E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

The Art of Collaborating Effectively in Virtual Teams

Gran Canaria - Maspalomas Lighthouse - Meloneras in the WinterA few days back, over at GigaOm‘s WebWorkerDaily, Aliza Sherman shared a very interesting piece under a rather suggestive title: “5 Reasons Why Virtual Teams Fail“, where she pretty much nailed it on some of the various different issues that virtual teams face on a regular basis when confronted with that good old concept of collaborating effectively in a now more than ever distributed world. Plenty of people say that collaboration is not an easy task, whether face to face or whether remote, but certainly it looks like collaborating effectively online still presents a good bunch of challenges and issues, and Aliza’s article surely highlights some of the most relevant ones. Worth a read, for sure, but is there anything else that we can do to help improve remote collaboration in today’s rather complex environment? … Maybe.

Her blog entry highlights, according to her, and rather accurately, too!, 5 different reasons on why virtual teams seem to fail time and time again, and, while going through the descriptions of each and everyone of them, I couldn’t help nodding and agreeing with her big time, having experienced those same issues myself in the past, after having worked as a remote knowledge worker in multiple projects, in a number of business units, and over the course of the last 9 years. So I thought I would go ahead and spend some time today covering those same 5 reasons she talked about extensively and build further up on some additional tips distributed teams could apply to help avoid those specific issues. Specially, now that we have got social software tools available to us all to help improve, augment and develop further our own collaborative skills altogether.

Folks keep saying that collaborating effectively is an art and, to a great deal, I wholeheartedly agree with that statement; collaboration is not an easy task, specially, when knowledge workers do not know much on the topic itself or they mix it with other concepts like co-operation, coordination or communication altogether, for instance, and that’s why I would love to highly recommend you all have a look into a recent article published by my good friend Hyoun Park under the heading “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Collaborators“, which I am sure will help shed some further light on identifying some key characteristics that would be essential for any effective, and rather efficient, collaborator. As a teaser, here you have got the listing of those 7 habits, to give you a little bit of background on what to expect from the article itself:

  1. “Don’t just work hard, work smart
  2. Partition collaborative goals into appropriate categories
  3. Identify the appropriate tools for each enterprise collaboration strategy
  4. Just do it! (NikeTM)
  5. Build a social life (integrated with your enterprise collaboration approach)
  6. Use collaboration to drive product development and R&D efforts
  7. Think of your salespeople as wolves. Like wolves, salespeople hunt better in packs

Ok, back to the “5 Reasons Why Virtual Teams Fail“; we have seen how Hyoun describes, quite nicely, what would be some personal traits of highly effective collaborators, but what else can we do to help avoid those same issues that Aliza mentions in her blog post, after going through the wonderful suggestions she has shared across as well on what we can do to help avoid each of those pitfalls when wanting to collaborative more effectively? That’s exactly what I will be doing next.

As a starting point, I would encourage you all to have a look and read her article in its entirety. It will be worth your time, I am sure! She has done a wonderful piece of work, specially, around the different ways she shared across to help tackle each and everyone of those pitfalls for virtual teams. I am not going to cover them all over here again, she is pretty much spot on on all of them, as far I can see; instead, what I am going to do is to develop further on this topic and share an additional set of tips to potentially help overcome those inhibitors towards collaborating effectively, regardless of the nature of the distributed team, so that remote ones out there may have an opportunity to add them up into the original article and have plenty more ammo available to them, should they see those issues come up in their day to day interactions with fellow knowledge workers and may not know where to go for additional help and support.Gran Canaria - Ayacata in the Winter

To get things going, I have taken the liberty of grabbing Aliza’s 5 reasons and next to each of them I will be adding a couple of lines suggesting as well What to do?”, but I would still encourage you all to keep an eye on her initial set of tips as they are all rather helpful at the same time on their own. So, let’s get things going!:

  1. Square pegs in round holes
  2. Lack of a clear process
  3. Weak training techniques
  4. Failure to capture knowledge
  5. No glue to keep it all together”


