Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lessons From Virtual Warfare

I don't usually read books about war but Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century by P.W.Singer intrigued me. I heard the author interviewed on National Public Radio, and some of his stories seemed highly relevant to those of us soldiering in the virtual team space.

The focus of the book is on the emerging RMA (revolution in military affairs)driven by the introduction of increasingly sophisticated robotic systems into war zones. Most of us are familiar with images of the unmanned Predator drone flying over the landscapes of Iraq and Afghanistan. These planes are operated by pilots sitting at video-game-like consoles in distant places like Nevada. The drones are just one example of robotic systems that gather and transmit information about potential targets, and then carry out operations to destroy or nullify those targets. They are all part of the new networked and information-rich military force.

This is not the place to discuss the ethics of using such systems. All I will do in this posting is to highlight some of the lessons we can learn from the experiences of the virtual military.

1. Taming irrational exuberance - many people are seduced by the thrill of new capabilities while not comprehending the complexities they bring. Some in the military thought new networked capabilities would basically solve the problems of 'the fog of war' (the difficulty of getting good information in the midst of battle) and the 'friction of war' (actions rarely working out as planned). But, of course, they didn't. New capabilities bring new complexities - in battle and in our teams.

2. Creating Doctrine - tools are being generated at a rapid rate, and how we use them is driven largely from the 'bottom up'. We typically lack a workable plan or doctrine for making the best use of the technologies. At the start of the Second World War, the French had more tanks than the Germans, but it was the Germans who developed the doctrine of the 'lightning war' that coordinated air, artillery, and infantry into a concentrated force. This doctrine drove the Germans to build faster and more reliable tanks, and ones that could communicate and coordinate with one another via 2-way radios. In 1942, the US Army had to rip out radios from Rhode Island State Police cars for tanks being shipped out to North Africa. And so, we need to stop thinking of our new technologies as useful bits and pieces, and to start thinking of them holistically. Creating collaborative advantage depends on our ability to make the best use of our new technologies, not simply to use them. The emerging doctrine in the military is swarming, but that's for another day.

3. Sensing The Disconnect - the military is in the process of creating a new class of soldiers - 'cubicle warriors'. These warriors experience war differently. Pilots of the Predator drones might witness terrible events during their shifts, but then they drive home to their families, watch TV, coach soccer, and attend Parent-Teacher meetings. He or she is disconnected from the reality on the ground, even though the emotional intensity can be very high. All virtual team leaders need to be very conscious of their disconnection from the ground reality. They must be very careful of not projecting their own reality onto those of others on the virtual team - the ground realities (e.g., cultural orientations) can be very different from location to location. Just because you have an abundance of information doesn't mean you fully understand the context - realities that lie outside of your information-gathering systems.

4. Working Hard To Build Cohesion - cubicle warriors will carry out operations together, but might never actually meet. As one air force lieutenant colonel says, "Make no mistake, this war is being fought on chat." The impact of relative anonymity on cohesion can be enormous. Virtual space is isolating, and it is much harder work to build trust and connection. Without trust, units "just become chess pieces on a board." "Ninety percent of the time, you don't know who you are talking to," says one cubicle warrior and in virtual chat everyone thinks they have a vote. Military chat rooms, therefore, would often become free-for-all contests. This raised the need for chat-room etiquette - no e-mailing in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, no explanations!!!!!!!!, and no emoticons. These rules helped a smoother flow of information, but problems remain - you lose the emotions, the sense of urgency, the seriousness.

