It had been over 20 years since I had been on a hay ride. I daresay, that probably holds true for the majority of the participants at the recent #GWTS2014Summit…but let me start at the beginning. Leadership, Business, Management

A year ago, we put a twist in our annual budget and planning cycle. Many companies and departments conduct offsite planning “summits” and we had always done much the same. In 2012 we added something I had talked about doing for years. We invited some of our vendors to participate. To be invited, the vendor had to be a “strategic partner” (see “Three Keys to a Lasting Relationship“). So, after my management team had spent a day and a half reviewing business plans, trends in the industry, and trends in technology, our vendors arrived. We spent the remainder of the second day reviewing those plans with them, asking for feedback, and asking for general questions.  For the inaugural event, the feedback we received afterward was very positive, enough so to repeat in 2013.

Always looking to improve and listening to the feedback from the that first event, we made some changes to the format.

First of the changes…Twitter and the hashtags. As I talked about in a previous post, Twitter is my new way of taking notes at conferences (see I will never take notes again). I thought…”why not”. So, I created the hashtag and began tweeting first thing in the morning of day one. I encouraged my team to join in (though I must say NO ONE DID, ahem, are you listening?). I also sent a note to the entire department and our vendor partners suggesting they follow along with the activities through Twitter. Our day began in the Roosevelt Room at Fort Harrison State Park (ok, that is significant, but to find out why, you have to read a future post about my journey with Theodore Roosevelt).

Day one was focused on internal discussions with our management team. We reviewed business and infrastructure plans, however, we dedicated the meat of the day to open discussion, about the department, our company, and where we are versus where we want to be. Believe it or not we ran out of time!

As day one of discussions came to a close, it was time for another departure from the prior year. As I mentioned, last year the partners came at the end of day two. While the conversation was good, I believed it could have been better. So, this year, we had the partners join us for dinner at the end of day one (now before anyone reading this panics and thinks we bought dinner for 35 vendors, we did not, we asked that each vendor attending pay for their own meal. There, feel better?). The dinner was catered by the park at one of their shelter houses.

My team and I headed down to the shelter house while our guests began to arrive. Many had met the year before, or had been involved in joint meetings with us. However, there were some new faces to introduce to each other. This was one of the reasons for the shift to the end of day one…to get the introductions out of the way. Keep in mind, some of these vendors represented companies that were competitors of each other (not on our account mind you, but competitors in the market just the same). We had warned them all to put on their big boy and big girl pants for the event; it was after all about transparency and dialogue.

Gradually, the conversation began to shift from introductions into curiosity. Why HAD they been instructed to dress casually and wear outdoor shoes? Where we going to hike? Where we going to have a scavenger hunt? Maybe, a “vendor challenge”? (btw nice tennies, Steve!) Soon the sound of a large tractor could be heard in the distance. Since only two of knew what was happening, no one noticed. Moments later a large John Deere (Dave, picture our John Deere salute here!) tractor pulled into the parking lot next to the shelter house. It was pulling two large wagons filled with hay. Still, not many noticed.

I stood up on one the picnic tables to get everyone’s attention and announced, “Before dinner, we have a surprise for all of you! You may notice the two wagons behind me, everybody…follow me and pile in, we are going on a hayride”. At first the crowd didn’t move, as if they thought I was kidding. Me? Kid? I don’t think so…let’s go folks EVERYBODY IN!  Finally, 40+ of Indianapolis’ finest business people were piled in the two wagons and we headed out for a 45 minute tour of Fort Harrison State Park.

Business, Management, LeadershipAt first there was some awkward chit-chat and bemusement, I don’t think many of them could believe we were actually on a hay ride. The further along the pathways we traveled, the polite chit-chat gave way to laughter, spirited conversation and picture taking.  You could sit and watch the inner child come out. By the time, we were halfway done, there was debate about which wagon was the “cool, more fun wagon”. (Personally, I think the one I was in was the cool wagon!).

After the adventure, the dinner was served. I think the hay ride dominated the conversation at most of the tables.

