Over the last decade most firms have made some attempt at implementing Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software. Most experience lackluster results due to a lack of buy-in, process development, and unrealistic expectations. A few however have succeeded beyond expectations by taking advantage of Hubbard One's innovative ContactNet approach. ContactNet works behind the scenes with your Exchange Server to review your employees' calendars, email, and contacts. When the sales manager wants to know who is working with IBM, they can instantly get a solid answer about the nature and level of relationships already existing within the firm. The major benefits to the organization are the ability to answer the questions, without requiring anyone to change their habits or learn new interfaces. Pushback comes from those who feel the system is a violation of their privacy. To succeed, participants need to have an honest conversation about ownership of data on company systems, and a willingness to engage in CRM "on purpose." By agreeing to initially restrictive levels of visibility about the details of relationships, managers can work with their staff to realize the benefits of shared contacts, building trust around the use and power of that information. The lack of double entry in other CRM systems allows the end users to continue as they were, rather than being expected to update and track activities in a dedicated CRM software platform. By extending the same concepts to LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites, expanding a company's reach, and capitalizing on those networks is easier than ever before.
Another cause for concern is in relating off-site talent to employees. If you use off-site, on-call workers in your organization, how do other employees know who to contact to perform certain tasks? If, for example, a system was developed by an outsourced vendor, and a user has a problem, question, or idea, how do they know who to call? If they do manage to find the contracted external programmer, how does that programmer know how much time they can spend with that employee? If they do spend time, who pays? Well defined roles for all involved are required. This means that your organization's Human Resources (HR) department needs to expand their boundaries beyond salaried on-site workers and include all personnel in their sphere of control. If the off-site on-call worker is interacting with other employees or clients, HR has an obligation to include them in some level of ethics training and standards accountability. Ensure that your vendor contracts require them to abide by your relevant company standards and policies. Increase the efficiency of interactions by communicating well defined roles for each in-house and out-sourced individual. Include in those definitions the relationships between roles. Track activities of your staff, and vendor staff to look for patterns. If, for example, outsourced programmers are spending time on end-user support, then it may make sense to expand your training regimen.
For clients, working with an organization that uses off-site, on-call workers can be a bit unnerving. Receiving communications via gmail from someone you thought was an employee of the vendor can seem unprofessional and raises question of liability and accountability. While contracts between the vendor and the virtual employee can create clarity in the relationship, those contracts are rarely visible to the client. Make it clear with your vendor how you expect them to present themselves. Are they representing your firm, the vendor, or themselves as individuals?
So how can your firm engage the benefits of virtual organizations? Start with a business sponsored plan before spending money on technology. CIOs may pitch solutions across secure and expensive platforms in the name of security. The reality is that there is no security against a skilled hacker or a careless employee. Good process and checklists work well in reminding you to remove people from access to free externally hosted sites such as Google Docs or Ning. Working with these free sites is far easier and less expensive than a SharePoint implementation across multiple Windows domains and, when properly managed, can be just as effective.
Another great tool to consider is RSS (Really Simple Syndication.) RSS feeds can be used to easily integrate content into sanctioned portals. You can combine internal and external content into your branded web site. This helps blur the perceived lines between employees working at fixed locations and remote consultants. This dual approach results in the ability to bring the best talent to bear when needed and keep desk and payroll costs down when things are slower. In doing so, you have started your very own virtual organization. Add in a Ning site for facilitating blogs and you can allow people to collaborate on ideas without the need for travel. Store shared documents in Google Docs, and you don't need to rely on IT to setup network servers. Pop a few questions and ideas on LinkedIn groups, and you'll be amazed how quickly people will respond. Tweet now and again, and find people all over the world who may be interested in your topic. Establish a following, and you can turn those people into leads and clients or perhaps even off-site, on-call staff.
The combination of social networking, virtual structures, and cloud computing should allow a more rapid creation of working systems in the next business cycle. The winners will be those that capture the benefits and critical mass early. Virtual organizations have low startup costs and the ability to capture revenue more efficiently. Fixed infrastructure organizations that master the best of both worlds can outperform through the cycles by maintaining the fixed structure needed to provide well branded, stable services for their clients while expanding and contracting rapidly in synch with demand.
Outsourcing is here to stay. Cloud computing, social networking, and virtual organizations are useful components of an outsourcing strategy. By applying these new technologies and staffing structures to old problems, the creative manager can do more with less, and be more nimble. That allows you to innovate and capture more revenue in an upturn and reduce costs in leaner times. That's a smart strategy in any economic environment.