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THE TANGIBLE PRESENCE OF VIRTUAL AGRIBUSINESS
Intangible as they may seem, "virtual businesses" are increasing in agribusiness. Their rise as a business model is a trend, experts say, that portends benefits for clients and employees alike.

Terms such as virtual businesses and virtual teams were first mentioned in the business press in the early 1990s. During the past decade, agribusiness is only one industry where those models have developed and evolved at the speed of, well, modems!

Virtual teams are commonplace among most global agricultural companies. Most large companies, for instance Syngenta and Pioneer, have teams working on specific programs and projects from geographically dispersed locations. Input companies including John Deere and Monsanto have conducted virtual operations for years, with remote sales staff and equipment or product retailers linked to home offices.

VIRTUAL BUSINESS DEFINED

But a virtual business is not a team under a larger company's umbrella. It is its own entity. Today's virtual business is comprised of talented individuals committed to a common business purpose, strengthened and linked by webs of communication technology. Many virtual businesses today consist of employees both working at homes and/or small groups in offices but in different geographic locations. Virtual businesses have evolved for many reasons including:
  • Access to employees, no matter where they live;
  • Lower overhead expenditures; and
  • Focus on the core business.


Tray Thomas, president and founder of the West Des Moines, Iowa-based The Context Network, founded his company's virtual business model in 1993. Thomas says, "E-mail, cell phones, Web connections and Internet capabilities connect and enable us in ways that the office of a decade ago could not.

"It is an exceptional answer to assembling the right mix of talented individuals to work together creatively, collaboratively on projects or programs. The right mix of appropriate technology must be combined with the abilities to use it and the discipline to communicate effectively, frequently," he says.

HERE TO STAY

Eldon White, executive vice president and CEO of the National Agri-Marketing Association (NAMA), sees virtual business as more than just another blip on business radar. "The concept of a virtual office or business is a reality," White says. "I think that this has been spurred, in part, by tremendous changes in company structure, namely mergers, acquisitions and ultimately downsizing."

Virtual workers increasingly are collaborating to meet the needs of ag companies from the top tier down. The list of programs, projects and products virtual teams supply is deep and wide. Strategic consulting, market research, project management, communications and marketing are all examples of initiatives underway for global companies and supplied by virtual teams in agribusiness.

Jay Akridge, director, Center of Food and Agricultural Business at Purdue University, is well positioned to spot industry trends, particularly as he's been involved with virtual teams from an educational standpoint. He says recent history is proving the model to be functional, flexible and capable of impact.

VIRTUAL SERVICE

Only in the past few years have marketing, strategic planning and public relations firms begun to move into the virtual age, says White. Decentralized by definition, virtual businesses including The Context Network and Beck Ag Com have found differing ways to associate and conduct business.

Beck Ag Com, the leader in word-of-mouth agricultural marketing, began in early 1997. Beck Ag Com's management team, project managers and conference moderators do not bump into each other at the office water cooler. Founder and CEO John Finegan, is based in a home office in Sacramento, Calif. Nebraska-based President Stephanie Liska has a small office four miles from home. Additional members of the management team and 20 other employees are based in homes or small offices across the country.

Virtual itself, the group's key offering is a virtual service. Through its series of teleconferences, participants learn about new products, services and innovative technologies from what they view as credible sources their peers.

"Ten years ago, people in agriculture were able to attend field days, participate in evening dinner meetings and go to the local coffee shop to learn about the latest information in agribusiness," says Beck Ag Com's Finegan. "Today, they simply don't have the time to do that, but a teleconference gives them the chance to learn from each other in a comfortable environment, without leaving home."

Thomas' The Context Network, whose focus is strategic planning and business management, is somewhat different. Currently, five centralized core employees assemble and manage specialized teams. Another dozen associates, scattered from Sarasota, Fla., to Prince George, British Columbia, work independently on a "committed, long-term basis." Customized teams, comprised of handpicked consultants, expand the network considerably.

Context leverages expertise from this network of executives and professionals to consult food, agricultural and biotech companies on strategic planning, research targeting, competitive intelligence and market research. Last year, Context sent out 1099 forms to 120 individuals, Thomas notes.

UNIQUE CHALLENGES

While Beck Ag Com and The Context Network are finding success, there have been hurdles to overcome. Virtual teams' biggest obstacle may be that some traditional company leaders equate virtual with "temporary or unstable," says Akridge. Context's Thomas has encountered clients who doubt contractor competence, and others who worry about confidentiality among workers less permanent than traditional employees.

"It's not hard to get the work done," says Thomas. "It's hard to get people to hire you as a virtual team. Often the challenge is getting individuals to understand the virtual business model both the scope and breadth of abilities and our comfort and capability in discovering answers and implementing programs through that model. It's a model with which we are not only comfortable but also efficient. The model sometimes is the hurdle they must psychologically clear in trusting our ability to leverage those abilities to their best advantage."

Akridge says, "In the end, those hiring a virtual business should pose questions similar to those they ask before hiring any outside supplier. Is the supplier reliable? Is it credible? What resources do they bring to the job?"

STAYING CONNECTED

Additionally, members can expect to struggle against the challenge of staying connected. "The whole group has to make a point of staying engaged," explains Akridge. "A certain amount of face time is a must." While Beck Ag Com's management team keeps in touch through teleconferences every other week, it meets face-to-face once each quarter and annually with all service providers.

As virtual business expands, so may the networking role of organizations such as NAMA, notes White. With less face time in day-to-day operations, NAMA may become even more important for individuals to enhance business relationships.

Experts agree, a few characteristics define the virtual employee who is most likely to succeed. They should employ great organizational skills and be willing to manage from a distance. They should be comfortable working alone and aggressive with the phone and e-mail. They must be willing to spend money on technology and tools, from a great computer and real office furniture to a headset with great reception. Finally, discipline is a must, says Finegan. Individuals must be able to structure time for business and for personal interests.

VIRTUAL AGRIBUSINESS WORKS

Virtual works for an increasing number of agribusiness workers and clients. Virtual business's appeal is largely in the ability to assemble teams of very high-quality individuals who want some of the freedoms that working virtually can provide, explains Akridge.

"When it's possible and even practical to continue to work productively from a remote office, the geographic boundaries that once applied exist no longer," adds Akridge.

That is precisely the appeal of virtual business on the employee side, as well, says Finegan.

"That is our guiding principle: develop a team of great people who have happy and productive lives through their work and their own interests," he says.

"I love being able to look out my office window it's a great, really professional setting in the front of the house and see my nine-year-old or 13-year-old coming home from school," Finegan says. "That's what life is all about." AM

Kathleen Erickson is president of Erickson Communications & Consulting LLC, Clarks Hill, Ind.


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