Monday, June 25, 2007

Corporations & Remote Collaboration

The Wall Street Journal's Weekend section, two weeks ago, featured a section, in concert with MIT, concerning how corporations work in the modern era from many, remote locations.

In her article, "Working Together...When Apart," Lynda Gratton proposed 10 rules for making global, virtual teamwork successful. It's worth reading the entire piece, to get the full impact of the findings. She provides details about the origin of her information. In brief, it is the product of case studies at companies judged to have had successful virtual teams, followed by a London Business School survey of over 1,500 virtual team members at 15 US and multinational companies. From this information, the 10 rules common to successful virtual teams were distilled.

When I first read the list, my reaction was one of doubt that this sort of thing was going to be very replicable. I recall being at Accenture (then Andersen Consulting) in the 1990s, when we began using LotusNotes on project teams and in industry practices across the globe. Suffice to say, it wasn't pretty, and it wasn't all that effective, either.

However, as I returned to Ms. Gratton's piece to write about it, I am struck by another thought. Much of it is just common sense. For example,

2. Choose a few team members who already know each other.
5. Break the team's work up into modules so that progress in one location is not overly dependent on progress in another.
9. Ensure the task is meaningful to the team and the company.

Some of the other 'rules' make sense as well, but don't exactly seem like rocket science.

On one hand, one is tempted to give credit to the author(s) for distilling the 10 things that make the most difference. On the other hand, they aren't all that surprising.

As I wrote this, it occurred to me that there are some fairly older examples, before the internet age, which must have also produced rules lists like this, e.g., Boeing jet design, IBM mainframe computers, McDonnell Douglas jet and bomber design, intel chip design.

Surely some of these earlier projects learned similar lessons?

In the end, I found this article a bit disappointing. And reinforcing of something my proprietary research on equity performance discovered. Over time, surprisingly few companies can operate so effectively as to consistently outperform the S&P500. Getting things right, growing, and continuing to perform well, seems to remain a sort of 'catching lightning in a bottle' trick, even to this day.

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