The next morning as we gathered in the Roosevelt Room, the evenings activities had the exact effect we were looking to achieve. The greetings were boisterous, the conversation lively, and…the ice had been broken. We kicked off the meeting with a special guest and a dear friend of mine, Dr. Dan Miller of Historical Solutions (www.historicalsolutions.com). Dan provides leadership training, team building, and executive coaching, all in the context of exploring history. Those of you who know my passion for Lewis and Clark would think we were twins separated at birth. Dan provided us with an historical perspective of our surroundings, in the Roosevelt room of For Harrison, the relationship between Teddy Roosevelt and Benjamin Harrison and an approach to planning, preparation and execution. There could not have been a more appropriate start to our day.

Next up, we reviewed the business and technology plans and highlighted our discussions of the day before with our partners. We then asked each partner to present their views on the trends they are seeing in their slice of the industry. I am sure it was tough, ask a bunch of business development people to get up in front of a room of 45 people and NOT SELL and only give them FIVE MINUTES, it had to be tough! (Ok, to be honest, next year, I am going to edit their slides beforehand and remove any of those “here is who we are, how much we sell, and who our customers are” slides!) Check out the Twitter hashtag (#GWTS2014Summit) to see some of the highlights from the round-robin presentations.

We spent the remainder of the morning in a group discussion of our projects, the trends, business issues, and our direction. In addition to some great thoughts, I believe there were several business connections made within the group and some ideas for additional areas of partnership with us were formulated.

Our partners left at the end of the morning discussion, we were then joined by our newly formed architecture team. We spent the next couple of hours diving into discussion topics specific to our technology architecture. By mid-afternoon, we were joined by the remainder of the team and we jumped into topics about process, team dynamics, and communication.

Overall, it was a very successful summit. We learned a a lot from each segment, solidified our roadmap, and potentially made some connections for business. We are already planning next year’s event and how to make it even better…hmmmmm, something like “Vendor Wipe Out” comes to mind….

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

As I write this, I am on a plane 35,000 feet above the earth flying from Denver to Indianapolis, returning from VMworld 2013 in San technology, businessFrancisco. Since my experience was somewhat different (I HOPE) from most of the 22,000 attendees, and possibly somewhat humorous in some sort of twisted way, I wanted to share my experience with you.

Let me back up a bit, first though. Several months ago, I was approached by one of our partners, Bluelock (thanks John, Diana and Alicia!) to submit an idea for a presentation based on conversations we have had about leveraging the hybrid cloud to elevate IT in an organization. I thought the idea was great and immediately agreed. Together, we developed a synopsis of the idea and submitted it to VMware for consideration and voting. Honestly, I didn’t think we would get voted in.

Word came several weeks later that we had, in fact, been selected, a very cool honor IMHO. Later that same week I received an email from Kurt Milne of VMware asking if I would be interested in also serving on a panel to discuss the evolving role of IT into a service broker. Again, I immediately agreed.

The weeks fly by as we work on our presentation and attend various VMworld speaker webinars. I am going to add here, if you are a conference planner, you should study the way VMware prepares its speakers. The support and guidance provided was top notch!

So fast forward now to late July, the last week in July, in fact. That week I had two employees from my team separate from the company, one of which was one of my direct reports. So now, I am pulling double duty. Friday that week we get the call that my terminally ill mother’s time has come, thus cutting my blog readership by a third! (OK, sorry for the poor attempt at humor, that is the way my family has always dealt with tragedy…making jokes, if you really want to know about my mom read “Mary Ellen Ton 1933 – 1980 – 2013: The Woman with Two Dashes”). The next two weeks were a blur, sometime during that time, we submitted our final version of the presentation. Needless to say, I was stressed out to the max!

