Total Control

“At Nortel Networks, our tagline is ‘At the heart of the Internet,’ so we'd look pretty silly if we didn't have all the latest and greatest technology for running meetings and events,” says Carolyn Pund, CMP, CMM, senior manager, integrated marketing events for the Canadian telecommunications giant.

Not to fear. Nortel Networks isn't about to look silly. As this was being written, the company was introducing a system for managing meetings and events called OneForm that may someday be the model for every corporation. This is the story of how and why this system came to be. It is also a story about that tired old wheeze, “walking the talk.” At Nortel, the meeting and event planning function is not a support function; it is an integrated part of the corporate marketing effort. And, as will become clear, part of what Pund calls “the full messaging of the whole company” means that when Nortel engages with its customers, it does so with the highest level of technology it can muster. To be thought of as a technology leader, the thinking goes, use leading technology.

This extraordinary effort to use technology comes against an extraordinary background. Brampton, Ontario-based Nortel Networks traces its origins to Bell Telephone of Canada's Mechanical Department, which opened in 1882 to manufacture switchboards and other devices for the exciting new technology of transmitting voices over wires to distant places. A little more than a century later, the company began making headlines as it attempted to transform itself from a utility company into a network technology company. In 1998, it kicked off a series of major acquisitions that Pund now jokingly refers to as “the Nortel gobble” — three in 1998, two in 1999, and five in 2000.

“We'd have all our acquisitions present at an industry trade show, all showing their own products, but not how they work together as a total solution,” recalls Pund. “There was no synchronization of brand or message. There were all these people walking around saying ‘I work for Nortel.’” It became clear that developing a unified corporate message was going to be a priority. Pund, who had herself arrived with the acquisition of Bay Networks in 1998, was tapped to work on consolidation of meetings and events, because she had done the same thing there. “The perspective on consolidation at Bay was financial,” she says. “At Nortel Networks, when they were ramping up and buying companies every other month, the bigger impetus was messaging, branding, and synchronization of efforts. In fact, I wrote my CMM project [global certification in meeting management, a professional designation offered by Meeting Professionals International] on creating a model of the consolidation effort and its value at Nortel compared to its value at Bay Networks.”

The financial emphasis did return, however, because in 2001 the telecommunications industry hit the wall. Nortel suffered along with others. The stock cratered, the company laid off tens of thousands of employees, and CEO John Roth retired a little ahead of schedule. And, not surprisingly, a lot of people who had been working for Nortel in meeting and event planning weren't there anymore. Carolyn Pund, however, stayed on, because her efforts at consolidating to create a unified marketing message were also cost-saving efforts — just as they had been at Bay Networks.

Despite tough market conditions, Nortel didn't back away from the drive to make maximum use of technology to ensure that meetings and events stayed on message. Pund credits her boss, Lori McLean, vice president of Americas integrated marketing events and executive business centers, with convincing Nortel senior management of the value of event management consolidation for strategic marketing. If anything, the need to keep track of meetings and events grew as the company moved to a policy of outsourcing. “The only events people at Nortel Networks are vendor managers,” says Pund. “The group has moved from being logistical planners to being strategic managers of vendor services.”

Getting to OneForm

The road to a single electronic form for dealing with the proposal, evaluation, approval, implementation, and measurement of results for all Nortel meetings and events began with the realization that the company lacked sufficient control over its event marketing process. “We just had to get our arms around it — gathering the exhibit contracts, the show contracts, the user groups, and so on [of all the acquired companies] — and put some practices in place to keep everything organized.” Today, all customer events, hospitality events, training, sales, incentive programs, user groups, trade shows — everything — are paid for out of a single event marketing budget. Once there was a single source of approval for any event, it became possible to develop a single evaluation tool for deciding whether to proceed with one.

The first step toward OneForm, then, was a business evaluation tool. This was a stand-alone Web document that asked for various kinds of justification for producing a meeting or event. “It asks what the business value is; what the anticipated return on investment is; where the budget is going to come from; who the executive sponsors are; who the stakeholders are; what the objectives are; and whether the company has any history with the proposed project,” explains Pund.

This first tool was great, but it was just a single step in a multistep process. The company used no fewer than eight forms in putting together an event. There was an event criteria form and an event request form, both for use by logistics vendors. There was a calendar request form, for putting an event on the Nortel corporate calendar; a customer invitation request form, used to determine which customers should be invited to a Nortel event; a registration form request; an online request form, for creating an individual Web site for a specific event; and, finally, something called an evaluation build, which was a form for measuring the performance of the event, whether in terms of actual return on investment or some other measure. As Cheryl MacNeal, account manager for b-there.com, the main vendor that worked with Nortel on the OneForm project, puts it, “It turned out to be just a lot of work for the meeting planner or event coordinator.”

