Thanks to the green initiatives and cost-cuttings the latest buzz word in the high tech echelons today is virtualization – from machines to teams to supply chain to consumers… all are getting virtually connected in a huge complex matrix. While virtual servers abstract the hardware resources and share it efficiently to give a perception of a powerful dedicated machine to the end-user, virtual teams have to abstract location, vertical functional groups and leverage available employee resources efficiently to provide a single unified face to their end-users (who might be other internal groups/divisions, external customers, or the supply chain). However some of the biggest challenges in making this matrix work efficiently have not only been technological but also cultural in many ways especially when it comes to managing virtual teams.

virtual worldPicture Credit

From technology point of view although there have been several innovations (VPNs, Remote Terminals, Webex) that made virtual teams and collaboration possible, new challenges are cropping up each day. As more and more data from corporations is being made accessible throughout the globe to many teams, and intranet boundaries merge with the extranets, security is becoming a key aspect. Moreover, with widespread adoption of mobile devices into corporate networks, corporations face new challenges in integrating and managing multiple platforms and devices in their networks. Companies such as Cisco, Avaya, Lucent and others are investing big bucks into tackling these problems through unified communications (bringing all data – voice, video, data into a single pipe), device agnostic access solutions also known in some cases as endpoint virtualization (technologies that abstract the devices at end-user) and instant anywhere access solutions (giving sales and marketing teams the edge in their negotiations when they need it). Additionally, the challenges are not only limited to virtualizing corporations internally but now extend into supply chains and end consumers, bringing collaboration across the entire spectrum.

While technology is great to solve problems, its adoption and success totally depends on overcoming cultural barriers. How many of you have had managers who prefer that you show up in the office and do your work when you can do the same work from home (virtually) and be equally productive (show the same or better results)? Isn’t it just a cultural thing… I need to see you, otherwise I know you are not working!

Although that is just one lame example, there are literally many other cultural challenges that we come across as teams, suppliers and consumers are becoming increasingly global. Companies have to re-define organizational structures, and hierarchies to create the best possible teams by leveraging the right resources and available talent regardless of where each is located. At the same time consumer behavior also has to change in order to accept the virtual interface (for example how many people today actually end up in a physical bank when everything can be done online or through phone).

The applications for virtual technologies are growing everyday. Not only corporations but governments are adopting it today for e-learning, e-governance and e-healthcare initiatives. This not only increases collaboration within these departments in the government but also extends the reach of these initiatives to many. Perhaps an e-healthcare initiative in the US can help reduce healthcare costs and provide affordable access to many. Back in 2001, I worked on a project to design the optical backbone network for the Arizona Telemedicine Network and today’s technologies are far advanced. The ultimate recognition for virtual technologies, however, I think will be when governments adopt them for e-voting. How about an Iris scan/finger print authentication device at home, that allows you to sign in, let you choose your candidate and then sign out with the sign-in process? In countries like India which see long lines at voting booths and turnout is approx 57%, it would result in increased participation of at least the educated middle class in the electoral process. The only question in governments embracing these technologies is whether there is political will to make it happen.

I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this. And for those who want to learn more, I would like to invite you to the panel discussion I am hosting at the MIT CIO Sloan Symposium on 20th May.
Panelists include:
Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Chairman Emeritus,IBM Academy of Technology
Ms. Lorie Buckingham, CIO, Avaya
Simon Crosby
, CTO of the Virtualization and Management Division, Citrix Systems
Bilal Husain, Former Director of eServices Projects, Saudi eGovernment Program, Saudi Arabia
John Stone, President, CrossTech Partners, LLC

Its an amazing line-up that will bring more insights into this topic. The conference should also provide a great opportunity to network with the best in the industry!