5. Doing What Adds Value - the new systems have also given rise to others classes - 'tactical generals' and 'strategic corporals'. Strategic corporals are the younger, junior troops who now have the ability to call in airstrikes, for example - something a 40 year old colonel would have done in the past. Empowerment on the ground carries a lot of responsibility, and it is the role of the distant leader to provide the parameters and guidelines for decision making. Too often on virtual teams, confusion abounds because of unclear roles and responsibilities and vague decision criteria. What about the 'tactical general'? As generals become more virtual and distant from the actual battlefield, the power of the technologies also gives them greater power to micromanage troops on the ground. As Singer says, ". . . unmanned systems are blurring the line between timely supervision and micromanagement." Because of the abundance of information, generals often overestimate how much they really know about what is happening on the ground. As one Major said, "You get too focused on what you can see, and neglect what you can't see." Generals want to get involved in the battle details and direct the action. The result is often delay and inappropriate decisions. Ground units may also get caught up in power struggles between 'tactical generals' in different locations. One ground commander talks about receiving three sets of conflicting orders for one operation. The need is for generals to practice 'enlightened control' - set the right goals, objectives,and strategy, and resist the seductive urge to intervene tactically at the micro level.

6. Focusing - it is difficult to keep virtual warriors focused and in 'battle rhythm'. A commander, therefore, must continually reinforce the criticality of the mission. One colonel talks of helping his troops have the mental and emotional sense that they are in the battle space they are looking at. He tells them that when they step into their place of work, they are stepping into Iraq or Afghanistan. As virtual team leaders, we need to think about the virtual project space we are creating, and how to keep our people focused and high engaged in that space.

7. Humanizing The Workspace - there's no doubt virtual communication can feel highly impersonal. In one study of drone pilots, two Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs were given different personalities. The one had a humanlike voice and mannerisms, and would say things to the pilot like "Hey [Joe] we did an awesome job -great working with you!" or it would even tell a joke. The other would say "Hello" in a monotone voice. During the mission, the personable AI would advise and inspire. The other would just say, "Pay attention, high priority." The personable AI team finished tasks faster.

Learn whatever you can from wherever you can even if the source gives you nightmares.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Reality of Perception

The Conference Board recently published a report on Managing a Distant Workforce. As Linda Barrington, Research Director and Labor Economist, says in the press release, "The issue of whether or not to allow employees to work at a distance is no longer a cost benefit issue - it is simply the reality of doing business."

First, I'll just bullet point a number of the findings, and then I'll think a little more about perception and reality in the virtual workspace.

Some Findings:

More than 60 percent of those surveyed agreed that managing same-site employees is easier than managing distant employees.

Nearly 80 percent believe the extra costs of enabling employees to work at a distance do pay off.

Five practices were found to be shared among effective distance teams: in-person meetings; clear agreements on accessibility; good use of group software; adequate company support; clearly defined roles for members.

Great distance managers must first and foremost be inclusive, empowering, supportive, and trustworthy. Then they must have mastery of management fundamentals, e.g., setting goals, evaluating, giving feedback and coaching. Finally they must have a very high level of competence in cultivating relationships, focusing on outcomes,, and developing employees.

One more finding points to a difference in perception between managers and distant employees: 53 percent of managers reported spending more than an hour a week developing working relationships with distant employees, but only 18 percent of employees believed that their managers spent that much time with them. Hmm . . . a perception gap.

I can't afford to purchase the report, but I would love to dig deeper into why this large gap exists. Managers who are connecting with a number of distant individuals might well feel they are spending a lot of time building working relationships with their people. Each individual, however, is only feeling a fraction of that connection time. I also wonder what managers mean by 'developing working relationships' - is delegating a task by e-mail perceived by the manager as developing working relationships'? Does the employee perceive it in the same way? A manager might spend a considerable amount of time crafting an e-mail that an employee reads in a few minutes, and so the subjective perception of time spent in developing a working relationship can be very different from manager to employee. Would the employee perceive the delegation interaction differently if it had been conducted via a telephone call? Perception is complicated and slippery, which is why I find statistical data often raises more questions than it answers. Don't get me wrong, statistical data has a place as a complement to thought (but not as a substitute for thought).

