Polishing the People part of Global M+A: Let Collaboration Technologies be the Catalyst

Have you ever been part of a company that was acquired by another company?
How did it make you feel?  Bit of a wild ride, I bet.  I’ve been on the other side a few times, as part of IT teams integrating acquired companies.  Easily some of the most complex projects I’ve experienced in my career.  It’s no wonder.  Lift the rock off the simple (to draw in PowerPoint and model in Excel) ’synergies’ between two companies, and underneath can be what seems like a maze of people and processes, and loads of tribal knowledge.

At the most basic human level, an integration can be challenging because you’re messing with the core of people’s identities, which for many is who they work for.  (Side note, this phenomena has become so extreme that many are now dreading retirement, because losing an employer would represent such a painful lack of identity and self-worth!)  The challenge is even more extreme when the acquired company is distant, in geography and/or culture from its new parent.

I believe IT has a fairly straightforward way of helping this process along for everyone involved: proactive, thoughtful introduction of collaboration technologies to help connect people who are coming together for the first time.  Quite simply, if people aren’t readily able to come together, their respective orgs can not practically come together.

 

To further explore this notion, I reached out to a two experts from PGi, a provider of collaboration software to over 75% of the Fortune 100, in over 130 countries.  I spoke with Wendy Niebank, the Director of their PMO, and Niel Bornstein, a Technical Account Manager.  Both regularly work with global customers like SAP, Adidas, and E&Y, who are ever growing (and occasionally shrinking), across country boundaries.   Our conversation focused on virtual meeting technologies (conferencing), i.e. tools that enable people to come together ‘online’ for a meeting, from anywhere in the world.
The bottom line is YES, they’ve seen these technologies being the prime enabler for an integration, but IF/ONLY IF they’re thoughtfully deployed.   They shared some tips with me, especially for European to North America integrations.   Hope they help you, be you the acquirER or the acquirEE!

Get to know the people involved; connect the technology to their key use cases.

Virtual meeting technologies exist for all platforms (Mac, PC, mobile, tablet) and all meeting styles (small, large, scheduled, ad-hoc).   That’s a lot of ‘stuff’ to simply throw against the wall.  Much better to first identify the key ‘connectors’ (people!) involved in the integration, and capture their specific meeting scenarios.   Design a change leadership program to ensure those key scenarios are successful.  Be sure that IT and the Integration Office itself are able to effectively host online meetings, since they can model the way for everyone else.   Learn by doing!

Use the integration as an ‘excuse’ to ‘relaunch/refresh’ the solution for everyone.

There’s often a lot of energy and excitement when solutions are first introduced, but with the passage of time, and people joining a company after the solution was first introduced, there can be a drop-off in awareness.  An integration represents an excellent occasion to invigorate the conferencing user base across the company.
For example, Wendy shared that the use of mobile apps is a fairly recent development, and may not have been available when a company was first introduced to conferencing.  Why not consider a “Work Your Way” communication program, enterprise-wide, highlighting the use of mobile.   (BTW, she shared that the degree of telework, an indicator of work mobility, varies greatly between countries.)
Users not accustomed to having international participants on their call may be wary of doing so – maybe they won’t do it correctly, the costs might be exorbitant, etc.  Perhaps an enterprise-wide refresher would be helpful.
Model changes in Demand, so costs and user experience can be optimized.
Conferencing is an application layered on telecommunications plumbing.   Companies like PGi establish commercial relationships with telco providers in each country in which they operate, so their customers can ‘just meet’.
Integrations can generate significant changes in the volumes and flow of data across this infrastructure.   By modeling these changes, you can ensure sufficient and optimally priced ‘roads’ are in place for the meeting traffic to traverse.
Expect new stakeholders to emerge from doing business internationally. 
Each country may have its own privacy and data storage regulations.   Anticipate a security audit for IT itself as well as suppliers to IT.
Many European companies have ‘Works Councils’ representing the company employees with management.  Vendors who may be accustomed to communicating directly to users may be required to communicate changes through a Worker’s Council, which reviews each change for possible negative impacts to the workforce.    This model is especially widespread in Germany.
Caution: English has become the universal language of business BUT it’s not the only language.  
Even though the European colleagues you meet might be fluent in English, there may be others who don’t speak English OR prefer their own language.  (Naturally, they weren’t selected to talk to you, because you only know English!)
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Therefore, the conferencing provider needs to be able to provide training and end user support in both English and the local language(s).
I discussed recently the strength of having bilingual members of any virtual team.  By all means, an integration is a great opportunity to include any such speakers within the acquiring company – it’s a great way to connect with the European company.  Niel shared with me that PGi often involves Peter Stewart, a native German speaker, with their German customers.  It’s just an easy way for people to better connect.
Think Global, Act Local.
PGi serves each multi-national customer with a single, global Account Manager, but couples them with local resources for each country in which the customer does business.   That helps them be sensitive to ‘tech’ decisions that actually reflect significant cultural differences: examples include hold music, welcome message, and web site branding.
Different countries have different tax rates; currency conversion costs transaction costs.  Therefore, PGi works with its customers to tailor custom billing strategies to avoid needless costs resulting simply from how/where invoices are generated.
Discuss and agree on your ‘meeting manners’.
Different countries have different customs and meeting cultures.  For example, German meetings tend to be more formal and process oriented vs. US meetings.  Typically, there’s no right or wrong way to have a meeting, as long as everyone is aware of the ground rules.  Include in the integration project an explicit discussion of acceptable meeting behavior.
The laws of physics make this especially important for international calls.  Because data does take time to travel long distances across layers and layers of equipment, the lags may be noticeably longer than an in-country call.  Therefore, it’s all the more important for meeting participants to know the protocols governing the experience.
Don’t fly blind – use conferencing data to infer what’s really happening.
For strangers to become productive teammates, they have to engage and spend time together, even if they’re in different locations.  One model identifies 5 explicit relationship maturity stages through which we progress: Stranger to Familiarity to Information to Experience to Appointment.  This takes time!
Leaders can augment what people are reporting is happening in the integration with ‘collaboration intelligence’ reporting that show who’s meeting with whom how often.   Meeting ‘bread crumbs’ certainly won’t fully take the place of measuring operational results being achieved, but can provide warning indicators for groups that aren’t meeting together but you know they should!

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