The next step was to see whether all these forms could be tied into a single database. At a meeting in January 2001, Pund and other Nortel managers sat down with representatives from b-there.com and Maritz Travel Canada, Nortel's travel and logistics manager. The Nortel team came in the door with a matrix it had developed to determine how many of the seven forms had overlapping data fields. They had also worked out functionality requirements: All the data that the OneForm database gathered had to be downloadable into the various systems of its vendors. As Pund points out, “It was our inability to access the individual proprietary systems of our vendors that created the need to have all our data on one source that would be accessible regardless of vendor.”

OneForm in Action

By April, the system requirements were approved. At that point, b-there.com brought in Chris Wall, a business analyst, to put the system together. What he came up with was a browser-based interface that runs on a Microsoft 2000 Access database program. Wall explains how the completed OneForm system works:

“We had to have a browser-based system, because Nortel is an international company, with managers all over the world who can request meetings and events,” he says. “Each request generates an automatic e-mail alert to members of Nortel's review committee. [There are two of these; one in Europe and one in North America; Pund is a member of the latter.] Committee members review the request online in light of Nortel's current marketing needs. The committee ‘meets’ online to review requests. They can see comments or questions that fellow reviewers have put on the request form. When a request is accepted, the manager making the request receives an e-mail notification. At the same time, the event is automatically listed on the Nortel Networks corporate event calendar.”

Information also goes to relevant outside vendors, who can get started on logistics and registration. Best of all, thinks Wall, is that there is so much ancillary information available through the same interface: Event managers can see up-to-date meeting and event budgets and compare budgets and results from previous years to those for current projects. Which is not to suggest that budget numbers are freely available: Only managers at specified levels have the option of looking at particular sections of the form.

Information access was an issue for Nortel's vendors as well. They had to be sold on the idea that the advantage of having complete, real-time data about Nortel events would outweigh the knowledge that data supplied by one vendor would be viewable by others. “We feel we've done a good job with our vendors to get them to cooperate with each other, and not just provide us with data, but make that data available to other vendors as well,” says Pund.

What is it like using this system? “I managed a road show last fall,” says Pund. “It meant working with a trade show vendor, a registration vendor, a production house, and a management company. All four had to have the same information in real time, because from the date I got the assignment to the first show was five weeks and three days. Without technology like this, there is no way this could have been put together so quickly. It used to take six months to put a 10-city road show together.”

No Standardization for Creative

Production houses are not included in the OneForm loop, and for good reason, says Pund. “With registration and meeting management, you want to set models in place; you want them to execute the same way and produce the same reports every time. Production vendors are different — you want to be open to creativity and not tie yourself to a single company. Besides, the scope of work required by Nortel Networks would bring any single production company to its knees.” What Nortel does instead is seek production houses that are good at specific tasks. “If someone does a good job on a user-group meeting, chances are they'll get that business again next year,” she says.

Nortel does have an ongoing relationship with Exhibitgroup/Giltspur, the Roselle, Ill.-based exhibit builder. “They have an incredible Web site,” says Pund. “We can look at any one of our events and see what the show floor will look like and what our booth looks like. It's not cross-functional, though, the way the OneForm system is.”

The Very Model of a Modern Planner

As the OneForm project rolls out, what happens next? Has Pund worked herself out of a job, once the system is running smoothly? Hardly. “One of my strengths is to discover and bring new technologies into the meeting process,” she says. “I'm part of an integrated marketing organization. So while our main thrust is putting on marketing events and customer events, we are at the same time part of corporate marketing, which means we share responsibility for the full messaging of the whole company.”

In short, Nortel Networks sees Carolyn Pund not as a meeting planner, but as someone who works on a team to consolidate meeting and event management so that the company's marketing message will be consistent. And while a project like OneForm is both a cost-saver and an advertisement to customers of the company's technological savvy, Pund has her eye on the ultimate bottom line: No matter who the vendors and internal owners of Nortel events may be over the coming years, using OneForm means the company will own all the relevant data about its activities — and will own it in a form that supports strategic decision-making into the future.

Big-Ticket Blues

As a person who spends the bulk of her time scouting meeting technologies, Carolyn Pund, CMP, CMM, senior manager, integrated marketing events, Nortel Networks, has an insider's perspective on what is involved in selling meeting solutions to corporations.

“There are some great solutions out there,” she says, “but I wonder whether the selling obstacles are just too great. The problem with sophisticated, expensive software is that the purchasing cycle in corporations for big-ticket items is so long. During the selling cycle, the product could go through a couple of revisions. The audiences that vendors have to reach … don't really have meetings on their radar. For that size an investment, you need CFO-level involvement, not the VP of events who understands meeting needs. That means getting consensus at all these lower levels first. … That's got to be hard.”

That's one of the reasons Pund is sold on the Application Service Provider concept. “The simplicity of products like b-there.com works in their favor,” she says. “They relate closely to filling needs at the meeting manager's level. You get the latest and greatest from other companies, because the product enhancements they ask for show up as benefits for everyone.”