Whose perception is more accurate, the manager's or employee's? As in communication, we must look at effectiveness from the point of view of the receiver. If the message received is not the intended message the communication fails, regardless of how much time or effort the sender spent in communicating. In terms of the amount and effectiveness of time spent on developing working relationships, the focus must be on the perceptions of distant employees (receivers), not those of the managers (senders).

Friday, February 13, 2009

Get The Picture

I just found an interesting press release issued on Dec. 10 2008 by Gartner Inc. (OK, for some it's ancient history). The release highlights the findings of a Gartner Report called "Video Killed the Document Czar". To summarize:

About 73 percent of the Internet audience watch a video online at least monthly

The popularity of online video with consumers will trigger a similar interest in video within enterprises

Software for the management of images and video is the fastest segment of the content management market - 44 percent of enterprises having such products today, but 22 percent intending to install it in 2009

Users will find the ability to incorporate video into other document types to be compelling, so that by 2013 more than 25 percent of content that workers see in a day will be dominated by pictures, video, or audio

Some might be shocked and horrified at the prospect of all this visual and auditory information transfer (another nail in the coffin of 'The Word'). Others might be concerned that this will lead to employees at all levels becoming star-struck, concerned more with performing and posturing rather than efficiency and effectiveness. As always, the problems won't be with the tools, but with how we use them and for what purpose.

Some years ago, my late father-in-law built a wonderful grandfather clock for my wife's older sister. When she picked it up in Virginia - in pieces - he gave her a video of how to put it together when she got home to New York. My father-in-law was too ill to travel at this time, and what he was able to do in the video was to show not just tell. He was able to communicate more of his tacit knowledge than if he had just tried writing down instructions. Sine that time, we have seen an explosion in short instructional videos on sites like VideoJug and YouTube. Imagine the power of that learning medium in virtual teams; imagine the possibilities for knowledge transfer and skill development.

Are there challenges to be overcome, and likely downsides? Of course! But for now, imagine the possibilities!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Make An Impact in 99 Seconds!

Next week, I'm speaking twice at the Training Magazine 2009 conference in Atlanta, GA. My first session is the normal one hour event, and I'll speak on leadership in a virtual global workplace. The second event is called Virtual Communication: Is It For Real? and must only last for 99 seconds! Naturally, I've struggled more with the 99 second presentation than with the 60 minute one.

And so, the gist of what I'll say in just over a minute and a half is as follows:

Can virtual communication be real? By real, I mean is the result shared understandings across distances and cultures. I believe it can be, but we need to pay attention to four factors:

Regularity: We must create a communication heart beat. With regular and frequent communications we support the development of human connectivity, not just technological connectivity.

Explicitness: We must make the invisible visible, and the unspoken spoken. Distance creates many blind spots in our understandings. Clear, precise communication is a must, but so to are deep questioning and dialogue to uncover differences in assumptions and meanings.

Alignment: We must select technologies based on our objectives, not for their convenience or familiarity. Align the tool with the need. Relying on e-mail alone might help you exchange lots of information,but doesn't do an awful lot in helping you win hearts and minds.

Language: We must be vigilent in making sure we are speaking the same language, even if we are speaking the same language. What does 'keep me posted' mean to you, and what does it mean to me?

So, when virtual, think REAL.

I feel sure that's over 99 seconds. What are they going to do? Drag me off the stage kicking and screaming! Actually, I think that was mentioned in the invite e-mail.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Who's Cranky Then!

Recently, I had the pleasure of being interviewed about Where in the World is My Team? by Wayne Turmel. If you don't know Wayne,he's a former stand-up comedian, corporate drone, and Director of Faculty at Communispond. He's now president of and host of one of the world's most successful business podcasts - The Cranky Middle Manager Show.

For some reason, he's decided - out of the goodness of his heart - to run a free (yes, free)webinar on Managing Remote Teams - Using Webmeetings To Keep Them Engaged. The date is February 26, 2009 and the time is 1pm (US - Eastern Standard Time).

You can register now. Dress is optional.