Saturday, September 3, 2011

The virtual team thing

As part of the Agile Project Management course I teach for PMI's eSeminarWorld, I get to talk to students about virtual teams and teamwork since that's how the course is constructed. (disclaimer: I didn't develop the course; I'm an instructor when they need me)

One of the discussions is about what's different about virtual teams; the answers are the one's you'd expect, leading with time zones and 'no co-located stand-up meetings'. But the one I like, though it comes up less often, is 'no body language'.

Having sat on endless conference calls, and participated in a mind numbing number of online chats, I can sympathize that there's a lot left out. But we know that from a lot of experience; we didn't need agile to tell us that body language counts for a lot, by some estimates more than 50%. Agile only reinforces the idea that it's hard to substitute for what Alistair Cockburn calls communication by osmosis--that absorption of information from the unspoken, the casually spoken, and the mere presence in the room, if you will.

On the other hand, reality intrudes: often there's no practical way to get body language in the picture. Yes, that is a shameful segue to video teleconferencing, including Skype and other pc-based video. But I can tell you (as if you need telling) that even with a good camera, video is not an osmosis channel. Nevertheless, better than a straight teleconference most of the time.

Of course, there's the wiki board, and the threaded discussions. They are a possibility also, and I've tried those too. They add value, to be sure, but in the end, there's just nothing like being in the same room!

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