Improving Communication to Inspire Greater Productivity Inside (and Outside) the Office
Today, I’m working remotely from my home office outside Chicago. I’m not sitting in an office—although sometimes I do.
When A.T. Kearney first began consolidating and integrating its voice, video, and audio messaging systems in 2005, the preceding sentiment might have sounded strange. The idea of work and home didn't easily translate to productivity or a feasible work style. In the subsequent years, work-life trends changed allowing more employees the flexibility to work from home. But more than that, working remotely—whether at home, on the road, or from a client site—is a necessity for a global company with a large majority of knowledge workers.
I’ve been with A.T. Kearney since 1997. We compete in the strategy, digital transformational, analytics, procurement, and M&A space for business professional services. When I first joined, I was primarily responsible for internal operations, architecture, and strategy, managing the WAN and campus networks, IT suppliers/VARs, and globally dispersed data centers.
Today, my role is Senior Enterprise Architect, which aligns a broad and encompassing global set of responsibilities, network architecture and operations, application delivery, cloud integration, application, network and endpoint security, and unified collaboration.
A.T. Kearney employs 4,300 people in 60 offices across more than 40 countries. Some of these offices are relatively new in comparison and pose unique operational challenges as the company expands its reach and increases client services. But the nature of our company—and what we offer our clients—is this global reach.
At the same time, the nature of consultancy is that those knowledge workers are constantly on the move—most of them likely working remotely for some part of the week or month as they engage with clients, leaders, and governments, and continue their professional development pursuits. This goes over and above the general employment trend of people working from a traditional office, though that sometimes applies as well. All these factors place extremely high demands on our communication networks as we keep our employees connected, wherever they are in the world.
Away with Limitations
When we first put our telephony platforms in place, there were two companies that could compete on the global scale we required, and of those two we initially chose Avaya. In hindsight, Avaya lost our business because of their deployment and delivery models. They still wanted to contractually tie us to large PBX infrastructures that we couldn’t centralize nor regionalize. But we needed unified communications at every office.
Our issues and subsequent challenges with Avaya ended up limiting our capabilities to grow and deliver additional services. Plus, the cost of maintaining their islands of infrastructure at 50 remote sites began to add up. But A.T. Kearney was going in the opposite direction. We needed to reduce our hardware footprint and complexity at remote sites in an effort to consolidate IT staff and broaden support capabilities that one team could provide.
In 2005, we switched to , which was the only other company that could meet our global requirements. In addition to centralizing our platforms, we wanted to widen our unified collaboration offerings and operational capabilities. We also needed to deliver an enterprise collaboration capability on a global scale.
With Cisco, we could leverage most of our existing infrastructure by converting our existing data-only routers to voice and data gateways. In the past, these were separate and distinct components. There was a voice infrastructure and then a data infrastructure. Using Cisco, we were able to combine our voice and data onto a single platform which equated to additional operational improvements and infrastructure savings.
Centralizing our voice infrastructure also meant greater commonality across the enterprise. Until we moved to Cisco, we were, like most companies, working with an amalgam of turnkey voice systems based on who local suppliers were, and where offices were located. Integrating our systems with Cisco paid off, resulting in globally comprehensive dial plans, integrated communications infrastructure for both voice and data, ultimately becoming the network artery needed to deliver business benefits from our unified collaboration strategies.
Global Company Seeks Global Partner
The process of replacing all of those systems and phones in 50 offices took about 18 months. Part of the transition included consolidating our network and voice teams, so my network administrators became voice administrators, and voice administrators quickly adopted fundamental network capabilities and subsequently became network admins. That transformation required cross-training, but it meant every member on the team gained needed skills required to provide comprehensive and transparent support.
From an architectural perspective, we were able to centralize or collapse, for example, nine locations across North America and Canada into a single data center. While it took a whirlwind tour to get it all done—consolidating 40 localized PBXs into regional PBXs in Dusseldorf, Hong Kong, or Chicago—was worth it. Centralizing all of the collaborative technologies into the data center provided immediate financial benefits and operational efficiencies for the company. We’ve been on this journey with Cisco for quite some time. Being early adopters of Internet for data and voice transport in 2005, resulted in some bumps and bruises along the way. But we learned so much from those earlier challenges.
