Crossing oceans and firewalls
The way we work today has changed – businesses are often geographically distributed, working with partners to support operations in other countries and utilizing outsourced services more than ever. Increasingly we collaborate with people with whom we never meet. Often our colleagues work for a different organization, in a different city, time zone or country. They may speak a different language. For various reasons, including globalization, business mergers and acquisitions, and the economics of outsourcing, we are on the same team as virtual strangers – at least for a time.
Virtual teaming has become a twenty-first century survival skill (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000). Small wonder then that the market for distributed project management software was estimated at slightly less than $1 billion US in 2002, with projected growth to $7.2 billion US by 2007 (Collaborative Strategies LLC, 2002). The growth of this software category gives testimony to the fact that our ability to leverage a global resource pool is limited by our ability to manage these resources when working at a distance.
Recent technology developments have changed that by providing inexpensive text and voice communications, real-time data synchronization, automatic encryption and authentication, and a host of other tools that change how we communicate, collaborate and manage project work from a distance. New technologies enable greater engagement among team members, as well as between team members and their clients and business partners.
Characteristics and Challenges of Distributed Teams
While distributed teams face many of the same difficulties as co-located teams, the following characteristics lead to additional challenges not necessarily shared by their co-located counterparts:
- Physical separation, whether in different buildings in the same city or in different countries leads to a lack of collaboration, apparently due to human nature. Research has shown (Allen, 1977) that people will not collaborate very often if they are more than 50 feet apart. The natural tendency of distant participants not to collaborate with each other can cause disengagement from the project and its objectives.
Absent is the sense of team that normally grows through face-to-face contact and regular project meetings. In fact, many researchers regard face-to-face meetings as a key contributor to success even for virtual teams (Neale et al, 2003).
The awareness deficits resulting from lack of co-location have been well-documented in the literature. Although up to nineteen different types have been outlined in research papers, the key awareness deficits outlined in a study conducted at the University of Michigan (Jang, et al, 2000), are the following:
a) Lack of awareness of what remote team members are doing on a daily basis.
b) Lack of awareness regarding each other's availability.
c) No knowledge of colleagues’ key task requirements and deadlines.
d) Lack of knowledge about how team members felt about an idea or suggestion.
In practice, project status itself remains elusive for remote project participants. Most often team members report their status either verbally or through e-mail to a project manager, who updates a project plan using desktop software specifically for that purpose. The project plan is current on the day it is updated, typically once a week. Often remote team members have no visibility of the overall project plan, unless it is distributed through e-mail or made available on a web server by publishing to HTML.
- Project teams are often distributed because their members work for multiple organizations. This is true in professional services, government, the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries, and in some manufacturing sectors, such as defense. In these situations, ideas and knowledge from multiple organizations must be brought together to resolve a specific problem. However, those ideas and knowledge are protected from public access by firewalls, making it difficult for project participants to easily share electronically based information.
In these circumstances, participants often e-mail documents to each other. This technique becomes burdensome when there are many participants or documents under constant change. One of the awareness deficits that becomes critical in cross-organizational teams is change awareness. It is not easy to make everyone instantly aware of a change in project objectives, schedule or work specification. The greater the number of team members involved, and the more distant they are from the decision-makers, the more likely it is for information exchange to become a source of lost productivity.
- Participants in different time zones have difficulties establishing real-time meetings, such as conference calls. There is the inherent problem of one person's workday ending before their colleague's day begins, compounded by a lack of awareness of when someone is available to speak in real-time. Often times a distant colleague is working at the office or at home, but other colleagues are not aware of their availability.
The time zone issue can create problems when global teams are trying to schedule regular meetings – inevitably someone is working in their pajamas. But the lack of presence awareness also contributes to a loss of productivity when team members cannot surface and resolve issues quickly, simply because they cannot see who is currently available for the needed discussion.
- Language and cultural issues can hamper verbal communications and lead to misunderstandings and costly mistakes. This is an important issue to be overcome in today's working environment. According to Forrester Research (Associated Press, 2003), companies in the United States and Europe will spend 28 percent of their information technology budgets on overseas work in the next two years. The result is that many of us will soon be working with people whose native language is different from ours, if we are not doing so already.
In many instances where project participants speak different native languages, they may not converse well in real-time. These people will often not speak in conference calls, foregoing the opportunity to surface issues or present solutions to known issues.
