When I speak to corporate audiences, one of the most common questions I get is “What can we do to support collaboration among people in different locations?” The most common tool that distant teams use to collaborate is email, but it has well-known weaknesses. An increasingly popular team coordination tool is the Wiki; it’s better than email exchanges, but still far from ideal.
Most multinational companies have used Web conferencing (where information is delivered to participants in a training session or a Powerpoint) or video conferencing (where a camera in each location captures an image that is displayed in each other location). Web conferencing isn’t very collaborative because it tends to be one-way: like a lecture hall, where information is delivered from one to many. And most companies have had only partial success at supporting collaboration with video conferencing. Two problems: one, the lack of “presence,” the hard-to-describe subliminal messages that you pick up when you’re right next to someone, and two, it’s not that easy to share documents, or to grab a scrap of paper and sketch an image to help communicate a point.
IBM and Microsoft both have far-flung research teams, and in-house tools to support teams, like Microsoft’s SharePoint. And there’s a relatively new class of software call Group Decision Support Systems (GDSS), with the market leader, a product called ThinkTank by the company GroupSystems. ThinkTank is typically used when all of the team members are in the same room; each is given a networked laptop, and the software guides the flow of the meeting to foster maximum creative idea exchange. My own research, as reported in my book Group Genius, shows that this kind of “electronic brainstorming” is more effective than ordinary brainstorming.
But this still doesn’t really help companies with far-flung teams scattered across the globe. I don’t think there’s an obvious best solution here; I think there’s a huge potential market, for the company that can figure out how to best support geographically distributed collaboration. What are your experiences with long-distance collaboration?