Ideo's David Kelley and Steelcase's James P. Hackett have an always-on videoconferencing link from one office to another to spur casual collaboration.
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When Ideo's David Kelley wants to talk with Steelcase CEO James P. Hackett, Kelley just looks across the room--never mind that the two men work from offices more than 2,000 miles apart.
Their offices are linked by a video "wormhole," a term borrowed from theoretical physics (and science fiction vehicles like the Stargate franchise). A wormhole is an instantaneous link between distant locations. In this case, instead of black hole transmitting tachyons across the universe, Kelley's office in Palo Alto is equipped with a Tandberg videoconferencing unit with a continuously open connection to Hackett's office in Grand Rapids, Mich.
That connection has been open for years now, and Kelley thinks it's something more company leaders should try. "It's been a godsend," Kelley said in an interview. Acting like an open window into the office of his friend and customer, the wormhole eliminates a lot of back and forth negotiation over meeting times between the two men and their assistants. Instead, he has "a seamless way to see if Jim's goofing off or if he's working," and can instantly start a conversation just by turning on his microphone.
As founder and chairman of Ideo as well as Stanford's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (a.k.a., the d.school), Kelley is known as a deep thinker on designing organizations as well as products. The idea for the wormhole came from Hackett, who has also deployed variations on this setup as connections between some Steelcase offices and public locations. Kelley said it wasn't motivated by a desire to promote any company's videoconferencing gear but as an experiment in the use of technology, which he and Hackett have found useful over the years.
Because Steelcase is Ideo's largest customer, and an investor in the company, Hackett "is somebody I need to collaborate with a lot," Kelley said.
Best known as an office furniture company, Steelcase is also increasingly promoting itself as a creator of workplace environments that also include information technology. According to Lew Epstein, general manager of advanced applications and integrated technologies for Steelcase, the company is thinking of ways to bring the wormhole concept to market, although it has not solidified any particular product plans. "This is a way you can have a window into another location and have that window be open all the time," Epstein said. "We've been thinking about how would we make this feel natural, so you would be just as likely to turn toward that person on the screen as you would to me across the table?"
Kelley is particularly known for his approach to human-centered design, and he said the workings of the wormhole are more about psychology than technology. The technology is nothing special--just a standard, not particularly high-end, Tandberg videoconferencing unit.
"What it tells me is this resolution is plenty good enough to kind of see what's going on, from an experiential point of view. It's over some line, psychologically, that makes it work," Kelley said. High-end video conferencing and telepresence systems aim to deliver a "just like being there" feeling with high definition camera, screens, lighting, and lifesize displays of participants. However, most video conferencing is a relatively formal affair, conducted by appointment. At a minimum, it works more like making a phone call, whereas the wormhole opens up interactions that are more like running into someone in the hallway outside your office and having a spontaneous conversation.
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