We are now one week away from VMware. What better time to have your ten month old grandson visit from Kentucky. Now I don’t know about you, but it has been about 29 years since I changed a diaper, gave a baby a bath, and went without sleep. By the end of the week I was exhausted. (Ok I can hear my wife Carmen now, “YOU were exhausted? I was with him all day while you were at work!”…she makes a good point). Regardless, by the end of the week I was coming down with a sore throat and a sinus infection. I thought for awhile it was the wasp sting. Oh wait, I forgot to tell you about the wasp sting. I have not been stung by a flying insect in over 30 years. In the eight days leading up to Braxton’s visit, I was stung, not once, but twice. My hand swelled up to the size of a baseball mitt and my shoulder looked like the hunchback of Notre Dame.

technology, businessAnyway, I was sick. Started downing DayQuil and NyQuil. Monday comes and it is time to head to San Francisco. Has anyone reading this ever flown with a sinus infection? OMG, I thought my head would explode! By the time I got to Frisco, I was a mess. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and it was now late in the evening. The restaurants at the hotel were packed (22,000 people eat a lot of food!), I walked around the neighborhood endlessly and couldn’t find a spot that wasn’t packed. I settled for a room service hamburger. Do NOT ask me what that burger cost!

Tuesday…ready to take on the world! Not! Still feeling like crap. I had an 8 AM conference call with the team back home (pulling double duty remember). At my wife’s suggestion, I called my family doctor to get a prescription called in to the local pharmacy. I then attended the General Session. It was excellent! VMware is doing some great things in the area of automation of many of the tasks of running a data center. Feeling a little bit energized by the session, I headed out for my 11 AM appointment with VMware Global Services. According to my GPS, just an 18 minute walk from my hotel.

Well, my GPS must walk faster than I do because I barely made it. The problem? I was at the WRONG Westin. Getting directions from a human, I took off (at this time I can hear Jeff Allen laughing and my wife is probably rolling her eyes) toward the RIGHT Westin. I didn’t have anyone’s cell phone to let them know I was late and lost. I thought about just bailing, but I really didn’t want to give that impression to VMware.

I arrived at the right place at the wrong time, 20 minutes late. The representatives from VMware were very gracious and we had a GREAT conversation. (Though I probably talked their ears off about Goodwill and what we are doing there!). They even order in lunch since we were now running late…or rather because I was running late. Many thanks to Marty Messer, Matt Stepanski, and Steve DiLiberto. I am looking forward to continuing our conversation and exploring ways to further our partnership. Funny story, later in the day, while speaking to my wife Carmen from my hotel room. I realized I was gazing out the window at the next building over…it was THE WESTIN…should have been a two minute walk, not a 40 minutes one!

From there I dashed over to the Solutions Exchange floor to check in with Bluelock. I was stunned by the scale, an unbelievable number of vendors and solution providers. I was also stunned by the noise. Ever walk into a casino with a sinus infection? THAT is what it sounded like. Excusing myself as quickly as was polite, I found a quiet place to have two more conference calls back home.

That evening was a Bluelock and Zerto sponsored event. I don’t care that I felt like death warmed over, I had to go! I was really glad I did. First of the bus ride was both beneficial and entertaining. I sat next to Christopher Clapp, the CEO of Bluelock. We had a great conversation about big data and analytics, and the potential for companies to leverage it to further their businesses. The entertaining part, was getting out of the parking lot. It took us 20 minutes because of the rush hour traffic. It got to be funny to watch people squeeze between the bus and the cars in front as the driver tried to nudge his way into the line of traffic. Finally, one of the guys from Zerto walked out in the middle of traffic and blocked lane by lane until we were finally free. It was kind of a bonding experience for all those on board.

The event itself was at the Calfornia Science Academy. If you are ever in Frisco, you have to go to this place. Very cool exhibits including a “biodome” rainforest (come on, admit it, you thought Pauley Shore was funny too!), and an earthquake simulator (I KNEW there was a reason I lived in Indiana!).

OK, If you are easily grossed out, skip this paragraph. At one point in the night, I was talking with John Qualls of Bluelock. All of a sudden he walked away, went to the drink table, and grabbed a napkin. He came back and handed to me and said, “you have something in your eye”. I thought he meant my glasses, so I took them off and started to clean them. He said, “no, your eye”…sure as shooting, the “stuff” that was clogging up my sinuses was now coming out of my eye! Jeeeeeeez could it get any worse. I think I spent the rest of the night looking out of only one eye!

