The aim is for them to improve their competitiveness at home and abroad. Robin Mackie, who has recently completed one of these schemes, tells Nathalie Towner about his experience
What does your company do?
Virdev was created out of the merger between XPD, a UK new product development company, and the PSI Alliance, a USA prototyping and project management organisation. Our industrial designers, mechanical engineers and program managers work with clients to enable new products to market.
At the same time we are in the latter stages of testing e-pd (electronic product development), a software system that defines electronic design, validation and communication and allows transparent collaboration on a project by any number of people who could be operating from remote sites around the world.
We now employ over 65 people who work from three sites in Minneapolis and Indianapolis in the USA and Gateshead in the UK.
Why did you want to go on the DTI Scheme and what gave you the idea?
What gives Virdev its leverage is our ability to amplify knowledge and accelerate development, helping clients to reduce time to market and increasing certainty of success. This reduces the risk associated with new product development, one of the biggest barriers to successful innovation.
The key to all this is knowledge management and we wanted to learn from the experts. So after some research we identified the South Bay Group, in Minneapolis, as a company with a good reputation in the conception and application of knowledge management techniques.
I already knew about DTI secondments because I had previously arranged one for one of Virdev's investors, the Express Group.
How did you go about securing funding?
The whole process of applying to the DTI was very straightforward. It involved application forms, an interview with the ITSS team in the North East and a PowerPoint presentation. Of course, the DTI wants to know that the funding will be used wisely so the budgets, information and planning have to be fairly detailed.
What did you learn in the States?
A fundamental truth; it is easier to get to grips with the intricacies of knowledge management than it is to understand the rules of American football...
To be serious, both myself and colleague John Richardson, Group IT Manager, spent six weeks in the States over a period of six months.
We both had specific objectives. I was studying the application of Knowledge Management techniques, while John was interested in the development of an Internet-based infrastructure solution to deliver a knowledge-based collaborative business environment. We spent a great deal of time with the South Bay Group and companies they worked with, such as Sprint Telecommunications and Bankcorp, to see knowledge management in action. But we also visited others to update our understanding of software integration, project data management and search engine technology.
At the bottom of all this is an e-business truth - faster learning organisations can achieve industry leadership, high growth and higher level of performance through a practice of collective learning we call knowledge management.
There was also a cultural aspect to this exercise. There are real differences between us and anyone thinking of operating in the US should take every opportunity to find out what makes them tick and build relationships on all levels. It's not only good business sense, it's a natural human thing to do.
Were there any shocks or surprises?
It was very interesting to find that, after travelling half way around the world, an ideal business partner was situated less than 150 miles away.
We discovered three companies who could become significant to our development. Matrix One, of Boston, is a key supplier of core project data management systems, and Ruckus Interactive, of St Paul, Minnesota, are web integrators.
The third company is Orbital Software, which has vast expertise in knowledge management development, and is based in Edinburgh, which is just one and a half hours away by car. Still, we had to go all the way to America to find this out.
How did you use the accumulated knowledge?
There is a danger with such schemes that you can visit some wonderful companies, learn all about them, distil the essence and possible benefits for your company, deliver it in a PowerPoint presentation and then forget the whole thing.
I was determined that this should not happen so we have kept the momentum going, incorporated the lessons learned into our everyday working lives and continued our relationship with South Bay and a number of the companies we discovered on the ITSS.
Operationally within Virdev, the knowledge gained on the secondment has given us an added dimension. Our original approach to the use of e-pd and collaborative commerce was very much from an engineering focus.
We collaborated using the Internet, clients had their own sites and everything was password protected. But it was too mechanistic. You could say the secondment widened our horizons and through the application of knowledge management culture and techniques we are leveraging extra value from the system in the real sharing and development of ideas and data.
We have now got a better 'knowledge road map' and consequently the vision of where we are going is clearer.
Who took over your 'normal' job while you were away?
Of course, it's not as simple as the question implies because you have to continue doing your 'normal' job. I'd advise anyone going on a DTI secondment to plan well in advance and make certain that your colleagues understand what it will mean for them, for instance in extra responsibility, and that the company has access to extra manpower resources should it need them.
Where are you with the scheme now?
Although the secondment is at an end, our relationships are flourishing with the friends and business partners we made while on the secondment and this continues to present commercial opportunities and advantages for Virdev.
We are also formalising our experience into a report and presentation for the DTI so that we can share this with other companies who may be considering a secondment.
Who would you recommend the scheme to?
Any organisation looking for a different perspective on business. It helps you step outside and lift your head up from the day to day horizons. It's a progressive step that can help at both a tactical and strategic level.
Is there anything you would change about the experience?
The travelling was a bit of a pain but unavoidable and I missed the family, but you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
Robin Mackie is vice-president of business development at Virdev, an Anglo American company that is integrating Internet technology with new product development.
If you would like more information on any International Technology Service secondment activity, phone the Department of Trade and Industry on 020 7215 1786. Or visit the website at: www.dti.gov.uk