe it describes a typical kind of situation. Yes, it was "virtual" in that the participants all worked from home and used their own equipment. But I'm hoping to get a glimmer of other kinds of experience which could help us better define "virtual company" and how working and managing in that environment differs from traditional experience.
Bruce Platt Comport Consulting email@example.com (22.214.171.124) - 12:11pm -- We actually do this in our company. We use mail, of couse, to send quotations, workstatements, etc. back and forth between offices. But we also have outr own intranet forum using the AltaVista Forum product so that we keep pre-packaged documents available for people in field offices (their homes, often) available to use. It works well. We also have our own question and answer room so that sales people can ask questions of tech-support. We are not completely virtual, but a lot of what we do couldn't be done without the tools for a virtual world
Robert (126.96.36.199) - , 12:08pm -- Hello Richard, Great topic, but I don't see anyone saying they are working in 'virtual teams'and using the Internet. Someone has to be doing this, don't you think???
Harris Sussman (188.8.131.52) - , 12:09pm -- Robert, I'm a virtual consultant using the internet. Does that count?
Richard Seltzer (184.108.40.206) - , 12:09pm -- Harris -- I know that you have been a "visionary" in the human resources area for quite some time. What is your take on the trend toward virtual companies? Do you know of any good examples? Are there unexpected human problems that can arise even when the best technology is in place?
Harris Sussman (220.127.116.11) - , 12:11pm -- Richard--there's a lot of virtual activity out there; whole universities are virtual; many people call outsourcing a form of virtual-ly extended organization, lots of interest in Telework in the UK for a long time...
Richard Seltzer (18.104.22.168) - , 12:12pm -- Robert -- Yes, we need establish some definitions. At Digital, there are lots of "virtual teams". That's simply a matter that a project needs to be done and done quickly and the people who can make it happen are in different organizations. So we have traditional meetings and connect using the network, and one way or another the work gets done. We also have a sales force that for the most part works out of their homes and connects to information resources inside Digital by dialing in (they are now movingtoward using tunnelling and encryption, connecting securely to our private network by way of local ISPs). That also is "virtual team" in some sense.
Bruce Platt Comport Consulting firstname.lastname@example.org (22.214.171.124) - 12:16pm -- Not to be humorous, but maybe the right term for todays discussion should be virtual work. That is, work that gets done outside of the traditional context of people working together within the same four walls.
Richard Seltzer (126.96.36.199) - , 12:19pm -- Bruce -- Right -- "virtual work" seems to describe the majority of things of this kind that are happening today. But the potential seems to be there for true virtual companies. For instance, it's easy to imagine several small companies coming together and acting as a single company for the duration of a project. Now if that is done informally, it seems like just "virtual work", and online collaboration. But put some structure around it relating to who is in charge, how decisions are made, and how budget issues are resolved and that begins to feel like a company. (At the same time that more organized behavior probably raises a slew of questions about taxation, liability, etc.)
Bruce Platt Comport Consulting email@example.com (188.8.131.52) - 12:21pm -- Richard, I think a key point that needs to be added to the virtual team and/or virtual company is that people are pulled into these teams, made part of the effort, for a defined project. So, people come together to get a job done, then depart when it's over, then join another team. They are part of a "real" team, their environment might be virtual, hence the thought of calling it virtual work.
Richard Seltzer (184.108.40.206) - , 12:16pm -- Harris -- I can understand "virtually extended" just as I can understand "virtual team." What intrigues me though is the notion of "virtual company" where these ad hoc kinds of measures take a more stable form. In other words, I can imagine (but don't know of) companies being formed inside of companies. For instance, a large company like Digital, with Internet capabilities in many different organizations could conceivably define at "virtual company" consisting of key people from many traditional organizations and also partners and consultants. And a structure of reporting/budgeting etc. could be defined for that company within a company. Is any one moving in that direction? It seems like Internet tools like Forum and chat and email etc. could all make that possible.
Harris Sussman, firstname.lastname@example.org (220.127.116.11) - 12:19pm -- Richard, I'm not talking about ad hoc; the virtual/interconnectivity can be institutionalized. There are virtual bookstores and libraries that are "permanent"
Richard Seltzer (18.104.22.168) - , 12:23pm -- Harris -- Can you please tell us more about virtual bookstores and virtual libraries. In those cases is it simply a matter of sharing resources/information? Or are the employees also working in a virtual realm?
