I have written about JDQ and their 3Spheres Community Program a number of times here in the CIM blog. When I set out on a recent visit to what I thought was JDQ’s offices I discovered that I was only visiting Jon Morris’s office. I had been intrigued by the address before I left because it seemed to be in the middle of a residential area, and indeed it is. Jon works out of a residential strata complex in the same neighbourhood where he and his family live . The purpose of our meeting was to discuss ongoing collaboration in community programs. However, I found myself fascinated by the fact that JDQ has operated as a ‘virtual’ company for over 10 years. So I asked Jon if he would be willing to be interviewed about JDQ’s experience with that and also about how they started the 3Spheres program. Jon very kindly agreed and it is presented here for your interest.
Graham: Jon, please tell us a little about you.
Jon: Well, from the business perspective, I am a quality practitioner with 17 years of experience in the application of business process management methodologies. I have an MBA from the Ivey School of Business . I am an ASQ Certified Quality Engineer and Six Sigma Black Belt. My experience ranges from the implementation of formal quality systems for ISO 9001 registration, through the implementation of Lean Six Sigma methods, to software application design to support continual improvement efforts. As President of JDQ, I consult on strategic improvement initiatives while providing leadership to the JDQ team based on quality principles.
On a personal level, I am actively involved in my local community, recently responsible for the initiating and organizing of a "Quake Awake" neighbourhood fair promoting earthquake awareness in a fun way for all ages. I am also the Treasurer of the Westcoast Amateur Musicians Society. I enjoy piano, guitar and singing and recently composed a SATB choral work, "Neighbourhood Fearlessness", that was performed 3 times in 2006 by the Aurora Celebration Choir in Vancouver (http://www.jmorrismusic.com). (Sidebar: have a listen – Jon has hidden talents)
Graham: Jon, when and how was JDQ formed?
Jon: My business began in 1988 as a sole proprietorship and JDQ was formed in 1996 by a merger of a number of sole proprietorships based around quality and/or custom software development. The individuals were experiencing growth in their businesses and a demand for skills outside of their core knowledge. For example, someone working in quality was finding a need for custom software development as part of a problem solution and others were experiencing the opposite. So there was synergy in bringing them all together as JDQ.
Graham: So, Jon, how would you describe JDQ’s core business and competencies today?
Jon: Quality/Business Process Improvement and custom software development are still fundamental for us but we also have strength and experience in Project Management to put our solutions in place, reliably and cost effectively. Having diversity as well as synergy has helped to cope with the inevitable business cycles.
Graham: Jon, what considerations made you and your partners decide to operate as a ‘virtual’ company?
Jon: I would like to preface my comments by pointing out that JDQ has always operated that way and switching to a ‘virtual’ operation from a more traditional establishment would present different challenges. A great deal of thought went into it at the outset. I would say that quality of life weighed just as heavily in the equation as any business considerations. It may be trite to say that ‘a well trained, happy worker is an effective worker’ but it is absolutely true. A lot of debate centred on ‘how big do we want to be?’ and ‘how big can we be?’. By maintaining a ‘small footprint’ we have been able to control our operating costs and thereby satisfy our shareholders.
Graham: Jon, how big is JDQ and how do you cope with fluctuating staffing demands?
Jon: JDQ is only a small company, which permits us to be nimble. We have a complement of 10 core resources and we use experienced contract labour to supplement that as needed. One of the constant challenges is to keep re-assessing your goals regarding size. I mentioned that earlier. It can be tempting for any business to grow if there is lots of work but you have to be conscious of how it might change the culture and operations; not that we would want to turn work down. We would like to grow but in a controlled manner. As a small company it is essential that we keep meeting time to a minimum to maintain a good ratio of individual time to group time to maximize our productive capability. One of the secrets to keeping clients happy is to make sure the company is not working at 100% capacity. When you are working at capacity, there is not much room for "going the extra mile". "Burn out" needs to be avoided in a holistic way. "Work life" and "home life" don't need to be polar opposites. JDQ operates under capacity to avoid delay and stress and maximize overall quality of life.