The next day started with breakfast with the panelists. What a great bunch of guys! I was feeling a little out of place because the moderator and three of the four panelists were from VMware, including their CIO.  I love it when the moderator gets the panelists together beforehand. I find it really improves the quality of the discussion on the panel.  Heman Smith, Rich Pleasants, Kevin Lees and Paul Chapman, it was an honor to be on the panel with you all.  I enjoyed our conversation over breakfast.

After attending another great session on Blending Boundaries of Applications and Infrastructure, it was time to get ready for the breakout sessionpanel. Now, one of the lessons I have learned from public speaking is to always have a bottle of water on hand. There weren’t any in the room, so I went out to the hallway. No water there either. I did find warm Pepsi. Yeah right…warm Pepsi and then get up in front of a room full of people and try not to burp! (So I have two suggestions for WMworld 2014…one is: provide bottles of water for all the speakers. Two will come later in this diary).

The panel presentation went great (IMHO). There was great dialogue among the panelists and the audience about how DO you position IT to be a service broker, what are the challenges and what are the gotchas. I will explore that deeper in a future blog post. For now, I think my key take away was the concept of a “Shameback” as an alternative to a Chargeback. Publish a list of the top consumers and the costs associated with their consumption. We tend to call those folks “frequent flyers!”

Later that afternoon, it was time to circle up with John and rehearse our presentation for that afternoon. We decided to meet up in the “Hang Out” area set aside by VMware to “escape from the conference, take a break, relax and unwind.” Here is suggestion number two for VMware: have an alternative hang out space for those of us over 50! Remember the saying “If its too loud, you’re too old?” Or as Huey Lewis said to Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future”: “You’re music is just too darn loud”! After our run through, I took another tour of the Solutions Exchange floor. Very impressive array of vendors. I was able to make a lot of connections and came away with a plethora of new ideas.

It was now time for our presentation…the last one of the day before the HUGE WMworld Party…nothing like standing in the way of a bunch of techies and the party! As I was heading to the room, I ran into a couple of guys I used to work with in a previous job. It was great to spend a few minutes catching up. Of course Jarod Stone and Mike Harris you know I am going to call you out for NOT attending my session! Oh well, it was probably all stuff you had heard before! LOL.

The session went very well (again, IMHO). John and I talked about leveraging the hybrid cloud to move your IT department to being a value generator for you business. The audience was very engaged and asked a lot of great questions. Again, look for a blog post on this in the near future.

With the presentations out of the, I opted to head back to the hotel instead of attending the party. Crap, did I miss a great event. They had rented out the entire AT&T Park, where the Giants play their home games. There was a stage set up and a band. Not any no-named local band, they had hired Train to perform! I think I really disappointed Carmen by not going! It gets worse, and this is where I disappoint my son Brad. The batting cages were open and you could take some swings, one of the guys I spoke with later actually got to stand on home plate! Me? I was back in my hotel room, sound asleep by 8.

So, not your typical conference experience. I WAS able to dig through the fog in my head enough to know the content was fantastic, not only the handful of sessions I attended, but everyone I talked with could not say enough good things about the content. The networking opportunities were tremendous. I came away with several new connections within VMware and its vendors, b

Ice Cream Truck

ut also with several conference attendees. VMware knows how to put on a great convention.

My goal for 2014 will be to attend the conference again…and not be sick…and to be able experience the entire conference.

And a final thought, one of VMware’s competitors is so on the run…they had an ice cream truck branded with their familiar logo and drove around the convention center giving away free ice cream. Guess they thought IT professionals can be bought through ice cream…don’t they realize its beer and pizza?

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

A great post by Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana’s CEO, Jim McClelland. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard “I didn’t know Goodwill did that”.

I could have just as easily titled this post “An Old Dog Learns ANOTHER New Trick” (“An Old Dog Goes Back to High School“), but I really have quit taking notes at conferences. Instead I have crowdsourced this task. How, you ask, did I do that? With Twitter, of course (right now everyone reading this who is under 30 something is saying “Duh”)! Hey, keep in mind, I am a former COBOL programmer that once declared, “Real programmers don’t need mice!”, these lessons are a big deal!

