Over at CollaborationLoop Deb Schiff has just shared a very enlightening weblog post about the subject of how crucial for any kickoff project face-to-face meetings are in whatever the environment, but specially if you are about to start working on a project with distributed peers all over the place. Over there you would be able to read about some precious gems like this one: "[…] nothing can replace the magic that happens during the face-to-face interactions among colleagues or other collaborators." Working in a distributed world like nowadays I would certainly agree that there are a number of different perks towards working virtually, but while that is just so accurate I am not going to deny the fact that having face-to-face meetings to kick things off is a great starting point towards improving and encouraging some more knowledge sharing and collaborative techniques.
Deb shares as well a few comments from a recent interview she conducted with Jim Ware and Charlie Grantham around this very same subject of conducting real life meetings specially meant for virtual teams. In fact, Jim puts it very clearly with statements like this one:
"[…] if you don’t start that team interaction off with intense face-to-face interaction, you’re going to have a lot of problems later on down the line in terms of communication, misunderstanding of goals and handoffs."
I certainly agree with that statement, even better, I think that it applies not only to team projects but also to communities themselves. Indeed, for the well being and long life of a brand-new community you would always want to take advantage of the possibility of doing a face-to-face kickoff / launch so that folks have got the opportunity to get to know one another, build up their social capital and trust levels and get to know other community members beyond the strict rules of work. That way people are able to establish different connections that they can relate to, and which may not have much to do with work, but still be very beneficial as part of that social capital that will encourage people to share what they know with others because they trust them, and they trust their work.
This is indeed the reason why those real-life meetings would be very beneficial for teams as well as communities but even if you feel that you may not be able to get the entire community off to that live kickoff event I can imagine that it would still be very beneficial if you could manage to actually get a core group of community members together, i.e. core team members, liaisons, facilitators, brokers, whatever you name them, in order to help build those relationships that they can then spread around and share with others and be able to build up quickly strong ties that could well be have a huge effect on the well being of the group once they get back to their own locations and continue working virtually.
Following up further on this, here is another interesting quote as well, from the same article, but this time around from Charlie:
"Recognize the need that people have to socialize"
Yes, indeed, that is something that we may have been able to see it a few times and although people still may think that with the emergence of social software or the so-called Web 2.0 things are a lot easier to establish that virtual contact, I still feel that there is nothing like the face-to-face contact as you would be able to relate to others and socialise with them through the usage of games, icebreakers, games, etc. etc. and from there onwards break the traditional barriers that people may have against collaborating and get things off to a great start.
But that is not all of it either. You cannot expect to have a face-to-face kickoff meeting and then expect that things would run smooth forever. On the contrary, one of the things that you would have to provide to consolidate the successful kickoff launch event is the capability for group members to get together at a later time and on whatever the more or less regular basis, i.e. once a month, once a quater or once every six months to a year, that is something that you will have to establish within the community itself. The main key benefits from this approach is that people would be able to build stronger links with others boosting their relationships and touching base on things not only related to work but also others related to different social events. The key message here is the fact that although face-to-face meetings are certainly very helpful for project kickoff that is just not good enough. You would also need to encourage folks to get together, at least, once a year so that people have got a huge opportunity to keep working on their social capital apart from the Intellectual Capital.
So next time around you embark yourself on the launch of a community think first how and where you would want the group to meet up and, much more importantly, establish as well with which frequency they would all be working together again in a face to face event. Chances are that thinking about this ahead of time will bring your community off to a healthy and strong collaborative environment from the very first beginning and for many years to come.