One of the things we learned early on—long before we began this consolidation process—is how to validate designs and build global templates. When it came time to validating the consolidation of our PBXs into regional centers, we tested capabilities from Sydney, Australia, because we would never have a location farther from Chicago, Dusseldorf, and Hong Kong than Sydney. If it worked at that location, it would work from any of our locations, so we spent some time at our Sydney office testing these capabilities. Replicating those designs and lessons learned to all offices has been a successful model for us.
We are always reviewing future IT ecosystems where we fail first to ensure we're acutely aware of capabilities and services within the marketplace. At any given time, we might have a product trial underway, or a few of our users leveraging tools outside of the portfolio of services we offer globally.
The question a company of A.T. Kearney’s international scale has to ask is: What is the most consistent support and procurement option globally? Whether it’s in New York, Shanghai, Dubai, or Johannesburg, the product and services need to be consistently supported and stable. Being able to replace failed products in cities throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia Pacific is crucial for us, and we can do this with Cisco. We had already been using Cisco products in many of our offices—it was just a matter of switching support models and aligning routers to a phone.
We believe Cisco is the best positioned vendor to integrate and deliver a unified collaborative experience for all of our users globally. We experience consistency with Cisco’s support model, because the company works on a global scale. We can track the sun based on who is on the other end of the line when we call Cisco support. And whether we call at 5 p.m., 10 p.m., or 2 a.m., there’s always someone competent to speak to, with extensive product knowledge.
The competency of Cisco’s support team is crucial when you’re trying something ahead of the curve and transformative. Challenges are a natural part of implementing a new product, and Cisco support teams understand their products. As a leader of a global support team, I know how IT support should work. During our early implementation with Cisco, if resolving an issue took longer than our support engineer’s shift, they would hand it off to an equally competent engineer on the next shift, in the next country. That was fantastic. What we were doing was very new, and Cisco's support and product teams were committed to supporting our products with a timely resolution for any issues we raised. There aren’t many companies that can provide that consistent level of support across time zones.
Video: For When You Have to Be in Two Places at Once
We didn’t stop upgrading our systems with voice, and we've now added video. We’re doing one million minutes per month on our internally-hosted version of . For A.T. Kearney, Webex video conferencing provides cost savings opportunities and helps us to manage operational expenses consistently on a global scale. Last year, we upgraded, replaced, and integrated video conferencing units because video usage for internal calls was increasing, our users' demands were increasing, and we wanted to offer this same experience with our clients. We made this decision because we began to see our clients using video, or at least agreeing to use video as an alternate engagement method.
Our consultants are busy and at times offering support across several client engagements. They often have to be in two places at one time. Typically, they travel the early part of the week, making it back on Thursdays for social and team development opportunities that take place on Fridays. While some can’t make it back in time to participate, it’s still important that they are able to connect with the office—especially to attend professional development training to remain integrated and competitive in the marketplace.
We’re now adopting to integrate video as well as to share content. Both integrate well with third-party training tools, which means our consultants and internal staffers can attend required hours of professional development and training. These tools will allow the trainers to be in one part of the world with a host of people attending remotely from many other corners of the globe.
Today, even time spent travelling between remote sites can be used effectively. Our employees can easily work remotely from any location where they have a private space, an Internet connection, and Webex. It could be at the airport or from shared work spaces in cities or countries where we don't have a local office. Travel time used to be considered unproductive time. Even if you had connectivity on the plane, if you were flying from Los Angeles to Sydney, some viewed those as 15 unproductive hours. We don’t see it that way today. By whatever means you travel, you can still be productive with these collaborative tools from Cisco.
This all ties back to gains in productivity and reductions in cost. Cost is easy to measure, but productivity not so much. We do look at better interactions, conversations, process workflows, teamwork, and ultimately greater decision-making. These are the needed outcomes for a financial consulting firm such as ours, but they’re difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.
And as difficult as it is to quantify increased productivity, it’s easy to see the difference in quality. It’s about giving employees the confidence and comfort to not be in the office and produce their very best work. That’s important when you work for a large, global firm such as A.T. Kearney. Better communications now means work can happen anywhere, anytime. Our employees appreciate the freedom and flexibility.