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A communications collision Featured

10:10am EDT March 23, 2005
The last thing Jake Witherell expected was a failure to communicate when his company merged with another conferencing company.

Witherell's company, iMeet, a Web conferencing company, merged with Boston teleconferencing firm Netspoke in 2002. Now operating as Netspoke, Witherell serves as its COO.

The merger has been a success, Witherell says -- Netspoke will double its size since the merger to 100 employees by mid-year -- but concedes that there were some rough spots. Combining two seemingly complementary products into a seamless offering was harder than either side anticipated. Just as thorny were the corporate culture issues.

iMeet was a group of mostly young technology geeks used to sending two-page e-mails to communicate with their colleagues in the next cubicle or with outsiders and using instant messaging to make arrangements as simple as lunch plans.

The folks at Netspoke, on the other hand, were mostly sale-s and marketing-oriented, glad-handers who were more likely to call a co-worker on the phone or pop into their office for a chat about a business issue.

Another cultural problem, Witherell says, was that management didn't pay attention to some of the details, such as differences between the companies in vacation time policies and benefits packages, items that loomed large for some employees.

Netspoke solved the problem by encouraging both tribes to adopt the other's techniques to communicate. E-mailers and instant messaging zealots learned to use the telephone more, and the sales folks learned to embrace e-messages. The result, says Witherell, is a work force with a better balance of communication skills and an appreciation of the power of both.

Says Witherell: "If you pick your spots, you can be very effective at using the mix."

Witherell talked with Smart Business about blending two cultures and how to keep an eye on the details without losing sight of the big picture.

Why hasn't Netspoke grown as quickly as you first thought you would?

I think it took us longer than we anticipated to merge the two products into one. We could see there was a need in the marketplace for a simplified, integrated conferencing product. We said, 'Let's put that together as quickly as possible, let's add some staff, let's grow and let's take this integrated product out there and blow the doors off the competition.'

That was challenging, though; to put two products together that were built for very different worlds is a hard thing. The audio world and the Web world are very different. That was more challenging than we grasped in the early stages, so we had to go slower and take our time.

How did the corporate cultures at Netspoke and iMeet differ?

We had two cultures that were very, very different in some ways. They were both young, vibrant, excited companies. But the Pittsburgh culture, the iMeet culture, was the communication culture, was all technology focused, so it was e-mail and, even more so, instant messaging.

That's how people communicated, internally and externally. We were a Web conferencing company, so everything's online, to the extent where we would be in the room -- and this happened every day -- we had people working in the same office, the same small room, who would not turn around to talk to someone five feet away, they would instant message them.

Then we were merging with a company that has almost no instant messaging and did everything by phone. Every communication was over the phone or face-to-face; again, a very sales-oriented company.

They liked to be very direct, talk to you about whatever the problem was, whereas this other culture, if there was a problem, they'd be sending a two-page e-mail about their feelings about the problem. You'd have someone in development talking to sales. One is trying to hunt the other down on the phone and the other is crafting a three-page e-mail, and never the twain shall meet. But you really learn that there are benefits to both.

Now we have companywide Windows Messenger, and people use it; instant message has become pervasive, and certainly between two offices, it's a great, great tool. On the other hand, to a person in Pittsburgh, they're much better, if there's an issue, at picking up the phone and getting someone in Boston. So we use a combination, and it's very effective.

When you realized there were two distinct communication styles within the company, what did you do?

There are things at the top that you can do, so we made the decision that we were going to use instant messaging corporatewide, and so we made a big effort to have instant messaging on everyone's desktop in Boston; they hadn't had it before, or very few people had it.

From a management perspective, we had to lead by example and guide some employees. So when they had an issue and it was urgent, you were there to encourage them to pick up the phone. Between the two offices, we decided to have three-digit calling.

These are all minor things, but they all contribute to changing the behavior of the cultures to sort of bring them into the middle, but you have to give them the tools to do that. We spent a lot of time getting people physically together.

In retrospect, could you have avoided some of the obstacles or was it something that you had to endure?

It's a little bit of both, I think. That knowledge that you gain can help you avoid problems. That's part of the learning. Some of them you can't avoid, but you certainly can learn how to get through them more quickly, with less pain.

What did you learn from the experience?

One is the culture consciousness. Any time you're looking at a merger or a strategic partnership of any kind, you need to be really conscious of the cultures and the differences or similarities that exist.

I think it's very important and maybe overlooked because you're focused on how this product is beneficial to us. But you're going to be investing a lot of time and money into that relationship, and it's going to fall apart if you don't think about the cultures.

No. 2 is the concept that the devil is in the details. You can think about everything on the high level, but certainly one of the lessons we learned is you've got to go through and handle the details in the right way. The details can be mundane-sounding things, like health insurance, like vacation policy, that all feed somehow into the cultures that have arisen in both entities.

Those details become very personal to each employee, so it becomes vital that you handle them well.

How to reach: Netspoke Inc., www.netspoke.com