Nothing Virtual About Virtual Distance

Today I had the great fortune to attend the Center for Information Management Studies (CIMS) program at Babson College.  I almost didn’t go – having just returned from the Enterprise 2.0 conference, I was feeling a bit “full” of talk on collaboration and technology. But luckily three things coerced me into attending.

1. The event was being produced by Kavin Moody of CIMS, who I had worked with a few weeks back on a similar symposium at Olin Innovation Lab (Olin College of Engineering), and was impressed with the group and his work.

2.  The speaker, Karen Sobel Loeski was highly recommended by my colleague Joe Wehr, whose opinion I respect and value greatly.

3. The topic was just a bit left of center – Leading the Virtual Workforce.

So I decided to go. WOW – OMG am I glad I did.

Karen Sobel Loeski was not only a dynamic, engaging and entertaining speaker, but her message was fascinating.  As those of you who follow my work know, when I address collaboration and knowledge management audits I utilize an 8-dimension model. Using a variety of techniques I measure the effectiveness of (and obstacles caused by) these 9 facets.

Picture 3

In performing these assessments leadership style is assessed – as part of team structure, communication and structure. But, Karen’s work focuses deeply  on leadership.

While I  pontificate on the value of leadership and best practices in leading collaborative teams – and the need for a different approaches when teams are virtual – Karen actually has come up with something called the virtual distance, an approach by which one can measure the reach or gap that exists amongst a virtual team.

I will not go into her talk and work in detail here. I recommend that you buy her 2 books – really.

I will summarize my favorite points.

1. The need to address the issue of virtual distance is critical in this era of Enterprise 2.0.  One of the biggest value propositions of E2.0 is the ability to support and facilitate effective team-based collaboration regardless of time and distance between team members. This is empowering, but as we migrate to a virtual workforce, we need to realize that the approach and role of team management needs to be adapted. All too often we hear that E2.0 is about collaboration without leadership, anarchy, and the destruction of business management. Karen (and I) averts that this simply is not so. Teams – virtually any team (no pun intended) – begs for leadership – of some sort. The leader of a virtual team faces different challenges and requires different sensitivities and skills but is as critical as a “traditional” team leader.

2. Although typically associated with geographically dispersed teams, virtual distance can occur between 2 people sitting in the same car (you had to be there to appreciate this comment). Virtual distance is a cognitive and psychological distance as well as a physical distance. Karen provides a 10-dimension model to assess the virtual distance of a team.

The Virtual Distance IndexTM

VDI Index

3.  Glocalization of our workforces has changed many issues for business – not just leadership style. We need to reexamine how we evaluate the value of our workers and the work they perform. ROI models steeped in “cost/time of widgets produced” models simply do not work any longer.  Karen offered many great examples; one:  Adobe Reader makes no money directly for Adobe, so it has no value right? – We all know the answer is “wrong” – it is “new value”.  Although “its not about the technology” – technology is changing the economic models of the past.

Interestingly enough, I was speaking with Michael Idinopulos of SocialText the other day. SocialText  provides a host of services (including assessments) along with their E2.0 technology, because (as a virtual company themselves) they appreciate that the value derived from technologies that enable virtual collaboration and teaming is only maximized if the culture AND LEADERSHIP associated with the technology usage are specifically adapted to leverage the technologies and the environments they create. Michael addresses the issue of “leaderless collaboration” very well in his post Transparency, not Anarchy.

I think part of the reason we are having such a difficult time getting through this transition is partially based in our lexicon. Perhaps we need to think of another term for technology-enabled teams and collaboration  that transcend time and distance.  We call them virtual – but there is NOTHING virtual about them.  They are very real, and they are very powerful.  I’ll wrap this somewhat lengthy post up by stealing a quote from Karen’s presentation – she quoted Albert Einstein “We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”

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“I have really enjoyed working with Dan on several recent projects. I find Dan is very insightful with a great perspective on technology and the industry. I also enjoyed the intellectual conversations that allowed both of us to challenge the boundaries of today's realities against the possibilities of tomorrow.”
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