Graham: Jon, good communication is vital for efficient operations. How have you managed to accomplish that within your project teams and with your clients?
Jon: We had the good fortune to be formed in the age of the internet and we have made the maximum use of that in our communications and in running our business effectively. As well as more traditional tools like regular conference calls and email, we use tools like NetMeeting and VPN. Our project teams also meet physically on a regular basis. We use client premises to meet with clients thereby avoiding the need to rent space, which would be empty a large part of the time. Our clients like us to come to them but we are considering renting a small amount of space, which would be for business strategy discussions and project meetings. Of course, we are always on the lookout for better ways to communicate and whatever the tools that you use you must always concentrate very hard on collaboration, both within JDQ and with our clients.
Graham: Jon, how do your clients feel about dealing with a ‘virtual’ company and what measures have you used to give them confidence?
Jon: Initially we weren’t sure how they would react but in reality it has never really been a problem. Our existing clients don’t give it a second thought and new clients judge us on our capabilities and track record. We were just discussing communication. If you do a good job of involving and communicating with your clients the confidence will be there.
Graham: Jon, what hardware and software tools do you use to run your business effectively and how are your systems managed?
Jon: We have always been a Microsoft shop and we have tried to remain reasonably current with the technology. We have spent in the order of $500K over the past 10 years on hardware and software. We use .NET, SQLServer 2005, Server 2003, Access, Sharepoint, MS Project, etc. and custom software that we have written ourselves. Our MSDN Subscription has permitted us to try things out before we put them into operation. We have also developed an in-house business/project management extranet application called Project Watch.
This uses a SQLServer back end and was originally written in asp. We are in the process of converting it to .NET. The system uses a single login which the individual keeps regardless of how their roles change or multiply. Graham, even you are in there as one of our contacts. I can immediately pull up all of our data on you together with our exchange of emails. Although we use the system to help run our projects, it is much more than that. Earlier we were discussing the importance of communication. We use Project Watch as our ‘virtual’ business environment. Our project teams use it to communicate, we use it to communicate amongst ourselves and we also use it to communicate with our clients. When we started the development of Project Watch we were determined that any piece of data would only be entered once and that access to data would be easily controlled. I am very proud to say that we have achieved this and now reap the benefits.
We manage our own server systems, OS upgrades, backups, etc, with the exception of email and our public website, which is hosted by an ISP. We also have someone else take care of such things as our VPN hardware firewall.
Graham: Jon, Project Watch sounds like a very interesting piece of software. Have you ever considered marketing it?
Jon: We have had many good comments about it. Marketing and supporting software is another business entirely. If we were ever to consider that seriously I believe that we would spin it off into a separate organization.
Graham: Jon, systems are only as good as the people who use them. How do you ‘manage’ people in your ‘virtual’ environment?
Jon: Graham, you are absolutely correct. Clearly we must have the right people working with us. However, we have found that our style of work attracts people with the self-management and self-discipline to get the job done. I don’t care when they do the work as long as we meet all of our deliverables on time. They enjoy the freedom. It goes back to my comment about life style earlier. However, things are never perfect and we have recently added a feature to Project Watch where I can look at ‘key performance indicators’. For example, I can quickly see how many tasks are overdue, how many will soon be overdue, etc. It is even colour coded so that I can see at a glance. It is a form of ‘virtual’ supervision. If I want I can drill down and give things a ‘nudge’. One thing that I do insist upon is that all time be entered regardless of whether it is billable or not. This is valuable historical performance data, which must not be lost.
Graham: Jon, do you have any plans to upgrade your systems in the near future? For example, would virtualization be of any interest?
Jon: At the moment we are not sure which direction to take. We may move some of our hardware outside to a managed hosting environment. However, if we decide to keep things in-house for better control over emergency situations, then we may look at something like virtualization to cut down on the management effort.
Graham: Jon, to summarize, how do you feel that your client’s benefit from JDQ’s ‘virtual’ model?