In the past, I would dutifully scribble notes, sometimes pages and pages of notes. Later, I would go back and transcribe them (assuming I could actually readBusiness, connectivity, technology them!). About a year ago, I got really technologically advanced and used my iPad to type notes, thus saving the transcription step. I still found that I would miss things because I was busy typing the previous nugget. (on this subject, don’t those people that use laptops with noisy keyboards to take notes incessantly throughout a conference just drive you nuts?).

Several weeks ago, I attend MIT’s CIO conference (#MITCIO) and decided I was going to try to use Twitter to take my notes. I set up a stream on Hootsuite to monitor the hashtag (jeez, three years ago I didn’t even know what a hashtag was, now I am using it in a sentence!). When one of the speakers or panelist said something that struck a chord with me, I tweeted it. Of course, there was a room of several hundred other people also tweeting. By monitoring the stream, I could see what others thought were important points, or see what comments someone might disagree with, or what thoughts were amplified through additional ideas. Since there were multiple tracks, I was even able to follow the comments from sessions I could not attend. Weeks later attendees are still adding thoughts to the dialogue. When I returned from the conference, I merely archived the stream and have my notes (and hundreds of others’ notes) to review for as long as I like.

As I write this, I am attending the Connected World Conference (#CWConf13) in Santa Clara. I have used the same crowdsourcing techniques to take notes at this conference. Talk about being connected! This morning I attended my first Tweet Chat. Peggy Smedley (@ConneectedWMag) of Connected World Magazine and the Peggy Smedley Show (www.PeggySmedleyShow.com) interviewed Mike Tinskey from Ford (@Ford) about their connected and electric cars. People could join live at the conference, on the web, or by following the conversation and posting questions on Twitter (#FordCW) or on the Tweetwall hosted on Tweetwally (http://fordtweetchatcw.tweetwally.com/) and presented to the live audience. It sure beat the old way of Q&A…of writing down your question to be handed to the speaker, or stepping up to the microphone to ask questions. Again, by archiving the stream, I have a permanent record to review later.

So what of the random thoughts, ideas, or actions that I didn’t want to share with the Twitter universe? Since I live in my in-box anyway, I just jumped over to Gmail and shot myself a quick email. All the follow up items are now sitting safely in my in-box and I don’t have to remember to go back and read my scribbles.

Business, connectivity, technologyI think over time as more and more event planners adopt these strategies the process will improve even more. For example, I would love to see separate hashtags for each session. This would enable you to further organize your “notes”. Also, it would be great if events included the speaker’s Twitter handle and LinkedIn link in their bios to facilitate learning more of their thoughts and potentially continuing the dialogue. I would also like to see more events put their guides online, in e-book format or even in app format, that would enable clickable links.

Will I ever take notes again? Sure, most meetings aren’t appropriate to Tweet publicly and some conferences or events may not support the technology to make it possible or some sessions may not have the critical mass of  attendees that tweet, but you can bet, when I can…I will.

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

business, leadership, managementRecently Seth Godin posted his 5000th blog post. Well, I am no Seth Godin, not nearly as prolific and far from as talented, but my blog just passed a milestone as well! Rivers of Thought just surpassed 5,000 views! 5,000 views – those can’t all be from my mom, either!

I started blogging over four and a half years ago (from People, Planet, Profit through One bourbon, One shot, One beer). I have learned a lot, not only about blogging (thanks Rachel!) but also about the various topics I’ve covered. Its been fun, its been challenging and its been rewarding.

The two posts that have drawn the most readers were Mow Your Lawn with a Lizard, describing my excitement over my new Neuton lawnmower and Living in a Virtual World, providing a recap of my experiences in an MIT Executive Learning Course. Both of these prove the value of having others link to your blog to drive traffic. While I am at it, you should know the posts that received the fewest views were It’s All Related , a post about how interconnected things are in the environment and The Lesser of Two Evils, about the dumping of gold mine waste (I don’t even think my mother read that one, it shows only one view, thanks honey!).

