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September 10, 2012

Collaboration: Physical-Virtual. And Potent.

Posted by Arindam Banerji (View Profile | View All Posts) at 6:45 AM


Online collaboration, for all of us, is familiar terrain. Blogs, wikis, social media, collaboration applications on forums like Facebook, and social-CRMs are an integral part of our everyday life. But, collaboration can have a very different dimension - Virtual physical collaboration. This is actually a concept that preceded the invention of the World Wide Web and has, in fact, been commonly leveraged in the arena of healthcare - specifically facilitating telehealthcare and telemedicine. For instance, teletransmission of ECGs was popular with doctors as early as 1975. This system was also used to remote-monitor pacemakers fitted out for patients residing in inaccessible parts of India. It helped  doctors remotely interpret arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and reach medical aid. Today, telehealth has advanced to a point where remote testing of patients, physicians' consultations and even remote robotic surgery are all possible. 

So, virtual-physical collaboration is typically a simulation of same room presence and interaction by making tools, equipment, processes, transactions, people and applications appear connected and co-located. This is facilitated through a variety of technologies, some of which may be modern, while others go back to the pre-Internet era. It is a fundamentally unique model of collaboration, reified  and made repeatable, with the purpose of applicability to multiple processes. Consider, for example, its use in the technology space.  

Over the past decade, software product release cycles have shortened significantly. And, suddenly processes that made perfect sense for release cycles of 18 months or more, don't work as well when release cycles are crunched down to 6 weeks or even less. One approach, to make the software development cycle processes more effective, in such short cycles of development and release, is to put all the requisite teams at one location. But, this is very often not practical - especially in the context of large globally distributed teams. So, teams have begun to leverage many of the constructs of virtualized physical collaboration:

Same room effect through telepresence or video-conferencing 
Desktop sharing across multiple sites and locations 
Remote control and management
Deep and seamless integration of surround applications 
Immersive experience of the GUI, enabling participants to interact as if they are, indeed, together 

This approach to bring people, processes and transactions (not just online transactions) together may have a remarkable set of new uses. Consider fast fashion.

As Business Week puts it, in the recent past, small cut-rate clothiers out of Europe and Asia "have raked in more customers and bigger profits" than traditional large US apparel companies by "mass producing low quality digs that keep pace with runway styles". Fast fashion implies idea-to-shelf in 3-4 weeks, as against the conventional 6-9 months. So, how do large apparel companies play the "catch-up" game? Virtualized physical collaboration can come to their rescue. Apparel makers can instantaneously put the latest designers, competitive global apparel sources and even fashion testers, in the same room, through this approach, thus ramping up the effectiveness of their supply chain. Voila! Competitiveness restored!

Virtualized physical collaboration is something we've leveraged, in various forms, for decades now. The emergence of  technologies like telepresence and remote control/management has put its collaboration potential "on steroids".  The resulting acceleration in efficiencies for any interactive process is dramatic. And, as we productize this form of collaboration, what makes for an even stronger proposition is the ability to map this to a model of device-Cloud deployment. Now, that, I'd say, makes it a real clincher!! 

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