Harris Sussman, email@example.com (22.214.171.124) - 12:26pm -- sorry, the timelag of this thing is throwing me off by at least two questions--Richard, the "employees" (obsolete term) are dispersed, can be a neural net. In various university programs, the faculty is dispersed; cyberspace is the virtual campus and virtual community, or virtual R&D group, or consulting firm, etc.
Harris Sussman, firstname.lastname@example.org (126.96.36.199) - 12:21pm -- I like what Bruce said--you have a consortium arrangement which extends and redefines your sense of "company." The issue is where you draw your boundaries.
Harris Sussman, email@example.com (188.8.131.52) - 12:24pm -- a company is more than white boards/that's about thinking/expressing yourself--a company is about relationships and transactions...and those go way beyond white board--
Richard Seltzer (184.108.40.206) - , 12:26pm -- Harris -- Yes -- beyond just a whiteboard, transactions and relationships. That's got to be part of the definition.
todd moyer (220.127.116.11) - , 12:28pm -- Harris - Can't one have working relationships electronically? Isn't that what we're doing now? I only which I wasn't constrained by this !@#$keyboard.
Robert (18.104.22.168) - , 12:29pm -- Harris, your note about boundaries and agreements bumps up against some of what business has become. Just as 'loyalty' is harder to maintain, how can you engage and then disengage over the web? You can't expect virtual teams to 'unlearn' what has been shared amongst that consortium arrangement, can you? What then is the basis for the contract and 'boundaries' as you noted?
Bruce Platt Comport Consulting firstname.lastname@example.org (22.214.171.124) - 12:38pm -- Can we focus on these things: 1. What are the tools that make this concept work? 2. How does one find the people? 3. How does one make sure it works? I'd be willing to forgo for now any discussion of exactly what a virtual company is, since it seems to be a slippery idea, yet we each seem to have at least a glimmer of what it is.
Richard Seltzer (126.96.36.199) - , 12:47pm -- Bruce -- You're right. We should get more concrete. I'm presuming that we need the usual collaboration tools -- forum and chat, and the kinds of things that are in their beginning stages like whiteboards and videoconferencing. Email is presumed. But I'm wondering outloud if there might be the need for some other kinds of software as well for helping to managing projects that happen in virtual space, for dealing with budgeting and accounting sort of matters that could well be complicated by the intangible and informal nature of most virtual business relationships. I'm not looking for accountability in the sense of spying on people to make sure that they are working, but if we have a goal to meet by a certain date and money is at stake, I'd like all the tools I could put my hands on tokeep the project moving in the right direction.
Pam Harris (188.8.131.52) - , 12:40pm -- Bruce: Hi, I am just joining you. Sorry to be late. I was wondering if it is really a safe assumption to think that if a company has all of the "tools", they will then be more profitable? It seems possible that the risks to having all of the "tools" is a high price to pay for profitablity versus having the "right" tools to enhance profitability.
Bruce Platt Comport Consulting email@example.com (184.108.40.206) - 12:47pm -- Hi Pam, Welcome. Well, there are some measures. For example, we don't send faxes anymore. That saves more than enough money to pay for the Internet connections and tools. We know that people's productivity has increased because many people can collaborate on a draft without having to keep re-keying in the information. So we can see overall costs go down, and we can see more work getting done. Specific case. We have more tech support people than sales people here. The t-s people are so proficient at working with sles in the way I've mentioned that we can now add more sales people and still keep the same level of techs to back them up. Another example. One of my recent customers is a very large international shirt company. They are going virtual, though they don't know it yet, because we're giving them the ability to work informally in ways they never did. Their savings will be over $100K per year even after they pay us.
Bruce Platt Comport Consulting firstname.lastname@example.org (220.127.116.11) - 12:31pm -- Richard, The accountability part is interesting. In my case, I use all these tools and technologies that we have discussed to have my company employees suceed at their goals, which are selling and delivering expertise. We don't measure anything yet other than revenue, expense, and margin. We assume the tools make things more profitable, since they make the business work better. I can conceive of how to do it, but we haven't needed to yet. I can also conceive of the formal way in which people would insitutionalize the measurement techniques you mention. Here's a few of them. Analyze web logs, analyze ftp logs, analyze mail logs, come up with costings based on these and other measures.
todd moyer (18.104.22.168) - , 12:36pm -- Bruce - I think your hitting on an interesting point, about supervisiors knowing who's doing what when they're out of sight. As we move from industry to information it gets harder to quantify work. The earlier example about publishing had semi-tangible output. But for something like software it's harder.
