May 13, 2010
Teams are the archetypal functional units of a firm. They provide the means to combine the different skills and perspectives that are needed to get things done. Interaction between people is relatively easy because of the co-location of the team. People are physically together in the same place at the same time. The office space and office hours matter because they make managing easy. Coordination and communication are efficient and low-cost. Recently, however, many teams have been organizing themselves very differently. Teams increasingly consist of people who are scattered around various locations.
Almost all teams are dispersed on some level. Their members can belong to different organizational units. They can be spatially separated with work-spaces on different floors of the building. According to recent research, this is equal to working in different cities. They can also be temporally separated, meeting seldom or even working in different time zones.
Research has shown that even small degrees of separation affect the quality of collaboration in traditional settings. I understand collaboration here as an equation involving three variables: communication x coordination x responsibility. My idea of collaboration is thus very close to the mainstream understanding of the role and tasks of management. The more collaboration there is, the less (command and control) management is needed. You get my point?
It is no surprise that conventional management thinking has suggested that performance suffers with increasing dispersion. Because of this, managers have typically seen mobile and distributed work as liabilities rather than as opportunities. Geographically distributed teams have commonly been called virtual teams and seen as a secondary, less real, alternative to real teams. This label is not adequate any more. Distributed teams are very real!
Distributed work is not an alternative work practice any more, but the default state of value creation. Distributed participation offers tremendous opportunities and can significantly outperform co-located work when the setting-up and management are done in the right way.
The new landscape of work is alien territory for most of today’s business leaders and business schools, but things are already moving towards a new world. Important decision making is often distributed in order to enable fast responses to change. A lot of the work is done in global teams. These teams are often partly composed of people from outside of the corporation. Teams assemble for a single project and the leader has no formal authority.
The most interesting thing is that coordination and communication take place mainly through digital, rather than face-to-face interaction.
The new rules for network based work
The new landscape of work consists of the network as the architecture of work and work as interaction between non-co-located but interdependent people. The astonishing thing is that we can find an existing, efficient, working model for this kind of digital work. It is multiplayer online games and the game environment in general.
The game environment may be the best productivity suit available for digital work. Adopting the qualities of the multiplayer games could help firms to meet the pressing challenge of mobile and distributed work. What then can be learned from these games?
The pace of games is normally very fast and requires fast decision making. Decisions are typically based on incomplete information and are iterated as more data become available later. You can’t take a lengthy pause to weigh up the options. The culture needs to embrace changing decisions and adopting constant corrections to the course that was initially chosen.
Acting in the game environment is always based on uncertainty. You can’t succeed in an uncertain environment without trial and error, without taking risks. You can’t embrace risk taking without accepting failures. Here the game environment is fundamentally different from most corporate cultures. In corporations the often-heard objection to trying out something is: “We’ve already tried it and it didn’t work!” The game environment approach is “Let’s try that again. The situation has changed and we have learned!” Frequent risk taking and confronting risks routinely help players to learn to keep paradoxes alive calmly and to live efficiently with continuous uncertainty.
Leadership in games is often temporary. Leaders switch roles. They direct others one minute and take orders the next. Leadership is a task, not a position or part of the identity of an individual. Players with good relational skills are efficient at forming teams and keeping them motivated. The leader of the group in the forming stage knows that someone else’s skills may be better suited for the next effort. The group often makes the choices about who will lead and who will follow. These decisions are most often based on volunteering, not dictated by a higher authority.
Companies often identify people as leaders because of the high potential they show early in their careers. That model may not work in the future. The growing complexity of business means that no single leader can handle all the different challenges any more. Treating leadership as a temporary state and a task can be the new model of the future. The assumption that leadership resides within an individual may not be correct.
Getting the network environment right for collaboration is much more important.
Foursquare and Facebook likes
To get the network environment right, there are some readily available lessons from which to learn: We can learn from Foursquare, Facebook and the World of Warcraft. The takeaways from Foursquare and Facebook likes is that digital credits that are earned can (and will) be a synthetic currency. People care a lot about gains and losses of points that are made visible immediately after a task is completed. The gains are even more interesting if they can be compared with the scores of other players. People could get credit/synthetic currency from their peers for contributing a blog post, or even re-tweeting important information. Pushing the Facebook like button could mean giving virtual money.
Transparency allows the taking of responsibility
Efficient digital environments like the World of Warcraft make information open to all of the players, all of the time. This information includes performance statistics and trend information for reflexive work. Real-time status updates on operations make planning the next move easy. The mainstream corporate approach to knowledge management has assumed that thinking and doing are separated. In the game environment a player is expected to act on the available information, without waiting for instructions from the boss. The most interesting thing in the game environment is that transparent information allows players to take responsibility, to assume leadership as needed.
Widespread adoption of game mechanics to communication, coordination and taking responsibility would require a dramatic change in the mainstream organizational culture. However, these games are here today and the generation that has grown up playing the games is growing up and joining corporations. They are going to be the drivers of the change towards a more productive and more fun work environment.
Thank you @Joi Ito and Thomas J. Allen
Real-time information. The Sandbox Summit. The Diaspora project. On collaboration. Jane McGonigal. Seriosity. Vili Lehdonvirta. A video, Jesse Schnell on the future of gaming. A post on “gamification“.