What are the Challenges Facing Distributed Organizations? Part 1

Interview with David Van Wie, CEO, and Paul Brody, President, Sococo, Inc.

Situation: Research shows that 65% of teams within companies are now geographically distributed. This is driven by both telecommuting and the desire to access the best talent, and is enabled by technology. What are the implications of distributed teams for company and project success, and how can these be addressed?

Advice from David Van Wie and Paul Brody:

  • Broadly, the most important challenge is that of team “presence” – the feeling of people collaborating and working together. As social beings, we are used to establishing trust and mutuality face-to-face. Trust and mutuality are more challenging when we are limited to audible communications.
  • Working at a distance becomes a challenge when different members of a team are on the same stage of a workflow issue and there may or may not be shared understanding of technical requirements or timelines.
    • Team members need to understand requirements to a “T” – across functions, technical requirements, and needed skills.
    • Consider the challenge of keeping team members in synch when project requirements are continually shifting, as frequently happens when new technical breakthroughs are involved and there is no preplanned predictability to the project. This challenge is exacerbated when the team is designing at light speed.
    • The agile design model focuses on people and talent over process and dictates a continuous ongoing meeting. In a distributed setting, the whole team is never stronger than the most remote and linked-up member.
    • These are the challenges that we seek to address at Sococo through our Team Space application.
  • Let’s look at an example of resolving a conflict based on miscommunication of information.
    • In this case, a young employee was tasked with drafting an email campaign around a product. Other team members were time zones away and on their own schedules. The night before campaign launch a misunderstanding developed around one of the core features of the product.
    • Because of the Always-On nature of Team Space, all of the team members working on the project were right there and on call to ensure a smooth product launch. When the problem arose, they were able to have a quick online meeting to share spreadsheets and analysis, understand the issue and resolve the misunderstanding on the fly.  The campaign launched the following morning.
    • When people are in the space, you know they’re part of the team and they’re at work, ready to solve problems. They haven’t given up. Having to bring someone back into a conversation (to resolve a problem) takes more time, effort, and energy and is draining for a distributed team.

For more information on Team Space, visit www.sococo.com

Key Words: Distributed, Teams, Presence, Collaboration, Workflow, Project, Agile, Conflict, Crisis, Silo 

4 thoughts on “What are the Challenges Facing Distributed Organizations? Part 1

  1. Rachid

    Team Space is a geat solution that deals with physical presence issues for distributed teams that live in relatively close geographic locations (small time zone differences).It does nothing for teams living in locations with large time zone spreads like between Australia and Canada. Even with Team Space, one part of the team will be sleeping (Australia) while the other is at the office (Canada).

    Besides the obvious solution of extending work hours, can you offer a plausible solution??

    Thank you

  2. Sandy Post author

    Thanks for your comment, Rachid. An example that David and Paul gave me during our interview – see Part 3 of this article, published on June 16, 2011 – speaks directly to your point, though it does include being flexible about work hours. Their example is of a Silicon Valley company with operations in India – roughly 10 time zones away. What they note is that if employees in India were to leave at 5:00pm they would be faced with very bad traffic jams. So for these employees, the company has them come to the office later and stay for an extra 2 hours in the evening during which they interact with their Silicon Valley counterparts very productively using Team Space. In addition, Indian employees have laptops which they take home with them in the evening. This gives them the option of monitoring Team Space in the evening from their homes to respond to technical questions.

    Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business offers another example through their Global Executive MBA program where international teams collaborate across time zones – think US/South American, Europe and China/Asia – to complete assignments. Most of the students in this program are employed full-time so they have to balance collaborative team assignments not only with their work responsibilities but also with time zone gaps. Their solution is to break up assignments into discrete tasks and to complete them on a hand-off basis so that the US hands off to Asia which hands off to Europe.

    This does not directly address your question but offers some work-arounds. The reality is that when teams are separated by many time zones, as you are between Canada and Australia, you have to find a way to creatively enable them to engage each other both live and a work/task context. It’s not easy, but with current communications technologies is certainly possible.

  3. Kathleen

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