Richard Seltzer (22.214.171.124) - , 12:42pm -- Todd -- I agree that management at a distance may be easier with technology development projects than it is in other businesses. It seems that everyone who is participating today works for a high tech company. (Am I wrong?) If you have an engineering goal and a schedule, it probably doesn't matter where the software engineers sit. But consider the more general case -- You want to set up a business where you contract for skilled people over the Internet, and you all work together for an extended period of time. Someone is in charge. people get paid for their work. But the workers are free to work on other projects for other companies at the same time. For instance, say you are an ISP and you want to set up a network of folks who can answer customer questions from home -- you might want a management structure that is flexible and virtual but yet has accountability.
Richard Seltzer (126.96.36.199) - , 12:32pm -- Harris - I've heard those terms. I'm trying to get a more concrete feel for how that actually works. For instance, at Digital, in our ancient past we had "matrix management" where it seemed like everybody had two or more bosses. You were part of a function and also part of a line organization (and maybe had more responsibilities). That led to all kinds of problems, by multiplying middle management positions which were mainly intended for information gathering and filtering. With a "virtual company", using Internet tools, I could imagine a company that has a very flat organization -- not much in the way of middle management. Someone is in charge. But everybody links to everybody else in their normal work. There's lots of comunication. But (as in matrix) some people are part of more than one virtual company at a time. I'm curious how that plays out -- whether it's actually workable, whether some Internet-based people management tools may be necessary.
Harris Sussman, email@example.com (188.8.131.52) - 12:32pm -- Hey, I'm sorry to say it, but some of you--you, too, Richard--are talking about the nature of a "company" in the pre-cyber sense. Cyber/virtual changes everything, from loyalty (Robert) "having" employees--in virtual terms, you no longer have proprietary people or ideas. This is the new economics of the public domain...
Harris Sussman, firstname.lastname@example.org (184.108.40.206) - 12:38pm -- gosh, I guess I've been out of the office too long. Sounds like some of you are just trying to write code that will bring the office online, another example of replicating the "desktop." Virtual means it operates according to different laws, self-organizing systems. Richard, matrix meant people were "solid line" to some people and "dotted line" to others. What happens when everyone is dotted-line to everyone else?
Richard Seltzer (220.127.116.11) - , 12:37pm -- To me, it feels like we're still at the amateur stage when it comes to "virtual work". Sure, we can work together using Internet tools. And for some projects an informal approach is best. But when you need to move money around and budget and get loans and prove your viabiliity and productivity to some outside set of business people, you need some sort of formal structure. The less the better, I believe. But some structure is necessary. If several little companies come together on a single project, there must be financial accounting at some point and hence controls and reporting methods need to be set up in advance. How do we get the best of both worlds -- the flexibilty and informality of "virtual" and the accountability of traditional business? Or is that impossible?
Bruce Platt Comport Consulting email@example.com (18.104.22.168) - 12:41pm -- I spent some time when I worked at Digital trying to help develop ways of measuring whether people not working from a traditional office would be working, and how much time they would. My final conclusion was that there are lots of "unobtrusive measures" to measure what people do, but they only work if one starts from the premise that people will be working not goofing off.
Harris Sussman, firstname.lastname@example.org (22.214.171.124) - 12:44pm -- Bruce, with all respect, why would you want to measure what people do? That's sweatshop thinking, unobtrusive or not.
Bruce Platt Comport Consulting email@example.com (126.96.36.199) - 12:50pm -- Harris, Exactly, The people that asked me to do this wanted to make sure people were working. I finally convinced them to accept that they would. In other words, I convinced them that the effort of measuring too closely didn't justify the cost of a few people taking advantage of not having a manager next to them. Nevertheless, I'm smarter now, and I know that for some things like projects we have to account for costs in developing the finished product.
Tom Dadakis (188.8.131.52) - , 12:34pm -- In response to Robert's comment to Harris; it is my belief that skills will be more important than experience. Give a hot HTML or C++ programmers who may right out of school, rather than some one who has seen the fads come and go.
Jim Dorval (firstname.lastname@example.org) (184.108.40.206) - , 12:36pm -- Tom, does that mean that experience is detrimental to skill?
Jim Dorval (email@example.com) (220.127.116.11) - , 12:37pm -- I have some hot graduates working for me, and we would be knee deep in it if it weren't for the experienced workers.
