Monday, March 14, 2011

Group Collaboration Software: Issues for Semi-Virtual Teams of Colleagues


Apart from working with my co-workers in our physical office, I find that I am often working with teams of colleagues similar organizations. Most often we are members of an umbrella group representing a field of professionals. A few others teams are collaborative working groups among two to many organizations working on a common project. In all but one case, these are unpaid professional teams.
I call these teams semi-virtual because we may meet together anywhere from once a week to once every two years. At all other points during the year, we may be work together but only through phone calls, emails, IM, Facebook, LinkedIn, Ning networks, Remember the Milk, Doodle, Qlubb, Google Wave, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Yahoo Groups, wikis, blogs, and I’m sure many others. These are all tools that I have actually utilized over the past year to work with others virtually. I believe utilizing these tools to their fullest potential will help me be successful in my career.

Why Use Group Collaboration Software

These group collaboration tools are mainly used to facilitate communication between physical meeting times. These tools may be used to schedule up-coming meetings and agendas. They may be used to transmit information about upcoming events or relevant political issues(one-way communication).  These tools are often used to continue conversations that began during in-person meetings (two-way communication).
Frequently, semi-virtual teams also hope that their decision-making process will continue through these virtual platforms. Of all the purposes of group collaboration software, virtual decision-making is often the most difficult task. It is hard to judge people’s reactions through virtual channels and makes people hesitant to offer improvements or address concerns. Even if the group gets back together for a physical meeting, it is often too hard to bring back up issues that arose through virtual means.

Selection Criteria: Web-based, Email-based, and Free

Because my various semi-virtual team members work for other organizations, we usually lack a common software platform with which to communicate. Instead, web-based tools are the norm because all of us can access them from any computer with an Internet connection. These tools must also be free, as the work being done does not often directly benefit any single organization. Instead, the work is being done under an umbrella group that indirectly benefits each of the participant’s organization. I do work with one team virtually as a consultant. We support an umbrella organization directly as paid consultants and use a Ning network that is paid for by the umbrella organization.
Email is the lynch pin for group collaboration software, as people use it multiple times every day. There is not a competitor for most-used tool among all of the others listed in the introduction. No matter what general tools are chosen, they must fully integrate with email through list-serve type functions, email notifications, calendar email reminders, etc..

Important Decisions that Must Be Made When Using Group Collaboration Software

Designating a Driver

Deciding who will drive the group collaboration tools is one of the most important considerations for semi-virtual teams. Without someone to drive, tools are generally underutilized. To clarify, the person who drives the tools is the one who is responsible for keeping the tool in each member’s email inbox. The driver also ensures that the tools are used for the purposes intended by the group, which leads to the next point.

Answering, “What will be communicated?”

Semi-virtual teams must decide what will be communicated, especially with regards to change. Change will inevitably occur as tasks are carried out. This change must be communicated for semi-virtual teams to stay on the same page. Communicating the decision-making process and giving members a chance for input ensures that everyone feels included on important decisions. One great quote I took from a “lessons learned” presentation last year was this: “The rate of change outpaced the system to communicate changes” (Pickett Slater-Harrington, used with permission). This was said with regards to a project carried about by a semi-virtual team that met just once a week for a few hours. The rest of the project was carried out virtual. As the quote suggests, this team had trouble communicating changes throughout the week. This left their weekly physical meetings less productive than they could have been.

Deciding, “How often do we need to meet in person?”

Semi-virtual teams must also decide when physical meeting will take place. Some numeber of physical meetings are necessary to ensure the success of projects over the long term. These physical meetings can be used to facilitate deeper discussion, allow for more trust to be built, and be used to speed up some elements of the team’s work. Obviously, by the very nature of a semi-virtual team, a delicate balance must be struck between the necessity of a physical meeting and the practicality of a physical meeting.

Positives and Negatives of Group Collaboration Software

On the positive side of the discussion, many of the group collaboration tools are used because they are already integrated into a person’s personal online life. The consumer-grade nature of the tools often makes the learning curve very shallow. In addition, the cost of the tools is often zero to very minimal. Very often, the tools can be set up for use in a matter of hours and distributed to the team very quickly. Again, this is why the drive of the tools is so important.
On the negative side, consumer-grade tools may lack features that the team finds out later that it needs. I also find that the tools can give a false sense of control. What I mean by this is that the group believes the tool will make a good semi-virtual team, as opposed to focusing on what the team can do to build its trust and skills. Another negative is that the tools used can vary greatly across semi-virtual teams. This makes it hard for someone who is on many different teams to deal with the many different group collaboration tools.

Future Career Considerations

As I continue to work with semi-virtual teams, I believe that my most important considerations as a team-leader will be to define roles and to define and facilitate the decision-making processes.
Role-definition is essential when trying to communicate and complete tasks through the use of virtual tools. As I explained above, I believe the new role of driver will become essential as group collaboration software is used more and more often. This person will need to be excellent at communicating through various virtual channels of communication. This person will also need to be adept at learning new software collaboration tools and helping others to quickly assimilate the tools into their every day work flows.
In addition, I will need to facilitate good decision-making through virtual channels. It can be more difficult to gather honest feedback about potential decisions made through virtual channels. I will need to be conscious of the very different interpersonal dynamics of semi-virtual teams. I will also need to maintain a very high level of working knowledge of as many various group collaboration tools as possible to best manage the decision-making process.
Overall, semi-virtual teams are appealing because they allow team members from physically distant yet like-minded organizations to work together toward common goals. I expect to continue to be a member of many of these semi-virtual teams and will constantly strive toward being the best member and leader of these teams.


Trippingili said...

I completely agree with you, these days is very useful to work with a collaboration software to get things done for youe business. I use Teambox a free, open source, software collaboration tool, with online project management that will help you organize and manage your projects in a easy and fun way. Take a look:

Mercin said...

I signed up for teambox and am checking it out. So far, it looks very intuitive. Thanks for the suggestion.