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When trust means travel: Estonian ICT firms on managing digital transformation remotely

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One might think that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, companies that support digital transformation were best poised to transition to working remotely. For years they had been advising and designing services that could support exactly this: working, shopping, voting, and doing basically anything necessary from home. 

But there is actually a strong interpersonal component built into such projects, and those in the sector were challenged like any other in making the switch to remote work during the pandemic.

“Trust in our business means travel,” says Net Group CEO Priit Kongo. “It’s important to learn your counterpart’s background, history, and personality so that you can build trust,” he says. “You need to go out and have a few beers, bring difficult topics to the table, see the reaction,” he adds. “I cannot learn that via Teams.”

Speedboating to meetings

Kongo has served as CEO of Tallinn-based Net Group since 2000. The software development and consultancy have expertise in e-commerce, e-governance, fintech, and business digitalisation. It maintains a team of more than 100 developers and consults various industries, including investment banks, governments, education, e-commerce, and utilities, such as the energy sector.

Speedboat of the CEO of Net Group
 Net Group CEO Priit Kongo on his speedboat, a vessel often used to go to meetings in Helsinki. 

Before 2020, Kongo was on the road constantly, with monthly stops in Africa. Net Group’s main export market is Estonia’s northern neighbor Finland, where it serves 15 customers in the energy sector alone, and the company maintains an office in Helsinki. Kongo was in Finland so often that he even had his own mode of transportation.

“I had a speedboat to go to meetings, which I sold last year because of the pandemic,” says Kongo. “I had no need for it anymore.”

Adapt, adjust, overcome

Making the switch to remote project management was a challenge of course. It took several months to make the necessary rearrangements. There were cultural challenges too. “Finnish people like to have meetings, in fact, the main topic of most meetings is to decide on the next one,” says Kongo. At first, they tried to structure meetings the same way but eventually moved to different ways of managing things.

Specifically, Net Group worked with Helsinki Region Environmental Services Oy (HSY), waste management and water services provider, to implement a billing software renewal project. This included data integration, migration, and training. Altogether, a team of 15 persons worked to manage and train their counterparts at HSY remotely.

“It was no magic, but it worked,” says Kongo. “The pandemic was a kind of force majeure,” he says. “We couldn’t deliver everything on time, but the customer couldn’t deliver everything either. But once we delivered the solution, they were really happy. It was a great success.”

From the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean 

“The biggest challenge was time management,” agrees Mari Krusten, head of marketing at Cybernetica, a Tallinn-based ICT company that helped develop Estonia’s e-government systems, including the X-Road, i-voting, e-customs, and more. A core offering is its unified exchange platform (UXP), which supports secure data exchange. Since the pandemic began, Cybernetica has been remotely managing projects with partners around the world, from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean.

Mari Krusten, Cybernetica
Mari Krusten working remotely.

One such project has been a partnership with Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank, a large Japanese trust bank active in the Asia-Pacific region, to develop a bank solution that will connect service providers from various sectors from financial and e-health services to local governments. According to Krusten, one project related to the partnership was completed at the beginning of the year and also fully remotely.

Adapt, adjust, overcome

Such remotely managed endeavors continue. In March, Cybernetica announced it was working with the Aruban government to set up secure data exchange and interoperability for digital government services. In June, it announced a pilot project with a partner on Réunion, a French island off the coast of Madagascar, to implement UXP and showcase how interoperability can improve access to public administrative services.

While these projects have progressed in spite of the pandemic, there has been some lag in implementing them because of the need to manage them remotely, rather than on-site.

“Normally you can just fly in and get to work and get things done in an expected timeframe,” says Krusten. “In this case, you have to allocate more time because you don’t know how much time things are going to take.”

There are also the aforementioned cultural issues. In countries that have limited experience with digital services, having someone with expertise on-site to manage such transitions is helpful. “I understand why it was rare to do these projects remotely in the past,” says Krusten. “To have someone come on board and support and guide you through this really big process is necessary.”

Cybernetica was able to transition to managing projects remotely though, but the company learned it had to be more flexible with its schedules. “It’s a case of adapt, adjust, and overcome,” says Krusten. “A key lesson we learned in the process was that you had to account for more time, you have to allocate more time for the project to be finalised.”

Gaining acceptance

The pandemic experience has been similar for the e-Governance Academy (eGA), a Tallinn-based think tank and consultancy that advises partners on best practices concerning e-governance, e-democracy, cybersecurity, and the development of open information societies. The years before COVID-19 saw its staff boarding aircraft to some of the most remote countries on Earth. Tõnis Mäe, a senior expert on digital transformation, traveled to Tonga in the Pacific.

eGA remote project management meeting
 e-Governance Academy team during a remote meeting.

“It takes two days to get there,” he says, “but we do have a 10-hour time difference that is not in our favor, as when they start work at 9 am, it’s 11 pm for us. It’s not easy to do remote meetings.”

Yet eGA had to move to remote management like everyone else. Part of the associated challenges included gaining acceptance from partners that they were ready to work remotely. Many projects involved travel plans, so scrapping that component caused a change in project scope. “We had to agree with customers that they would accept remote work,” says Mäe. “At first, it wasn’t easy but everyone understood that this needed to be done.”

Eager to find solutions

Marit Lani, program director of smart governance at eGA, said that the transition to managing projects remotely has been a learning experience for the academy.

“At first, all of our colleagues and our international partners were very eager to find solutions for how to work remotely and it seemed that this enthusiasm would allow us to reach our objectives as planned, despite the pandemic,” she said. “But we soon realized that progress was slowing down, so we had to go for shorter but more frequent meetings and constantly check in with partners to reestablish contact and help push projects forward.” Nevertheless, timelines were extended because of the need to work remotely.

“With many countries, we have seen that work moves 10 times more quickly when you are there on the spot,” says Lani.

She notes that the pandemic itself also slowed down project timelines, as local counterparts, often at government ministries, we’re overburdened with responding to COVID-19.

“The IT ministries or others coordinating e-governance had many tasks to take care of,” she says. “This has been more of a cause for delay.”

A new hybrid model?

Now that some travel restrictions are being eased, there is the sense that managing digital transformation could return to its pre-pandemic, travel-intensive state. But companies in the sector say the process of managing work remotely has caused them to rethink their operations. Going forward, some travel will remain necessary, but not at pre-pandemic levels.

“I think we learned a lot during this COVID period,” says Mäe. “Definitely we will resume some travel but not as intensely as it was before,” he says. “We understand that we can resolve things remotely as well.”

His colleague Lani agrees. “These physical meetings cannot be replaced in a sense,” she says. “I think the 20 hours of flight time to Tonga is the price to pay for this.”

While Net Group’s CEO Kongo is resuming his regular travel to Finland, he says that processes have been so streamlined that the number of physical meetings will be reduced in the future. Still, he stresses the need for meeting one’s counterparts face to face. Nothing can replace it.

“You cannot start a new project from a distance,” says Kongo.

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Written by
Justin Petrone

freelance journalist and writer

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