Tom Dadakis (18.104.22.168) - , 12:46pm -- Jim, (again my opinion) Experience gets in the way sometimes when there is a paridigm shift such as the one we are presently seeing from the Internet & how it affects the workplace, our concept of work and our structure of organizations. I don't care where my co-workers are located or when they do their work, as long as they do their work. I can tell you from a management point of view, I have a whole different attitude towards my associates because I know that they could be working for someone else tomorrow.
Tom Dadakis (22.214.171.124) - , 12:51pm -- Let me clarify, when I said when the do their work I meant what time of the day or night. I am very concerned for deadlines and whether they complete their task or not, ontime and on budget. Sorry for not being explicit.
Bruce Platt Comport Consulting firstname.lastname@example.org (126.96.36.199) - 12:52pm -- Tom Dadakis looks to me like hes figured out a good part of what needs to be done to make sure that work progesses nicely towards it desired conclusion. And, Richard, I agree that this is important.
Richard Seltzer (188.8.131.52) - , 12:51pm -- Tom -- I'm with you. I understand that the fact that virtual workers could work for someone else tomorrow does lead you to respect them more. But what interests me most is a variation of that. Say your virtual workers works for someone else today? Say people have the freedom to do work for several different companies simultaneously, so long as they are not competitors. That frees the worker. That also means that when you only need the worker for parttime, you don't end up having to pay for fulltime. But that also means a different kind of management style and accounting and accountability. That's what I'm trying to get at -- not a mimic of the traditional world, but a way to be able to manage at all in a more wide open world.
Harris Sussman, email@example.com (184.108.40.206) - 12:53pm -- Richard, I agree with the direction you're going--and that makes "loyalty" a different matter; not exclusive or monogamous loyalty, but an ethical loyalty.
Jim Dorval (firstname.lastname@example.org) (220.127.116.11) - , 12:33pm -- I am not interested in the esoteric definition of Virtual Company. I am more interested in how you solve the problems in creating one. For instance, would a voice recognition product be helpful for todd? Or would a chat product with audio be a better solution so that anyone can speak? How would you maintain source code, finished code, testing, integration, etc?
todd moyer (18.104.22.168) - , 12:18pm -- Like Richard, I also work at DEC which is a wide-spread company. We keep a fair amount of data on our intranet and use e-mail heavily, but there are some things that require human contact. For instance, I can't type as fast as I can talk, and often have spur-of -the-moment whiteboard sessions when in the heat of design/implementation.
Richard Seltzer (22.214.171.124) - , 12:21pm -- Todd -- I believe that there are some interesting white board applications coming soon (if not available already). I suspect that the tools for on-line meetings will improve radically in coming months.
todd moyer (126.96.36.199) - , 12:26pm -- Wow, Richard - "months" sounds quicker than I was thinking. We already have teleconferencing equipment, but it's cumbersome and expensive.
Richard Seltzer (188.8.131.52) - , 12:28pm -- Todd -- I dont' expect all to be wonderful in a few months. But there's an awful lot happening and the videoconferencing stuff is starting to look good if your bandwidth is good enough. Of course, the proof of the pudding will be when on-line meetings actually lead to a cut back in face-to-face meetings. I haven't seen any sign of that yet. (Maybe I'm just a wishful thinker.)
Robert (184.108.40.206) - , 12:43pm -- Ralph, what is your definition of 'Strategic Partner' in this virtual contracting work?
Ralph Wilson (220.127.116.11) - , 12:44pm -- "Strategic partner" is a subcontractor or freelancer whom I can trust and sub out work to.
Ralph Wilson (18.104.22.168) - , 12:49pm -- Electronic "sweatshop" is one way of phrasing it. But trust and corresponding loyalty is the key ingredient. And that takes a period of communication and working at small projects before the big, important ones come along.
Robert (22.214.171.124) - , 12:48pm -- Harris, maybe this whole thing finally becomes an electronic 'sweatshop' with piece part payments for units of 'work' done. That makes you a Strategic Partner. Someone you can trust. Maybe that is where loyalty re-surfaces in business?
Harris Sussman, email@example.com (126.96.36.199) - 12:49pm -- Good point, Robert. It seems to me some of us are talking about Using the Internet from our workplace, while others are talking about the Internet IS our workplace...
Harris Sussman, firstname.lastname@example.org (188.8.131.52) - 12:54pm -- Sure
Gary Paul Howland (184.108.40.206) - , 12:54pm -- Yes. I will try to contribute next time.
