Friday, November 23, 2007

The key to successful remote collaboration - from 1970

John Halamka (amazing blog) quotes an email from Paul Gray, Professor Emeritus of Information Science, Claremont Graduate University. The topic is remote collaboration:
Life as a Healthcare CIO: Cool technology of the week:

Being retired, I receive my copies of Computerworld in batches from my office. Hence I only now read your September 15 article on flexible schedules. I was pleased to see that you found the need for initial meetings important in your thinking.

I thought you would like to know that this concept is not a new idea. When we first proposed telecommuting (Telecommuting-Transportation Tradeoffs: Options for Tomorrow, Wiley 1975) we quoted results that we found in the literature on the dispersal of government workers out of central London and central Stockholm in the 1960s. The dispersal was the result of, for example in London, of the concentration of office jobs that wound up depopulating the hinterlands of young people.

Everybody complained that they could not be moved out because they needed continual face to face contact with people in other agencies. Studies were done that found that once there is an initial meeting, which coupled a human face and body language with voice and correspondence, people were able to work in dispersed mode with no loss of effectiveness. However, they did need periodic (typically 6 month) refreshing of the initial contact so that the ties would be maintained.
I've lived with remote collaboration approaches for about seven years. I could definitely write a book, and, even before I read this, it would have said that an initial face-to-face meeting with q 5 month refresh meetings are essential to effective collaboration. I'd further recommend, if one can get away with it, spending the bulk of the in-person time time skiing, bowling, walking, dinner -- whatever activity the participants are able and willing to perform.

The social connection is the key factor in these face-to-face meetings, not the actual work done face-to-face. (Though that can be very effective, one outcome of the face-to-face needs to be a shared understanding of how remote work will proceed effectively.)

There are more things needed for effective collaboration -- like good quality phones. (Corporations can be absurdly stingy about phones while spending a fortune on dysfunctional video conferencing systems.) The social connection, however, is pretty much fundamental.

Even the best remote collaboration doesn't work well for new product development, but if done well with an experienced crew, good methodologies, and attention to the infrastructure it can be a good second best.

Interesting, but equally interesting is that his paper was published in the 70s and the underlying research was performed in the 60s. I used to study the dissemination of knowledge in medical practices; knowledge diffusion is a very rocky process. It will be interesting to see if blogs, wikis and the like will make any difference over the next 10-20 years. I think they might ...

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