Seizing the WoW Advantage: The Next HR Challenge

What should a smart HR leader do in these tough economic times? A targeted rather than ‘slash and burn’ approach to cost cutting, of course, but also development of a strategy for better leveraging talent. In a global, knowledge-based economy, survival and future prosperity depend heavily on our ability to mine the imaginations and expertise of men and women often working thousands of miles from each other. As part of the strategy, a smart HR leader will embrace new information and communication technologies and create work environments in which distributed talent can connect and collaborate – in planned and spontaneous ways.

Often the new ‘workplace’ is not a ‘place’ at all, but a virtual workspace. In a world seeking cost savings and higher value-added from employees, we will see the increasing use of virtual work environments, or what I call WorkWebs (WoWs). New user-driven Web 2.0 tools like wikis, blogs, and social networking technologies are converging with audio, video and web conferencing to make possible global WoWs. These collaborative spaces offer enormous potential for juxtaposing and mashing up individual knowledge, skills, and experiences to create new competitive advantage.

A WoW can be broad or narrow depending on the distribution of talent, and focused or unfocused depending on how sharply the purpose of those inside the WoW has been defined. Typically, a global project team is a broad and focused WoW, while social networking groups in business can be broad or narrow/ focused or unfocused depending on the intent and wishes of members. They can also have defined leadership or not.

While available technologies are powerful enablers of cost-effective global collaboration, the real challenge is people enablement – developing individuals and groups who can be effective in a virtual workspace – Millennials, Boomers, and those in-between. Many hours spent by Millennials playing video games doesn’t guarantee competence in a WoW role, and Boomer mindsets and skills don’t always adjust easily.

What can we do to enable people to be high performers in WoWs?
First, we need to understand the primary challenges people face collaborating virtually. In my experience, the challenges are threefold: isolation, fragmentation, and confusion. Physically and psychologically separated by virtual distance, individuals can easily become alienated from others, and paranoia, resentment, and false assumptions will try to fill the space. Distance and reduced communication also magnify the chances a collaborative group will fragment. Even small differences in understanding of team purpose direction, and priorities, etc., can open up large gaps in a team’s sense of itself and easily diffuse its efforts. Working across geographic, time zone, and cultural borders also increases the chances of confusion and misunderstandings. Many of the clues we use to understand others, e.g., facial expressions, eye movements, gestures, and knowledge of the other person’s context are often restricted or absent. Quick adjustments to communication signals can be made in face-to-face settings, but not so easily in a WoW.

The second thing we need to do in developing high performing WoWers, is to turn the challenges on their heads so that we understand the conditions to make collaboration across distances successful. Isolation will be countered by fostering high levels of engagement, fragmentation by cohesion, and confusion by clarity. These desired outcomes are dependent on performing well in what I call The Six Cs of Global Collaboration:

  • Cooperation: Ability to develop trusting relationships across geographies, time zones and cultures
  • Convergence: Ability to maintain shared purpose, direction, priorities, and performance measures across distances.
  • Coordination: Ability to align distributed work through clearly defined roles and responsibilities, tools, and processes.
  • Capability: Ability to leverage the knowledge, skills, and experiences of team members across all locations.
  • Communication: Ability to establish shared verbal and written understandings across distances via technology.
  • Cultural Intelligence: Ability to maintain a virtual workspace inclusive of value and style differences.

When people connect via technology they are consciously or unconsciously creating a virtual space in which they interact and work together. A virtual territory like Second Life is an extreme example of such a space complete with personal avatars, real estate, shops, classrooms, and so on. But even when we make a phone call, instant message someone, create a wiki document, or send an e-mail, we are creating a virtual interaction space. Our experience of that space is influenced by our choice of technologies – some technologies provide for greater communication and contextual richness than others. The technology shapes the virtual environment to a degree, but so do the mindsets and behaviors of the individuals interacting via the technology.

To realize the potential collaborative advantage of WoWs, we need to develop individuals who take personal – as well as mutual – accountability for performance in each of the Six Cs. Every member of a WoW should receive feedback on their active, value-added contribution to each C. What are the contributions we should be encouraging and rewarding?

Cooperation – Partnering
Key question: Am I contributing actively to creating a WoW in which everyone feels a desire to share and fully participate?

It is well known that trust is a key factor in the success of virtual teams. It is important to develop trust early on, and shared leadership is needed in creating the environmental conditions for developing trust. How? By modeling the attitudes and behaviors that promote cooperation and partnering from the very beginning – these include openness, support, honesty, predictability, caring, reliability, and inclusion. When a cooperative climate is created at the outset, distance loses much of its potentially negative power.

Convergence – Navigating
Key question: Am I contributing actively to creating and maintaining clear navigational markers in the WoW to help overcome potential fragmentation of the team?

Virtual space is a void and only has the navigational markers and coordinates we set up. Virtual workspaces need clear signposts such as a well-defined purpose and strategic direction, clear goals and objectives, shared principles for working together virtually, agreed upon priorities, and common performance measures. Shared leadership in developing and maintaining these markers builds ownership and commitment across distances, helping to prevent focus drift by individuals and sub-groups.

Coordination – Facilitating
Key question: Am I contributing actively to enabling the efficient and effective synchronization of team effort to achieve goals?

WoWs are made possible by a dazzling array of asynchronous and synchronous information and communication technologies (ICTs). The opportunities made possible by these technologies, however, will only be realized if participants apply them appropriately and consistently to facilitate the type of coordination and collaboration needed at a point in time. Each technology has strengths and limitations, but too often a small number of tools are used as all-purpose vehicles, e.g., e-mail. All members of a WoW need to take a vested interest in how well the different tools support the task and relationship needs for accomplishing their independent, interdependent, routine and non-routine work.

Capability – Developing
Key question: Am I contributing actively to identifying and leveraging the ranges of capabilities and resources available to the WoW?

Distance tends to hide resources and capabilities. Team members are brought into a virtual space to play a role, and the ‘wholeness’ of individuals – character, background, and range of knowledge, skills, and experiences – is often underutilized as a source of value. A key role for everyone in a WoW is to communicate who they are, what they can do, and what they want to learn from the WoW experience. This can be done formally through the exchange of CVs or more informally through creative activities and exchanges between participants. Everyone needs to work at uncovering the talents on a team, and unblock or create channels and processes in which personalities, cultures, knowledge and skills can flow and combine together to develop new possibilities.

Communication – Sensemaking
Key question: Am I contributing actively to identifying, resolving, and preventing confusion and misunderstandings in the WoW?

Misunderstandings cause chaos in virtual workspaces. Silence often hides confusion and panic rather than agreement and alignment. Interpretations can differ radically across national, organizational, and professional cultures. As well as modeling clear and precise communication, everyone must be on alert for the potential misperceptions and misunderstandings; too often they are not corrected fast enough in the virtual environment and a small communication disconnect can become a major issue.

Cultural Intelligence – Integrator
Key question: Am I contributing actively to helping everyone in the WoW feel that they are able to participate fully and make a difference?

Members of global virtual teams contribute diverse values, perspectives, approaches, and styles. These differences are so necessary for creativity and robust problem solving on the team. While that is certainly true, participants must support the development of a WoW culture that provides some shared operating agreements, e.g., how will we make decisions, share information, communicate, give feedback, and handle conflict.

During this economic downturn, HR departments should seize the opportunity to strengthen cost-effective global virtual collaboration in their organizations. Strategic collaborative advantage can be developed now to increase competitive advantage in the recovery.