Pam Harris (220.127.116.11) - , 12:53pm -- Richard -That sounds great. It's a fantastic subject.
Bruce Platt Comport Consulting email@example.com (18.104.22.168) - 12:55pm -- yes, I would, but let's get our heads together and try and bound the discussion a little, perhaps we could devote several mores sessions, one on workforceplanning and devlopment, one on measurement, one for quality, and one for tools. Or some combination. I'm easy today:-)
Richard Seltzer (22.214.171.124) - , 12:57pm -- Bruce -- I like those suggestions. Let's talk.
Bruce Platt Comport Consulting firstname.lastname@example.org (126.96.36.199) - 12:57pm -- I may be unable to join next week, though I'll try I will be at the Seybold Office Conference in S.F. demonstraing what we and Digital do. I just will have to remember that left coast time is earlier than right coast time.
Ralph Wilson (188.8.131.52) - , 12:55pm -- email@example.com,http://www.wilsonweb.com
todd moyer (184.108.40.206) - , 12:57pm -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Richard Seltzer (220.127.116.11) - , 12:56pm -- If you have followup thoughts, please send them to me by email at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll add them to the transcript so we can all share them and react to them.
Richard Seltzer (18.104.22.168) - , 12:57pm -- Thanks very much for your participation. I hope you'll join us again next Thursday. Same time, same spot.
We'd like to continue the discussion this Thursday, but with a sharperfocus if possible.
As a step in that direction, I'm trying to sort out the natural categories.Here's a first shot -- comments/corrections welcome.
Basically, the terms are used to refer to any instance where companiestake advantage of Internet capabilities to allow people to work anywhere (geographic independence). Their goals are typically lower overhead costs and great flexbility, and sometimes also the ability to readily draw on a broader skill base than their regular employees.
I see six categories:
1) EXTENSION OF NORMAL COMPANY OPERATIONS Regular employees are allowed, encouraged, or forced to work at homeand on the road. This approach reduces the need for office space/buildings, and can result in higher productivity (since many employees consider the flexibility of work-at-home as a benefit). The emphasisis on management by performance rather than by hours sitting in front of a desk. Many companies were already moving in thisdirection before Internet capabilities became widely available.The Internet just speeds up the process, makes it far easier to movein this direction, and makes remote workers more effective.
The basic Internet tools needed here include email, access to corporate information, and ability to share files with otherworkers.
To many of us, this is largely a known commodity, with new Internet capabilities letting us do the same kinds of things better.
2) CONTRACT WORKERS & VIRTUAL TEAMSIn this case, workers operate on contract for the duration of acontract, providing their own equipment and office (home) space.They work for one employer at a time, but do not receive benefitsfrom that employer. (Sometimes they work through anintermediary company that finds them jobs with one companyafter another, provides them with benefits, and takes care ofall tax and governmental requirements). Inside a large company, workers may also be recruited to workfull-time on particular projects. These workers may be from various departments/divisions and may work anywhere (home oroffice). Contract workers may also be part of the team. Forthe duration of the project, their main boss is the project leader.
To perform efficiently, these project-oriented workers needappropriate computing/networking infrastructure to handlethe bandwidth and also the levels of confidentiality required and yet maintain maximum flexibility (tunnelling, encryption, virtual private networks). They can also use the latest and greatest collaboration tools (chat, forum, videoconferencing, white board, etc.) And they need not just to share information and documents but also to keep track of and control various revisions of documents and monitor quality and performance with respect to goals and schedule.
Much of last week's discussion centered around this kind ofvirtual work. This is probably the heart of the matter in termsof what we can share with one another and benefit from in thenear future.
3) VIRTUAL WORK SERVICE COMPANIESA new class of business is arising, devoted to making it easier to other companies to work in virtual mode. Thisincludes companies like Kinkos that provide office equipment at their sites for use by customers who are on the road ordon't yet need such facilities all the time. It also includescompanies like Mailboxes Etc. which can provide a localsnailmail address and/or voicemail and other communications capabilities. And in addition, other companies rent outcompletely equipped office space on a temporary basisand provide shared secretarial and office services andcommunications capabilities. It's only natural that such companies all increasingly include Internet capabilities intheir offerings. Today their main sales pitch relates to low cost (because the fixed cost of office equipment and support people is shared with other customers) and flexibility. In the future, they could sell to a broaderbase because they provide access to Internet-basedvirtual work applications which are not yet in wide-spreaduse, and because they allow very rapid startup of virtual operations, with guaranteed high bandwidth (and without having to worry about infrastructure).