Software Tools for Project Management Communications
A number of tools are currently in use for project management communications, including e-mail, discussion tools, document repositories and portals, instant messaging (IM) and both desktop and web-based project management software. None of these have been sufficiently integrated to provide a fully functional yet easy-to-use user interface for all project participants.
The remainder of this paper will introduce the distributed communications architecture provided by Groove Networks, as it has the greatest degree of technical integration of software tools for project management communications currently available commercially.
The Groove Networks Distributed Platform
Key characteristics that distinguish this platform from web-based or desktop project management applications are the following:
- All of the project data is replicated on each team member's machine, allowing the capability to work online or off.
- Security is always on and nonintrusive.
- All data on disk and in transit is 192-bit encrypted.
- Communications across multiple organizations uses HTTP, negating the requirement to open additional ports in the firewall.
- Project participation is by invitation only.
- The interface is presence-aware, allowing participants to see each other in the project.
- Data synchronization is performed automatically whenever a participant connects to the Internet.
- Change awareness is provided through Unread markers and popup notifications.
- Audio and text-based chat, discussions and IM are built into a single user interface.
- Tools for project scheduling, a shared calendar, and document repository are added on-demand by project participants.
- The application can be self-administered by project users or managed centrally by an IT organization.
Addressing Project Communications Problems with Groove Networks’ Technology
The Project's Digital Home
In the absence of physical togetherness, new technology has provided us with opportunities to be together by virtue of shared electronic information and communications. The shared digital space helps define the team through its membership and private, shared activities. Thanks to encryption and digital authentication, the project's digital home allows team members to bond as a team by virtue of
- Invitation – only invitees may join the digital space
- Privacy – only invitees know that the project exists and are privy to its contents
- Presence awareness – team members can see and communicate with other team members privately
Once a project space has been created, team members are aware of each other in the space and may chat using audio or text, or send instant messages. Important information such as clearly articulated project objectives can be referenced or reviewed easily by everyone.
Conquering Awareness Deficits
Awareness deficits cause productivity loss as project participants work under false assumptions, fail to receive essential information and do not communicate quickly enough with those who can help resolve problems that are blocking progress. The new technology helps reduce the following awareness problems articulated previously:
- Lack of awareness of what remote team members are doing on a daily basis. This is resolved by making tasks, resource assignments and reported progress clearly visible to all participants. Unread markers indicate changes in status or information.
- Lack of awareness regarding each other's availability. The technology addresses two availability problems – who is available now to resolve a specific issue, and what is the availability of participants on a more general basis. Online presence indicates who is available now for resolution of issues that can be addressed through IM or a telephone call. A shared calendar allows scheduling of events for a wider audience, especially in the context of the project schedule, which is always visible. Team members can check for meetings and milestones at any time.
- No knowledge of colleagues’ key task requirements and deadlines. This is resolved through the visibility of resource assignments in the shared project schedule and the ability of members to indicate their key deadlines as milestones.
- Lack of knowledge about how team members felt about an idea or suggestion. Using the Discussion tool, members can express their ideas on a topic after reflecting on the issue as long as necessary. For those team members not speaking the primary language of the project, it compensates for their inability to respond in real-time during a team conference call.
The following awareness improvements are shown in Exhibit 1:
- Presence awareness – team members see who is online
- Clearly visible task assignments, task and project status
- Unread markers indicating changed status and new or changed information
- Information exchange options provided through chat, IM, discussions and files.
- Discussions and files may be associated with a specific task or the entire project
Working Across Multiple Organizations
Previously, organizations providing the ability for nonemployee access to internal electronic information had to institute virtual private networks (VPNs) or a demilitarized zone (DMZ) residing outside of their main firewall. Both of these require network administration. By contrast, the Groove Networks platform provides firewall transparency in a secure way – 192-bit encrypted communications using a standard HTTP port, allowing users to collaborate securely without any additional effort by network administrators.
Different Time Zones – Extending the Hours of Overlap
The Groove Workspace user interface allows participants to see who is active in the project, who is online, but not currently in the project space, and who is offline. Presence awareness has become essential in keeping momentum in a project, in that the flow of information can be initiated whenever the parties are online. More than anything, this has extended the hours of overlap between internationally distributed project participants.