Square pegs in round holes

What to do? My good friend, and fellow IBM colleague, Rawn Shah, touched based on this very same topic over at “Working With Five Generations In The Workplace“, where he comes to talk about the rich diversity we have got nowadays within the workplace not only as far as multiple generations are concerned, but also as global, dispersed organisations for which remote collaboration is no longer a nice thing to have, but an essential trait to cultivate and excel at over time. Yes, we are bound to recognise we have got knowledge workers who are very capable of working remotely very effectively, while others may well not be; the important thing in this case is to realise it’s actually more of an advantage than a disadvantage. The key messages here are being flexible and celebrate multiple working styles trying to accommodate them with one another in the best possible way through one key aspect most businesses haven’t exploited well enough: negotiation. Understanding there would eventually need to be bridges being built up to allow for knowledge and information to flow freely, amongst the various different working styles, and with as little friction as possible. Basically, being agile in a rather complex, engaging, committed, embracing and nurturing diverse workplace.

Lack of clear process

What to do? At this point in time, I don’t think we would need to discuss further the importance of clear processes within virtual teams; like Aliza mentioned, those business processes are perhaps even a bit more rigid for virtual teams than for co-located ones. However, processes for virtual teams need to understand as well how flexibility is, once again, very important to help knowledge workers understand how by being flexible themselves in applying those processes they would have a much better success rate in negotiating how they collaborate with their peers. The key message here is that for that negotiation to take place those processes would probably need to be put together, initially, by the remote, virtual teams themselves, the ones who understand the dynamics of having everyone working distributed with different needs and wants, but also different expectations and trying to accommodate to the vast majority of them. This would be an interesting learning exercise at the beginning, till everyone adjusts and arrives to the same page, which is when those processes would kick in, but it’s that learning path the one that’s going to allow virtual teams shape up those processes according to their needs and requirements and not everyone else’s!

Weak training techniques

What to do? This is one of my favourites! Let’s go back in time for a minute … When was the last time you had some kind of education, or training, on collaborating effectively with your team colleagues in a co-located environment? When was the last time someone spent some time with you sharing further insights on how to make the most out of your team’s collaborative tools, whether you are working remotely, or not? I bet that would be quite some time ago for both of them, wouldn’t you agree? Indeed, the key message in here is to never underestimate providing enough, good, solid education, training and assistance to virtual teams in order to help them understand how they can collaborate and share their knowledge effectively by working smarter, not necessarily harder. You can never have enough education on not just running and managing virtual teams, but also how to be a good virtual team player. It’d be essential as it would help people understand how collaboration is a whole lot more than just worrying about collaborative tools; it’s a mindset, it’s a change of habits, it’s a shift in mentalities going from a need to know to a need to share, it’s an opportunity to learn from one another sharing your knowledge with others and allowing it to grow further in order to achieve a specific task or a specific goal.

That’s what, to me, collaboration is all about. Having the right training resources available to you is one other key element to take into account and that’s why I have always been very fond of the amazing piece of work that former IBMer, and good friend, Peter Andrews did, for a good number of years, in providing an entire course outline, both for managers and remote workers, on how to operate effectively in virtual teams. Plenty of which materials can still be found in multiple different places. Now you can imagine how important and critical such training and education has been for a company like IBM where over 50% of its population are remote / virtual workers. Again, you can never have enough education to train your remote knowledge workers, and their managers, on how they can collaborate and share their knowledge more effectively.

Failure to capture knowledge

What to do? This is, perhaps, one of the biggest issues for virtual teams, specially, if they are rather distributed across timezones and geographies or across multiple silos. And perhaps this is one of the areas where social software tools could surely help make that task of capturing knowledge much much easier. As a starting point, knowledge workers who are very keen already on sharing their knowledge and collaborating across with their peers will keep using these social tools regardless, in an effort to try to capture most of the transferred knowledge. The potential issue may come along with those other knowledge workers who are still a bit reluctant about jumping on board. And, to me, the key message here is to embrace that reluctance and look into it as an opportunity to introduce lower, common denominators in the social networking space, which, in most cases, would start with that well known low hanging fruit that we have all fallen in love, cultivate and nurture over time: Activity Streams.