Large companies could also benefit from setting up similar operations internally -- to facilitate the rapidstartup and effectiveness of virtual teams with membersfrom various deparments/divisions.
In addition to the Internet tools mentioned above, here we'd expect to see more special applications requiringhigh bandwidth (of the videoconferencing variety), andalso higher levels of security. The value-added of theseservice companies and internal service bureaus will derivein part from them being on the leading edge -- making available quickly and easily applications that most largecompanies have not yet implemented.
This is a bit futuristic, but seems to have considerablenear-term potential. I'd be very interesting in hearing about current offerings of this kind.
4) INTERNET-BASED TEMPO AGENCIESAs an extension of the temporary worker services nowprovided by companies like Manpower and Kelly,there will be a need for service companies which are basically corals for virtual people. These companiesprovide several kinds of value-added:o they make it easier for employers to find not just individuals, but also virtual teams of individuals, whoare used to working together on similar projects,o they handle all the governmental regulatory andtax-related paperwork (and cost), ando from the employee's point of view, the agency is the source of benefits, and helps find the next assignment.
Here the set of people available for assignment couldrange from office support to technical support toprofessionals who prefer to work through an agency rather than take on the risk and paperwork headaches ofoperating as independent consultants.
To expand in this direction, such agencies will needbetter tools for quick match making, not just ofindividuals but of virtual teams. This is not just anextension of putting resumes on the Web, like today'sInternet-based employment services. It will requirelarge databases that include a wide range of specificskills and other detailed information. And the potential employer will do the searches directlyonline.
This segment is barely in its infancy.
5)INTERNET-BASED CONSULTANTSIn the consultant model, the individual worker is his/her ownemployer and contracts his/her services to various clients. Whilethe contract worker has one employer at a time and works throughan intermediary company, the consultant typically has more than oneclient at a time and operates as a "company" (as far as governmentis concerned) and hence has the extra burdens of paperwork andtaxes, as well as having to continually market/sell to get newassignments.
Consultants today tend to have special knowledge/skills/experiencethat make them unique in some way (it would be harder to plugsomeone else in to finish the job). That uniqueness is the value-added which enables them to charge far more for their servicesthan a contract worker. And that additional revenue is needed tocover the extra burden of taxes and paperwork, and to fund marketing/sales efforts (including generating proposals for jobsthat don't materialize), and to bridge slow periods, which littlework is available.
Internet capabilities should make it easier for consultants tohandle more clients more quickly and effectively, while reducingthe need for travel and making it easier to market to and servevery remote clients.
Longer range, consider than one of the main advantages of Internettechnology is the increased flexibility it can provide. From thatperspective, it follows that the old formula linking one workerto one employer at a time need not continue to apply. Differentclasses of workers (not just top-notch professionals) might find it desirable and profitable to work for more than one employerat a time, in a mode similar to today's consultants. New kinds ofagencies (or an evolution of today's agencies) might be able tooffer the services of such individuals on a time-shared rather thanexclusive basis. And in some cases, companiesmight find it advantageous and lower cost to employ such peopledirectly, rather than go through intermediary companies. Here the virtual workers need tools for managing time and billing/collecting on-line. And the clients/employers need tools to helpthem manage for performance and keep track of the progress ofcomplex projects (done with shared workers) over extended periods of time.
This extension of the consultant model is very futuristic right now.While logical, it raises numerous complex issues. How do youmanage employees in this environment? What constitutes conflict ofinterest when one worker serves several companies simultaneoulsy? What's the applicability of laws designed to protect the rights ofworkers? If one country protects such people and another does not,issues of cross-border competition come into play.
6) ELECTRONIC SWEATSHOPThis term came up a few times last week. In an electronic environmentwhere virtual workers are paid on contract on a piece-work basis, this is a serious danger. It's easy to imagine large numbers of low-paid people operating out of homes or in overcrowded warehouses in thirdworld countries, doing virtual work for anyone anywhere in the world.
While this is an undesirable outcome, it does have economic logicbehind it; so we shouldn't ignore the fact that some entrepreneurs willhead in this direction and use Internet-tools to make their operations more efficient and profitable. Long-term, this alternative is likely to impact the pay-scales, work conditions, etc. which prevail in theother models noted above.
