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The vast majority of the 510 business people surveyed by WorldCom rely on old-fashioned e-mail and telephone conference calls. But almost 20% now use Web conferencing--the latest and greatest long-distance communication tool that combines phone conferencing with visual interaction. Participants can see one another while conversing and can simultaneously look at maps, slides or software demonstrations. Web conferencing is still new to most companies, but it's catching on fast. In the WorldCom survey, a slightly greater number of companies reported using Web conferencing than videoconferencing. Jaclyn Kostner, president of Denver consulting firm Bridge the Distance, says that Web conferencing, if it's done right, far surpasses other technologies. People can brainstorm on an online white board or cast anonymous votes with a live poll. When their eyes and ears are occupied, they are less likely to do what people usually do during conference calls--check e-mail. "People sometimes leave our training and say, 'This was better than face-to-face,'" Kostner says. "They can collaborate faster."
A client of Kostner's, a large chemical company, had to change a manufacturing process to meet environmental, health and safety standards across 132 plant sites that use 12 languages. With Web conferencing, the company completed in 10 months a project that used to take five years. And it was able to save about $200,000 in travel costs, Kostner says.
Even simpler tools can make certain problems go away faster and shrink expense reports. In February, Cendant Corp. needed to design a facade for a hotel in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, that was becoming a Day's Inn. Architects and designers drew up rough drafts in the Parsippany, N.J., headquarters of Cendant's hotel division--which operates 6,440 hotels in 24 countries. Then the New Jersey team e-mailed the designs to Egypt and arranged a conference call with the franchise designers and operators in Sharm El Sheikh. "Before this, we would have spent $10,000 to $15,000 going out there, wining and dining them and coming back," says Eric Pfeffer, CEO of Cendant's hotel division. "Well, that's gone."
Still, there's no way to escape the airport entirely. Says Joe Raudabaugh, a vice president at the consulting company A.T. Kearney, based in Plano, Texas: "No amount of technology is going to take away the need to have a relationship with my boss." One-on-one mentoring helps retain skilled employees and motivates them to work harder and smarter. You can't export company culture over the Internet. And you can't build the kind of trust and loyalty that team members need to share when they are working under a deadline 6,000 miles apart. Virtual-management consultants say bosses must--at a minimum--visit in person when offices or projects start up and at major milestones.
At ServiceMaster's headquarters outside Chicago, international vice president Ralph Odman, 55, oversees pest control, housecleaning and other service franchises in 13 Asian countries. Technology has allowed the corporate office to become more involved in the franchises than at any other time during his 33-year tenure there, he says. He and ServiceMaster's team of three U.S.-based managers support franchises across six continents--helping implement new contracts and maintain quality standards. But Odman still packs his bags and goes to Asia about 10 times a year.