But effective collaboration (however self-directed, and no matter the level of ownership and self-accountability) requires efficient tools – the ability to easily share being the most important. If I can’t readily and easily drop an idea, an article, a workaround, a tool into some shared place where relevant people can easily see it, comment upon it, improve it, test it and use it, collaboration will slow, and eventually evaporate.
And over time, that inability to easily share, and the lack of resultant collaboration will in itself begin to pick at and unravel the vitally important lynchpin – ownership and self-accountability; as we lose the ability to easily work together, we hunker down in our silo. And with silos, inevitably, comes conflict and blame. And where blame appears, there is no space for ownership and self-accountability.
So it’s intriguing to watch what has happened over the past decade: When Dan Pink first wrote ‘Free Agent Nation’ in 2001, the concept of ‘virtual organizations’ and virtual teams’ was only just beginning to take root. Now, the idea is so ubiquitous that it seems quaint to put the phrases in quotes. No-one needs explained to them what a virtual team is, or the concept of ‘home commuting’ – again, now a quaint phrase.
But interestingly, when the idea first emerged, the main debate about whether or not virtual organizations would succeed or fail was all around the idea of collaboration – could ‘virtual’ teams and organizations really collaborate? Wouldn’t they lose a considerable competitive advantage over the boring old analog organizations that would still work in one place, still see each other ever day, still…collaborate?
And the question – then – was a valid one. Technology couldn’t – then – replace the ‘analog’ working environment. But – then – something interesting happened. Technology flowed to the need. Now, with cell phones, Skype, Twitter, Dropbox, Google Docs, the ‘cloud’ and much more, it isn’t only easy to collaborate virtually – it’s easier than collaborating in an analog manner.
Just watch a team that’s used to collaborating virtually arrive in a room for a rare ‘IRL’ (in real life) meeting. Watch their expressions of irritation 20 minutes in, when they realize that no-one’s recording anything in a way that can be collaborated on later. Then watch as they ‘meet’ in their laptops or tablets, even though they’re sitting across from each other.
And watch the analog organization for contrast, as it struggles to truly collaborate using kaizens, brainstorming sessions, off-sites and scrums. All that paper. All that synchronous time being burned up. All that re-writing of stuff after their meetings. All the searching for ‘that great idea we talked about’ that isn’t sitting in a Dropbox, but is (maybe) on a flip chart sheet that’s (maybe) buried somewhere in someone’s office. All the lengthy, impenetrable email threads that try to make sense of what just happened. All that lack of action and low implementation levels.
Or worse (I see it weekly, and it hurts to see it), the bloated, useless whale of an intranet that the analog organization once hoped would emulate the nimble, vibrant idea-sharing that they know is happening at the minnow level in their industry.
Watching the analog organization try to collaborate and innovate is like watching someone try to find a specific track on a cassette – fast-forward, stop, play, no that’s not it, forward more, stop, play, back a bit, stop, play…and in the meantime you’ve punched it up on your digital mp3 player in seconds.
If you’re an analog organization (simple test – what’s the ratio of virtual meetings you will have this week to IRL ones – using the phone or emailing doesn’t count), then it’s vital that you recognize this: your virtual competitors are using better tools to collaborate. That means eventually they will beat you. You don’t even get to choose the time frame.
You need to become a virtual company. And that has nothing to do with where people work from. It has everything to do with how they work, and what tools they use.
(By the way, if you’re already virtual, great – there’s a lot for you to think about in the converse of this post’s thesis: what is your analog competitor doing that should worry you?)