For this coming Thursday, my preference would be to focus on #2 CONTRACT WORKERS & VIRTUAL TEAMSand #3 VIRTUAL WORK SERVICE COMPANIES.
Please let me know your reactions/suggestions. And pleasehelp spread the word.
Thanks very much.
Date: Mon, 09 Sep 1996 07:33:43 -0700
Richard, that's a very impressive memo about the 6 variants (as Svetlana would say) of virtuality. I "heard" several others in the chat Thursday--about how ad hoc/transitory a virtual arrangement is vs. how routine/embedded in normal operations.
I thought one of the other things that made the chat diffuse was that some people were talking about the "tools" (hardware/software) and others were talking about the sociology of dispersed work. To me, any of those subjects is valid, it's alternating between them that made me dizzy. We could spend, say, 10 minutes on tools, in a more coherent way--(what are your favorites, what's missing)... Then you could switch us to group process among dispersed people (your #2). Or to business opportunities--your #3. If we segmented the hour that way we'd at least feel some closure on any given piece. And the timelag of the system wouldn't be as dislocating.
Date: Mon, 09 Sep 96 11:06:00 -0700
These are good examples. I'm speaking on a panel this week at a Seybold Conference in S.F. about virtual organizations and will definitely try to make use of these different definitions. I'll let you know how it goes.
You need to explicitly call out "Collaborative Product Develop", which is becoming more and more typical as products become more and more complex.
I don't see how that fits nicely into one of your buckets. This is virtual team stuff that spills across multiple company boundaries.
I've seen other mentions of real-world virtual organizations. The last "Rolling Stones" tour was considered by many to be a prime example of a virtual corporation. Two dozens different organizations came together for 9 months and generated $200M in revenue. Then they all went away.
Mick Jagger is no longer just the frontman for the Rolling Stones, he isthe CEO of Rolling Stones, Inc.
Date: 5 Sep 96 10:37:34 EDT
I apologize for the tardiness of my list, but my workload has been a bit heavy.
I tried to update the list, and it is still not finished, but here is what I have at this point.
A majority of the vendors on the list were point to point products (such as Carbon Copy) and not multi-point so I filtered them out.
Date: Thu, 12 Sep 1996 13:18:44 -0500
My whole name is "Harold" Messias and I am the President of a small marketing company named TechCentral (http://www.techcentral.com). The website provides the front end to my (hopefully) expanding business.
All my employees ( 3 at present) are remote from my office in Hingham, MA., and two of them have never seen my office.
I appreciate your answers to my questions and not complaining about my initial stumbling as a first time visitor to your chat session.
I look forward to the session next week and have a real interest in virtual work, as you would have seen from my last, but too late, question.
Date: Sat, 14 Sep 1996 13:18:14 -0400 (EDT)
Thursday was indeed a strange day.
boston.com had technical difficulties that made it impossible for anyone to connect to the scheduled chat for the first 20-30 minutes of the hour. By the time it was finally fixed nearly everyone had given up in frustration.
That's fixed now and (hopefully) won't recur.
Also, that same day, we found out that the Boston Computer Society (20,000 members strong) is dissolving -- it no longer exists. They were sponsoring the chat sessions at boston.com and hence helped to spread the word.
The Globe/boston.com is very interested in the potential of chats, and they want this to continue.
Bottomline -- we will resume our Business on the World Wide Web chat sessions as usual next Thursday, September 19, noon to 1 PM. And we'll pick up where we left off -- discussing virtual work. At that time, we also should share suggestions on how to spread the word about these sessions in the absence of BCS. (I'm starting a list of people who would like to receive email reminders, but that's just one small step.)
I hope you'll be able to join us on Thursday.
Thanks for your support.
Richard Seltzer email@example.com
Date: 14 Sep 96 14:08:31 EDT
Great news that the chat will continue.
http://www.bcs.org/news.html has a list of the sigs which will continue. You could post a message that the chat will continue.
I follow 4 sigs on a regular basis and attend meetings when they are related to my work: Window95, Component Software Dev, WebTech and WinNT. All four have announced that they are going to continue. So although I was in shock Thursday morning, I have realized that my life will not really change much. The first 3 groups have mailing lists.
Assuming that they find funding to continue the emails, I bet that they would be willing to add a short statement at the bottom of their messages to let people know about the chats. Also they make announcements at the beginning of the meetings, and that would be a good time to remind the audience about the chats. Let me know if you want me to forward the latest emails from these groups for the contact person's address.
