Effective remote consulting

Marika Weinhardt
November 2010

Context: reducing carbon emissions
The UK Government has committed to reduce carbon emissions by 34% on 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050 as part of the transition to a low-carbon economy.  Although the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009 failed to secure legally binding targets, the UK’s target is among pledges from over 90 countries submitted to date under the Copenhagen Accord.  Taken together, pledges by these 90 countries account for 80% of global emissions from energy use.

What this means for business
For organisations like IOD PARC these targets present an opportunity to demonstrate, and defend if necessary, commitment to and investment in improving environmental performance.  Even for businesses without an environmental policy, it’s a chance to display innovation in order to get ahead of the game in terms of legislation, save money, facilitate work-life balance for their staff and capitalise on market trends to add value to their organisation.

In an arena such as international development, which is central to IOD PARC’s consulting portfolio, as in many other sectors, there’s also a clear moral imperative for reducing the climate impact of operating.  The Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2007, found that the regions likely to be especially affected by climate change included Africa, ‘because of low adaptive capacity and projected climate change impacts’ and the Asian and African megadeltas, ‘due to large populations and high exposure to sea level rise, storm surges and river flooding’.  The very regions the international development sector aims to support will be the first to suffer the damaging effects of climate change.


Jet-setting: the case for change 

To date travel has been central to the way in which consulting is undertaken in the international development sector and in others. It has been an important means of establishing relationships with clients, to understand the context in which they work, and to involve them and other experts closely in the work that development professionals undertake. Any global organisation with an internationally dispersed team or client base will have similar characteristics and face similar challenges. Travel certainly enables essential business processes but with the bigger picture in mind, it’s a good time to question whether travel in itself is an essential means to this end, and to consider the alternatives.

What are the alternatives to travel?

The popularity, quality and affordability of communications technology is increasing rapidly. As a result, opportunities for remote working have grown enormously in recent years. Email alone quickly transformed the global communication landscape and it’s worth considering what the next revolution might be. Organisations can draw on a range of technologies to communicate remotely with or solicit information from staff, clients and partners. These include landline and mobile phones, email, webcams, online surveys and video conferencing (VC), and free VOIP (voice over internet protocol, or web-based) solutions such as Skype as well as the mobile freedom granted by smartphone devices like the BlackBerry and iPhone. IOD PARC’s experience has demonstrated that these technologies can be used for the majority of interventions in the consulting process, including planning, technical work, analysis and progress meetings.

IOD PARC staff have found that use of VC and Skype generally increases performance in their work, client relationships, project cost and work-life balance. Their use very rarely results in a decline in quality or an increase in cost. In general we’ve found that VC works well although difficulties in connecting can be experienced due to variance in, for example, the compatibility of systems or the quality of phone lines, and whether those involved are familiar with the technology. The more engagement we have with particular clients, the better the technology seems to work.

However, technology is only one aspect. Just as important is the attitude of users and the effort required to learn how to work with these new technologies in a non-technical sense, for example how to conduct oneself in virtual meetings or how to chair them.

To travel or not to travel: key decision factors

And in everyone’s interest

· Mitigating travel risks: An erupting volcano, an airline strike or extreme weather can ground flights, delay work and cost money – remote meetings are a reliable alternative.

Changing behaviour: power to the client
Embracing a new way of interacting requires a shift on both sides, consultant and client, but presents an opportunity for the client in particular to affect a change, for example by making travel reduction a contractual condition. In the international development sector, there is growing political and financial resistance to the exclusive use of international consultants. Using national consultants who are mentored by international ones, if possible using remote communications technology, presents a two-fold opportunity to contribute to local capacity building and reduce long-haul travel. Companies like IOD PARC stand to benefit from building partnerships with organisations in the countries in which we work that will enable us to deliver in this more collaborative way.

Most of us enjoy travelling. We like to meet each other face-to-face and see the world for ourselves. Most of us know someone who likes to show off about how many places they can tick off on the map. At work, travelling to meet people may speed up the process of building trust and confidence but at the cost of slowing down the attainment of other objectives. For those in the habit of working like this, the perceived difficulty and extra time required in working remotely can feel less efficient than being face-to-face. The information exchange may be more efficient in person, but at what cost? Taking the bigger view, the efficiencies gained in meeting remotely tip the balance on the advantages of a face-to-face meeting.

Many professions look for field experience from prospective staff who in turn look for opportunities to travel with their job in order to get this on their CV. Clients can influence a shift of focus in recruitment towards a broader interpretation of ‘experience’ which may include, for example, evidence of effective remote team leadership.

Looking to the future
The future of consulting is one of making the case for travel in each instance and not defaulting to it. Such a significant change will require a new partnership approach to working in which everybody has a role to play. It presents a challenge but equally an opportunity to set a positive example and inspire others. Reducing travel need not compromise the quality of consulting services to clients. The case for mainstreaming communications technology into consulting offers multiple benefits in terms of reducing costs, saving time, benefiting work-life balance and enhancing environmental performance.