Friday, September 23, 2011

Remote Working & Virtual Teaming: Understanding the Difference

One of the challenges of working in the management field is that definitions can be very fluid, and that any interpretation is open to interpretation. There are times when we just have to say, “This is our working definition of . . . does this fit with your understanding?”

One area of confusion is between ‘remote working’ and ‘virtual teaming’, and so let me try and add some clarity.  The key distinction is in the level of interdependence between those engaged in doing the work. 

Remote working is when people are performing tasks at a distance from corporate HQ or other employment center where employees are physically co-located. They work and communicate via technology for all or most of their time, but not necessarily with each other. Let’s say we have 10 programmers working from home who all report to the same manager. Reporting to the same manager doesn’t mean the programmers are dependent on each other for performing their tasks, or that they share the same goals, objectives or even projects. Interaction between these remote workers may be minimal (weak ties), or only on an as-needed, ad hoc basis. Some managers may want to create something of a community for their remote workers (e.g., for sharing best practices or reducing isolation), but this isn’t a necessity for getting work done.

Virtual teaming is when people are working together via technology to achieve a shared goal, and they are highly dependent on one another for achieving this goal. Specific roles and responsibilities will be divided among team members, and high levels of cooperation, coordination, and communication will be needed between them (strong ties).

Some people will throw a spanner into the works by talking of remote teams.  That's when a conversation needs to take place because do they mean a group of remote workers or a virtual team? There are, of course, shades of grey – sometimes remote workers may be asked to work as a virtual team for a specific project. Likewise, virtual team members may find that certain of their tasks can be performed autonomously.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Before You Climb the Collaboration Mountain: Identify Risks Upfront

I often work with groups of smart people who can’t collaborate. Why is it so difficult? There are, of course, multiple reasons, some of which have to do with individual egos, mindsets, skills, and behaviors, as well as a history of bad experiences in the past.

What I find most often is not a lack of good intentions or goodwill, or a surfeit of anti-collaboration behaviors, but a lack of awareness and respect for the causes of collaborative pain. Smart people believe that it should be relatively easy for them to come together and solve problems (after all they are smart), but often their expectations are dashed. Greater realism and awareness can empower people to collaborate by raising the level of risk alertness in the group.

Chris Huxman and Siv Vangen developed the concept of collaborative inertia, and they see it as happening when, “the output from a collaborative arrangement is negligible, the rate of output is extremely slow, or stories of pain and hard grind are integral to successes achieved.” (1)

Be alert to risks associated with:

·         Overly idealistic views that see collaboration as always desirable

·         Differences in organizational cultures, processes, tools, and policies represented in the group

·         Different interests and goals

·         Likelihood that benefits will only be realized long-term

·         Likely complexity of collaboration structures and processes

·         Likelihood of political maneuvering, game playing

·         Differences in professional languages, practices, and cultures

·         Differences in fluency of the group’s working language

·         Tensions and conflicts already existing between members (the burden of the past); lack of trust; competition for scarce resources

·         Sharp differences in power and authority levels

·         Pronounced skill level differences in using technology

·         Too little understanding and connection with key stakeholders, sponsors

·         Poor likelihood of maintaining group continuity

·         Collaboration fatigue among members

There will always be unknown risks and uncertainties, but with a greater awareness and respect for possible risks, a group can be more proactive and vigilant.

1.       Managing to collaborate: the theory and practice of collaborative advantage by Chris Huxham & Siv Evy Vangen.  Routledge, 2005.