You probably got the email entitled: "Formal Suggestion for the Future of the Internet Sigs in Boston", which was dated 9/13 . If you did not, let me know and I will forward it.
Another great place to announce the chat would be on Gina Smith's weekly talk radio show - "On Computers". Have you ever heard it? It is on WBMW , AM 680, Sunday's 1-4 EST. Their site is http://www.oncomputers.com/ . I listen to it any time I am at home on Sunday doing boring things like cleaning the house or cooking! They broadcast from the west coast, so if you join their chat line, it starts 3 hours earlier. I would not be surprised if Gina mentions the demise of the BCS, so if you email her info about the chat, she could fit it in as proof that computer life will continue in Boston.
Thanks for all of your work!!
Nancy Enright firstname.lastname@example.org://www.vacation-inc.com/rentals/enright.html
Date: Sun, 15 Sep 1996 23:39:42 -0400
Though not a member, I was shocked to hear of the sudden disbanding of BCS. Politics rearing its ugly but omnipresent head, no doubt.
Of course your online meetings must continue. The recent e-mail exchanges on virtual work mark a new level of participant interest and focus. Workload made it impossible for me to attend last week--but it sounds like I didn't miss much! I'm looking forward to joining you this Thursday.
In your note you mentioned that boston.com is interested in continuing to host the chats. Let me add that, if you find yourself looking for a new host, I'd be willing to discuss making space at Intranet Design Magazine(sm). The site is hosted at North Shore Access (shore.net) in Lynn,MA, an excellent ISP. Response would likely improve. In addition, IDM'snascent readership has an international flavor; UK domains account for 15% of our hits. Hosting at IDM would allow us to try different chat programs, such as AltaVista and a Perl CGI I've co-developed.
Let me know if this appeals to you. In any case, have a good week! See you Thursday.
Gordon Benett, Innergy, Inc., 155 Myrtle Street, Waltham MA email@example.com://www.innergy.com/
REPLY TO ABOVE
From: Richard Seltzer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Mon, 16 Sep 1996 17:32:43 -0400 (EDT)
Thanks very much for your support and offer of help.
The chat sessions will continue uninterrupted at boston.com I hope you'll continue to join us each Thursday. Your input has been very valuable.
If you wish, please feel free to mirror the transcripts at your site.
Our main intent is to build audience and spread the word for the benefit of all. Anything you can do to help would be greatly appreciated.
Richard Seltzer email@example.com
Date: Wed, 04 Sep 1996 18:42:48 -0700
I'm sorry I missed your chat today. But let me ask you some questions:
1. Are you using WebChat ver 0.2 or a later version on the Boston Globe site?
2. What is the largest number of contributing participants you've had at one time? What is the optimum in your opinion.
3. Have you been able to measure the number of lurkers at the live chat?
I am seeking to learn to use this medium for my Web Marketing Cafe as well as for teaching on the Internet. I think it holds a lot of promise. I have modified WebChat 0.2 so it can take HTML input from the moderator end only, not from the participant end. This way I can send out formatted text in several paragraphs, which the group can then interact with. But I've only got the concept so far, not the actual experience.
REPLY TO ABOVE
From: Richard Seltzer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Wed, 4 Sep 1996 21:53:31 -0400 (EDT)
I'm not sure what software boston.com is using. Whatever it is, they have made numerous changes to the base product. check with Heidi Gitelman email@example.com
I believe about 10 is the highest number of active participants we've had, and that's close to the limit without modifying the software to allow a moderator to screen questions.
I'd love to know how many lurkers. boston.com has been unable to provide any stats. It's sheer guesswork right now.
With the software at boston.com, I can use cut and paste -- so I have Word documents prepared in advance with things I know I'm going to want to say, and cut and paste paragraphs in when needed.
I also go out of my way to edit the transcript afterward, creating threads and making the content far easier to understand.
RESPONSE TO ABOVE
From: "Dr. Ralph F. Wilson" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Thu, 05 Sep 1996 07:28:39 -0700
Thanks for your response. I'll try to check in on your chat today.
I found that WebChat 0.2 strips out the HTML characters that allow you to have more than one paragraph at a time, bold face, etc. By simple modifications to the moderator's program only, it gives the moderator more flexibility to communicate information.
Previous transcripts and schedule of upcoming chats -- www.samizdat.com/chat.html
To connect to the chat room, go to www.samizdat.com/chat-intro.html
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