Because most home offices now have always-on Internet connections provided by cable or DSL services, many workers plug in early in the morning before embarking on the office commute. In the case of Groove Networks, a single user license is valid on up to five computers. Because project spaces are synchronized automatically by the underlying Groove Networks platform, a project participant on the US West Coast can communicate with team members in Europe in the morning, work all day within a North American context, and communicate with Asian colleagues in the afternoon. The breakthrough is that presence awareness lets the employee know when to start communicating – eliminating wasteful telephone tag and e-mails.
In Exhibit 2, the leftmost column indicates which project participants are in the project space, which are online but not active in the space, and which others are not currently online. Using the built-in Chat and Calendar tools, a US-based team member can send an instant message or invitation to plan upcoming events to the online Japanese partner.
Working Across Language and Cultures
Cross-cultural communications are often best handled asynchronously rather than in real-time. Participants speaking different native languages need time to reflect on what was said before responding intelligently. A Discussion tool eliminates the need to respond in real-time, allowing users to post meaningful comments at a comfortable pace.
Exhibit 3 illustrates how team members use the Discussion tool to air topics specific to the task at hand or of interest to the entire team. Valuable technical information is captured for reuse at a later time or for new project members to acquaint themselves with project history. In this project, teams in the United States and France have settled on English as their language for resolving technical issues.
Three project teams were examined for success at resolving awareness deficit and other issues using the Groove Networks technology and associated tools.
Profile: A wireless software developer with team members dispersed throughout Washington State needed tools that would allow executives and technicians alike to share a single view of the project.
- Startup situation – the company had no IT infrastructure; no IT resources, no file servers, no VPN.
- Remote workers included those within Washington State and a sales team on the US East Coast.
- Requirement to support a mobile team – executives always traveling.
- Requirement to support on-going engineering, sales, marketing and deployment efforts.
- Wide range of software skills from software developers to executives.
- No time to invest in learning how to use new software. Executives had previously rejected software tools that they viewed as too complex (required training).
- Constant travel and the frenetic pace of work caused project participants to have different understandings of project status, as well as using out-of-date information.
Technical Solution: Each employee downloaded Groove Workspace from the Groove Networks web site, downloaded the Project tool from the TeamDirection web site, and added the tool to their environment.
- The distributed storage model compensated for lack of file servers as central data stores. Since each project participant has a complete replica of the project on their personal computer, each is a backup for every other machine.
- There was no requirement for a VPN to support remote workers. Since all data is 192-bit encrypted on disk and in transit, they were able to use a low-cost standard Internet connection.
- Since all data in the project is automatically synchronized when connected, the executives can unplug from the Internet and continue working offline while in transit. Plugging into an Internet connection from a hotel room or customer site allows all information to resynchronize.
- The underlying platform and user interface were simple enough but sufficiently functional to support projects ranging from running the company to deploying software at a customer site.
- No training was required, ensuring that the executives accepted and used the software.
- With the automatic resynchronization of all data upon reconnecting to the Internet after offline work, everyone has the same version of files and project schedules.
- By having a single shared view of the project, team members now make any necessary changes to the project schedule during the weekly conference call and view the result in real time. Everyone makes commitments based on what they see – and there is no need to follow up with project status reports. Project-related paperwork has been eliminated.
Profile: AARDEX LTD develops products that measure, analyze and facilitate patient compliance with prescribed drug regimens in clinical trials and medical practices. Hexalog SA is a software company with responsibility for all software development for AARDEX. In addition, Hexalog hosts data collection servers that monitor and record patients’ intake of prescribed medication.
- The team members were geographically distributed across Europe, with a sales team in the United States.
- The medical research, software support and sales teams needed to improve their communications, especially for member task assignments and availability.
- Requirement for cross-firewall collaboration, with minimally two companies on each project, often more.
- The team members speak different native languages.
Technical Solution: The Hexalog IT Director made the Groove Workspace/TeamDirection project tool available on an internal network, as well as through downloading from the Internet.
- The IT Director created the first project space and invited others to join. By virtue of accepting the invitation, both the software and the project contents would be downloaded to the team members’ computers. This negated the necessity to be physically present to install software, eliminating travel costs and allowing deployment to proceed rapidly.
- Because the software has both a project scheduling tool and built-in communications vehicles such as IM, chat and discussions, project management communications increased and improved immediately.