The theory that provocative titles drawn in readers can be seen in the hits on Do This in Remembrance of Me, Shades of Grey, and Jim Morrison – Environmentalist, all showing up in the most often read posts.

Trying to promote my eBook “Everything I Learned About Leadership, I Learned from Lewis and Clark” using my blog only showed mild success as it stands at the middle of the pack of readership.

Over the four and half years, I have written about my passions, including Information Technology (T Minus 12 Hours, 5 Things that Keep Me Up at Night), music (The Soundtrack of Our Lives, The World of Hip Hop), and the environment (Black Liquor, Put Your Hands Behind Your Head).

To all of you who have commented, thank you so much for your thoughts! To all of you who have read, thank you, I hope you found some useful tidbits. I am looking forward to continuing to share thoughts, ideas, and diatribes! As always…

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

Last week I had the honor of sitting in on the Expository Writing class at one of our high schools (What? you didn’t know Goodwill operates high schools? Check out http://www.indianapolismet.org/ and http://www.excelcenter.org/. Yep, that’s us!). This class, taught by Eric Nentrup (Mr. Eric to the students), is either an English Core 40 requirement or general elective for Juniors and Seniors. I can tell you this…this was NOT your father’s writing class, nor was it anything like I experienced in high school!ipad

So, why was the CIO sitting in a high school writing class, anyway? Mr. Eric has always been a bit of a rogue, pushing the envelope of the digital boundaries of a typical corporation. To someone that has worked in Corporate IT for three and half decades, he tends to trigger my “command and control” reflexes. I realized several years ago, when that happens I need to seek to understand, because there is absolutely a learning moment for me around the corner.

What I witnessed was far more than a writing class. Was he teaching an approach for writing?  Absolutely, but he was also teaching current events, critical thinking, and something he calls “digital citizenship”.  Not only that but through his energy, enthusiasm and interactions, he was teaching them about relationships and the importance of bridging generations (at one point, one of the students even remarked, “I like how you talk to us. You talk to us like people, smart people.”).

We tend to think of this generation as very technologically advanced. Are they always connected and always on? Yes. Can they pick up most any device and figure out how to use it? Yes. Do they expect and demand immediate access to our connected world? Yes. But do they understand how to use technology to learn, grow and better their lives? Maybe not. That is where Mr. Eric (and others like him) come in. He teaches them responsible use of technology, how to leverage the connectivity of technology to understand the world around them and enhance their lives, and he teaches them respect for the technology (this goes as far as, how to leave the computer lab so the next class can start right up).

On the day I visited, the class was working on their thesis statements for their final paper, a six to eight page opinion paper on gun culture in the United States. Using a facilitated learning process, he guided them through a deep discussion on they topic and through the steps of taking their feelings and thoughts and developing a thesis statement.

From a pure technology perspective, the students sat down at the lab’s HP All-in-Ones and fired up their Chrome browsers. Once all the students were logged in to the Canvas Learning Management System, they followed the link Mr. Eric had placed in that day’s lesson plan, taking them to Mural.ly, where he had created the process map for them to follow, complete with research papers, websites, and news reports regarding gun violence, gun culture and the gun control debate. The students used Diigo.com to highlight and comment the citations that supported their views on the topic.

As they discussed the topic, one of the students asked how close in proximity was Sandy Hook to La Salle High School, sites of two recent episodes of school violence. Rather than answering the question, Mr. Eric suggested, “why don’t you jump on Google Maps and tells us?”. Within moments the class had the answer.

Mr. Eric brought up one of the student’s worksheets using Google Drive and Google Docs (using his iPad connected to a ceiling mounted Epson projector) so the class could edit the document collaboratively. Using her position statement, “I believe US citizens are not obsessed with guns, they are obsessed with the power that comes from guns.” (pretty insightful position coming from a teenager, wouldn’t you say?) The class worked together to develop the thesis for the paper, before being turned loose to develop their own positions and thesis. Even when Google Drive experienced a brief hiccup they didn’t miss a beat and learned a lesson in the Google Docs search capabilities.

