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Carol Vallone: the art of merging two diametrically opposed teams

Carol Vallone found herself faced with a sensitive merger between two e-learning businesses with opposing cultures: the US company Universal Learning Technologies and the Canadian firm WebCT. Yet Carol succeeded in managing the cultural differences between the two teams to create a winning synergy. What was her secret formula? Don’t let things go unsaid, create a fun atmosphere, and have a healthy sense of humor.

Carol Vallone, now CEO of Meteor Learning Inc., founded Universal Learning Technologies (ULT) in Boston in 1999. The leading provider of e-learning solutions for US university teachers managing on-line classes, the start-up experienced rapid growth. At the same time, a professor from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver launched WebCT, a nonprofit organization operating in the same niche market — and with great success: in two years, WebCT had over three million users.

What lies behind a successful union?

The two entities — WebCT and ULT — were complementary in nature and operated in
neighboring markets. ULT was well funded and technologically advanced; its ranks included dynamic sales representatives and programmers. WebCT, on the other hand, had a firm foothold in the world of academia, drew on the expertise of experienced teachers, and had already attracted large numbers of students. To stimulate synergy and accelerate her company’s development, Vallone decided to buy out WebCT. On paper, the merger seemed to have huge potential because of the diverse profiles, skills, and experience of the two teams. But it also came with all the dangers associated with integrating two groups that were divergent both in their approaches and work dynamics.

Teams made up of polar opposites

In reality, the honeymoon was short-lived. The cultures of the two offices of the new entity were diametrically opposed. ULT’s employees were ambitious, creative, and impatient — and didn’t appreciate having to adopt WebCT’s name and development platform. They were afraid that the nonprofit ethics and academic culture of their new teammates would put a brake on their progress and discourage innovation. The WebCT staff, with their academic backgrounds, were cautious and suspicious. They felt that they had been bought out by sharks, and that they would be subject to forced labor to enrich their shareholders and divert them from their distance-learning business. The antagonism was obvious and immediately perceptible. From the first time they made contact, the two camps stared stonily at each other.

Breaking the ice

Excerpt from Business Digest N°293, February 2019

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Caroline Schuurman
Published by Caroline Schuurman