Yes, that’s right! Microblogging or microsharing, the lowest common denominator to dive into the social software world; the one key component from the Enterprise social software landscape that will require very little effort as far as the buy-in is concerned, but that would provide a tremendous amount of added value, as I have mentioned already on a good number of different blog posts, on this very same topic. In this case, it’d be all about finding that sweet spot to move into, as those remote knowledge workers transition from that physical water cooler concept that we used to call coffee corner over at this side of the pond, to that virtual water cooler one that we know as the wonderful world of Status Updates, where keeping up with your social capital through ambient intimacy, following some declarative living guidelines to eventually end up narrating your work is probably going to be one of the most powerful means to capture that knowledge before it goes away or vanishes.

No glue to keep it all together

What to do? And, last, but not least, the biggest challenge all virtual teams face, don’t you think? That one of having a “vigilant, organised and nimble” leader. Not an easy task, for sure, perhaps one of the biggest challenges, but one thing that we could all perhaps acknowledge as a starting point is that as virtual teams get to develop their relationships with those daily interactions and conversations amongst remote workers, there is a great chance that you will have an opportunity to go and locate those natural leaders, the ones whose main premise would be to look after the health of the virtual team, since they realise, from moment one, on the true importance of remote collaboration in an environment where most knowledge workers are distributed anyway already.

Gran Canaria - Degollada de las Yeguas and Surroundings in the Winter The more understanding and involvement from that natural leader a team has, the better; the more aligned those natural leaders are towards working as if operating in networks and communities, versus organisations and traditional, rigid structures, the better. Ideally, those natural leaders should be a blend of traditional management and new radical leadership, as Steve Denning has put it just recently, and quite nicely, too!, in his latest book on “A Leader’s Guide to Radical Management“. In fact, every virtual team should probably strive to look for their own leaders, versus their own managers, because that’s eventually what managing a virtual team is all about: leading by example with their passion, wit, know-how, experiences and knowledge, more than managing by command and control.

And that’s it! I surely understand this is probably one of the longest blog entries I have put together over here in a long while, but I am hoping it would be a useful read for those folks who are not only working as remote knowledge workers in virtual, distributed teams, but also for those co-located peers who would need to understand some of the different dynamics as well behind working remotely than being at the office; changing such perceptions is also going to be key and rather fundamental for virtual teams to succeed, because not every single remote knowledge worker out there is doing the laundry, or watching TV, every time they work from their home office. They may actually be doing some good / excellent work altogether.

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  1. Great post Luis and one that hits close to home for me as I have been a remote knowledge worker for the last 5 years. I echo your statement about the importance of training and add that in order for this type of training to be effective it must be specific, role-based, and in context of the person being trained. As you state, this is about getting people to adopt a new way of working. Teaching someone how to use a particular tool is just one of many aspects to be covered and seldom creates the type of visceral experience needed for deep-seated change to occur. To be effective enterprise collaboration training should be role-based and/or end-to-end process based and be delivered in context of the trainee’s current way of working.

  2. Nice post.

    The most significant problem is IMO the failure to capture knowledge. Even in “modern” companies that are comfortable already with information sharing tools like wikis and blogs, the amount of captured knowledge is still minimal and that’s why those companies still have to rely on meetings and other face-to-face events as information radiators.

    I really like your idea that we have to get knowledge workers to move from a physical water cooler (coffee corner) to a virtual water cooler. It could be IRC (which can be quite awkward to non-geek users), it could be microblogging as you suggest or it could be something else. I personally don’t believe on using microblogging as a form of narrating your work, just because it requires too much effort from the user, but this is mainly a technological (and therefore simpler?) issue – capturing enterprise activity streams with less user effort.

  3. I agree with Alves unless the microblogging is supported by a enterprise or org-wide tool that enables + motivates participants to easily share and search for content… especially to accomplish greater things together, through the process, than they can on their own….

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