I walked away from the class with an even deeper respect for the work our teachers do, day in and day out…the energy…the preparation…simply amazing. I met a dozen or so students, who treated their teacher with respect, were truly engaged in the topic, and who had some fascinating views on the topic. There were even a couple of students who had interest in IT as a career someday. I saw first hand how technology can be used to teach and, frankly, how it fades into the background so the students could focus on the message not the medium. I have always felt the responsibility that comes with a career in IT: the technology must work, and it must work well. Disruptions of services can have a significant impact on our partners. I walked away with a renewed sense of the awesomeness of our responsibilities. Bet you didn’t know you were teaching all THAT, Eric!

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

With no apologies whatsoever to the Material Girl, I just spent two days this week living in a virtual world. It was an incredible experience! In a first for the MIT Executive Education Program, one of their classes was offered in a virtual environment. No, this was not your father’s webinar using WebEx, this was a virtual classroom, complete with personalized avatars.

Let me try to explain. I started attending MIT’s Sloan School of Management Executive Education Program last year. Typically, classes are held in Cambridge, either on campus or at a nearby hotel. However, the class “Big Data: Making Complex Things Simpler” was different. It was offered in two venues, one in Cambridge and one virtually using AvayaLive Engage. The kicker? The classes were run simultaneously as one class. There were 100+ students in Cambridge and about 70 of us from around the world that joined virtually.

Leadership, Education, Business

The Transporter

The platform leverages video gaming technology to create a near-real virtual environment. Each student had their own avatar they controlled from their mouse and keyboard. In a scene straight out of Star Trek, my avatar was transported and materialized outside an auditorium .  In this auditorium, the students could great each other with a handshake and speak in our own voices. I met and spoke with people from the U.S., Saudia Arabia, Egypt, London and Brazil. Our avatars could wave, raise our hands, clap, point, shrug, and fist pump with excitement.

The Engage platform uses the concept of proximity, so only those students, er avatars, in range of your voice could hear you. You could whisper to have a private conversation or shout to be heard by more.

Leadership, Education, Business

The view from Virtual to Live

The auditorium had a stage area. Anyone standing on the stage and speaking could be heard by all the students. Above the stage where three large screens. On one screen there was a live video feed from the classroom in Cambridge. The center screen was used to project the slides of the material (the third screen was not used) In the rear of the auditorium was a microphone. Avatars that spoke into the microphone could be heard throughout the auditorium and in the class room in Cambridge.

Leadership, Business, Education

The view from Live to Virtual

Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Alex “Sandy” Pentland taught from the live classroom, but on several occasions joined us in the the virtual world.

Hopefully, I’ve painted an adequate picture of the environment. The course itself was outstanding, but rather than recount the material (heck, you can take the class yourself!) I want to share some of my observations.

In a recent article on the Financial Times blog “Online learning “no substitute” for classroom”, Peter Hirst, executive director of executive education at Sloan stated “The competitive comparison is not between on-line and in-person, it is between on-line or not-at-all.” While I agree with Dr. Hirst, I will say this virtual environment beat traditional webinar environments hands down. Combining it with the live classroom took it even a notch higher. I think some tweaks could make it almost like being there.

So some observations in no particular order:

  • All of the avatars were good looking and about the same age. There were not any “less attractive”, nor “overweight”. There was diversity in color and nationality, however.
  • In this environment, it is even more important that participants mute their microphones when not speaking. Not muting caused an annoying echo, not to mention the crying babies, traffic noise, and the occasional dog.  This was easily managed by our hostess Christine Mansella, however.
  • On day one, there was a significant lag of the audio feed from the virtual world to the live world. The Avaya and MIT engineers resolved that over night and it behaved flawlessly the the second day.
  • Running this environment on my Mac caused it to run blazing hot. I had to use my lap desk fan to keep it cool (thanks Holly and Brad!).