- Since the software uses a standard HTTP port for all communications, it was simple to exchange information through the firewalls of the various organizations. The always-on but nonintrusive 192-bit encryption and authentication allowed decision-makers to have confidence in the security of the data. Since no central server is being used, the data is only on the machines of the project participants and cannot be compromised through an attack on a shared web server.
- While the team members speak different native languages and use various Windows versions that support these, English is used for information-sharing. Using the Discussion tool, ideas can be presented for review and commented on after thoughtful consideration.
Profile: Grapevine Software develops workflow management software for emergency response, contingency and business continuity plans. The application allows government planners to create scenarios for testing emergency, contingency and disaster recovery plans of all types.
- The business model is one of offshore development. The CEO and sales functions reside in California while the R&D efforts take place in China.
- Most of the team members speak English only with difficulty, although they read it well.
- The cultural perspectives on problems (including what constitutes a problem) are quite different.
- Understanding the project status and that of individual tasks was impossible from the California location.
- Staying in touch by e-mail proved onerous once multiple versions of software specifications and deliverables began to emerge.
Technical Solution: The Groove Workspace and TeamDirection Project tool are mandatory for project management communications for all developers and executives.
- The distributed communications architecture compensated for lack of IT infrastructure, allowing the two teams to communicate and share information without a VPN or web portal. A process was established whereby software specifications were attached to the individual tasks that they pertained to. This was used to avoid confusion and to assure that the developer is always looking at the current definitive specification. Note the paperclip symbols seen in Exhibit 4 used to denote a file attachment for each task. The Unread markers four columns to the left signify new information is available.
- To avoid real-time conversations where many misunderstandings are possible, all communications are in written English using the Discussion tool and Notes added to individual project tasks.
- Due to the real-time synchronization, the US-based manager was able to take a hands-on approach to the project, compensating for the cultural void that was developing in the absence of constant communication.
- Using the TeamDirection Project tool within the project space allows the status of individual tasks as well as the project overall to be always visible to everyone, and therefore available for discussion.
- By using the built-in Discussion, Chat and IM tools, e-mail is no longer used for project communications.
Some project communications problems such as lack of trust cannot be resolved through technology. The way to build trust is by always doing what you say you are going to do. However, recent software developments have made projects that span organizations and geographies much more feasible and friendly. The following table summarizes the findings of this author based on how the technology was used in three projects to resolve issues now well-publicized in the literature.
|Characteristic||Resulting Problem(s)||Technology Solution|
|1||Physical separation||1. Lack of collaboration: ||Give project a digital |
home Participation by invitation only
Keep objectives clearly visible and
|2. Various awareness deficits: ||Presence awareness |
Shared and visible project plan
Shared and visible project plan
Process documented in digital form
|2||Multiple organizations||3. Inability to access stored information easily due to cross-firewall||Always-on but nonintrusive cross-firewall authentication Encryption|
|3||Different time zones||4 Inability to surface and resolve issues quickly through ad hoc discussion||Extend the hours of overlap Presence awareness Synchronous/asynchronous discussion|
|4||Different languages/culture||5 Mistakes and missed opportunities ||Written communications |
** No technical solution – depends on social skills of project manager
Allen, T. J., (1977). Managing the Flow of Technology: Technology Transfer and the Dissemination of Technological Information within the R&D Organization, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Collaborative Strategies, LLC (2002) DPM Update 2002, Volume 1, Executive Summary.
Forrester Research cited by the Associated Press (2003) Tech jobs leave U.S. for India, Russia, reported on 14 July 2003.
International Data Corporation (2003) Third Annual Email Usage Forecast and Analysis, 2001-2005 (IDC #W25335).
Jang, C. Y., Steinfeld, C., and Pfaff, B. (2000, Dec) Supporting Awareness among Virtual Teams in a Web-based Collaborative System: The TeamSCOPE System. International Workshop on Awareness & The World Wide Web, 2000, Philadelphia, PA, USA.
Lipnack, J. and Stamps, J. (2000) Virtual Teams, People Working Across Boundaries with Technology. John Wiley & Sons: New York.
Neale, M. A. and Griffith, T. L. reported by Bill Snyder (2003) Teams that Span Time Zones Face New Work Rules, Stanford Business Magazine May 2003.
Osterman Research Inc. (2003, February) Instant Messaging - Enterprise Market Needs and Trends. Available through: http://www.ostermanresearch.com/reports.htm.
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