LAS VEGAS-Most people might not connect credit unions with advanced robotics research, but one Microsoft employee said lessons being learned in the field will be available soon to help CUs solve a variety of problems.

Industry consolidation has brought an increasing number of multi-state credit unions, including the still-pending marriage of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Addison Avenue FCU and Beaverton, Ore.-based First Tech CU, Beaverton, Ore. According to Mary Czerwinski, a research area manager of Microsoft's Visualization and Interaction Research Group, having people solving tasks from different offices makes collaboration much more difficult.

Czerwinski speaks from experience: her team has attempted to improve communication and coordination between teams at Microsoft campuses in the Seattle area with engineers in China who are 12 time zones away.

"These people are supposed to create software together, but it is difficult to collaborate," she said. "The same problems face any organization with remote team members."

To fix these issues, Microsoft is using a social media-inspired newsfeed it calls Codebook (similar to Facebook). With Codebook, Czerwinski said, everyone in a group knows what everyone else is working on. It is not perfect, but it has improved productivity, she said.

"Ad-hoc conversations are the best way for team members to keep in touch and face-to-face is the best," she said. "Our people used to IM [instant message] each other to say, 'Can I come bother u.' But that isn't practical when people are even on different floors, much less in different states."

Screens For Heads

In a case where much of a group is in one location and wishes to have a meeting with a satellite teammate, that used to mean a speaker phone. Czerwinski said that grew into having the satellite joiner's face on a monitor in the room, with remote-controlled cameras in the room that could pan around the room at the teammates.

These steps have allowed remote teams to feel more connected and be more productive, Czerwinski said. In the case of the China-Seattle teams, meetings were "time shifted" in the same manner people watch television at their convenience thanks to a digital video recorder (DVR).

As technology keeps moving forward, Czerwinski said Microsoft is developing "telepresence robotics" with a screen for a head. This is not a movie, she added, such robots are "about to come out on the market."

"These telepresence robots have demonstrated an improvement in team dynamics," she said, noting credit unions may someday use such robots as virtual tellers.

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