By the time the class was over, I was so immersed in the virtual class that I would forget that Christine was actually in the live classroom. Seeing her handout certificates was a bit surreal.

Leadership, Education, Business

Breakout Room C

So, some tweaks on how to improve IMHO (in my humble opinion)…

  • Because we were virtual, there was really no way to grab one of the professors for an offline question or to take a deeper dive with them on break. 
  • The breakout rooms worked adequately, but they were not like sitting at a table with your classmates. There could have been more structure around “room assignments”. The first room I was in only had three of us and while the conversation was good, it could have been better. In a later room, it seemed like there was 20 of us, which was probably too big.
  • While on the breakout sessions, the final exercise required the teams to complete a Matrix of Change. This was not possible in the virtual breakout rooms. An collaborative editing function, like Google Docs, or something would have been helpful.
  • It was not possible to “break bread” together. The live class had lunch, the virtual world was left to our own devices. Though I was quite jealous when one of the participant’s house boy brought him a grilled cheese sandwich. Related to this, the live class had a cocktail reception after the first day. I am not sure how to solve either one of these, but perhaps having a live feed from the lunch and reception, and allowing the live students to create avatars and join us in the virtual world would have worked. I know several times in my career when I managed staff around the globe, I had donuts delivered in Indy and Deptford, croissants in Paris and gulab jaban in Mumbai while on a conference call with each other.
  • It would have been helpful if my avatar status bar stayed visible. It was hard to tell if I was muted or not.
  • Asking questions was a little cumbersome because the avatar would have to move to the microphone at the rear of the auditorium.
  • Because we were virtual, we missed out on one of the traditions of business…exchanging business cards. It would have been cool to be able to do that in the virtual world somehow.

In the end, I guess the answer to the questions “Would you attend another class virtually”, or “Would you recommend this to a colleague” is the ultimate test. The answer to both is a resounding YES! Though after listening to Erik and Sandy talk about all the data being collected by all the devices in this connected world, I have to wonder…what data did they just collect on all of us? LOL

Bet you thought this was going to be about something other than leadership, didn’t you? Sorry to disappoint!

I awoke this morning to one of nature’s most beautiful landscapes. After a freshbusiness, leadership, connectivity, technology, marketing snowfall, the Mud Creek valley was a winter wonderland. At first glance it is a world of black and white. However if you look closely it is a palette of dozens of shades of black:  charcoal, ebony, midnight blue, onyx, noir, and jet; dozens of shades of white: snow, ivory, cornsilk, powder, cream, and antique; and yes, dozens (though I didn’t count to 50) shades of grey: light grey, silver, Davy’s grey, ash, slate and Xanadu. There are even shades of greens and browns.

It struck me as I drove my morning commute through the Mud Creek and Fall Creek Valleys that leadership is a lot like a winter landscape. At first glance, many of decisions, opportunities and challenges appear to be black and white, but as we grow as leaders we realize we are really operating in a world of shades of grey. The successful leader slows down to appreciate the landscape and makes thoughtful decisions based on the nuances of a very complex palette.

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

Bet you thought this was going to be about something other than leadership, didn’t you? Sorry to disappoint!

I awoke this morning to one of nature’s most beautiful landscapes. After a freshbusiness, leadership, connectivity, technology, marketing snowfall, the Mud Creek valley was a winter wonderland. At first glance it is a world of black and white. However if you look closely it is a palette of dozens of shades of black:  charcoal, ebony, midnight blue, onyx, noir, and jet; dozens of shades of white: snow, ivory, cornsilk, powder, cream, and antique; and yes, dozens (though I didn’t count to 50) shades of grey: light grey, silver, Davy’s grey, ash, slate and Xanadu. There are even shades of greens and browns.

It struck me as I drove my morning commute through the Mud Creek and Fall Creek Valleys that leadership is a lot like a winter landscape. At first glance, many of decisions, opportunities and challenges appear to be black and white, but as we grow as leaders we realize we are really operating in a world of shades of grey. The successful leader slows down to appreciate the landscape and makes thoughtful decisions based on the nuances of a very complex palette.

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.