Jon: JDQ's ‘virtual’ model provides a lot of flexibility to produce high quality work, quickly. One of our repeat clients jokes "you should have called the company "PDQ" for "pretty darn quick"! The JDQ virtual model gives project resources the ability and support to respond to client demands in a less stressful environment that encourages proactive, preventive and productive behaviour. In a nutshell, this is why our clients win. First, the ‘virtual’ model attracts independent and motivated people with initiative and self-discipline. Second, JDQ’s innovative business systems, like our end-to-end business management extranet, Project Watch, provide the "collaboration technology" required for high performance team work. And third, we have very low overhead. The combination of our people, systems and cost model add "real" value for our clients at a very competitive price.
Graham: Jon, what single piece of advice would you give to others considering forming a ‘virtual’ company?
Jon: In today’s internet based world make sure that you have an extranet that is secure, easy to use and makes the client feel ‘connected’ with you.
Graham: Jon, JDQ operates a pro-bono community assistance program called Three Spheres of Reciprocity™. What led you to implement such a program and what are its principal tenets?
Jon: We started 3Spheres™ for a combination of business and personal reasons. Community works are a potential way to do some ‘Relationship Marketing’ in the hope that it will eventually bring in some business. Having said that, we also wanted to do it because we believe strongly in ‘community’. It is a way of integrating personal values, work that we enjoy, and the desire to learn, and at the same time help the community. The 3 in 3Spheres represents the tenets of the program. It is intended to convey the meeting and interplay of Profiting, Helping and Learning. We also started out with the clear determination to treat a 3Spheres project with same rigour and approach as any of our fee earning projects. I believe this to be vital if such a program is to be successful.
Graham: Jon, when did you start the program and how has it gone so far?
Jon: The program is about 12 months old and we are just finishing our second project. The first project was for the Westcoast Family Resource Society. The current project is for the Surrey Food Bank. The two projects are rather different. WFRS was mainly a 6 Sigma business improvement exercise. We managed to get the ASQ (American Society for Quality) interested in working with us on this first one. It’s been highly successful. SFB is a custom software project to rewrite their Client Registration System. The organizations have been delighted with our work and the individuals involved both on the JDQ and client sides are very happy.
Graham: Jon, what benefits has JDQ derived from the 3Spheres program?
Jon: The main benefits so far are the learning opportunities, which are transferable to our business, and the new relationships that we have formed. You and I met, for example, as a result of me looking for volunteer developers through VANTUG for the SFB project and here we are today chatting about JDQ. I would like to say that we have found new business through 3Spheres but that hasn’t happened so far. Meaningful and trustworthy business relationships take time to grow.
Graham: Jon, what criteria do you use to select your 3Spheres clients?
Jon: So far we have found that the 6 Sigma project and the custom software project have gone equally well. The main criteria are:
- We want to be sure that we are significantly helping an organization help its constituents,
- that we engage with an organization which is of sufficient size and with sufficient resources to participate effectively,
- there is a good match for volunteer resources,
- there is some business synergy with JDQ,
- there is the potential for JDQ to learn something new,
- an ability to perhaps go beyond the immediate project, eg. the SFB application may be used by other food banks across Canada,
- projects that help sustain the program as a whole. Each project lasts about 3 months and represents about $25K in value to the non-profit.
Graham: Jon, what have you learned about yourselves as individuals and JDQ through the 3Spheres program?
Jon: It has helped us to better understand the tenets of 3Spheres. On a personal level I have learned how much helping the community and generosity gains and keeps personal peace.
Graham: Jon, what advice would you give to others considering starting a community support program?
Jon: Make sure that it integrates as closely as possible with your regular business so that it doesn’t disrupt things. Start small and stay close to ‘home’. Stick with it; there likely won’t be instant business rewards even if there are personal rewards. Most importantly, clearly understand your objectives, ie. the balance between Relationship Marketing and Social Responsibility.
Graham: Jon, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I have enjoyed all of my interactions with JDQ and greatly admire the work that you do through the 3Spheres program.
Jon: Graham, thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about JDQ and 3Spheres. Also, thank you for your kind words.