Being here, being there

Mike Champion raises an interesting point that applies to Microsoft but also more broadly:

The culture at MS is very F2F-oriented…if you’re out of sight, you have to work hard not to be out of mind.

But then he adds:

Geographic distance will help keep you from getting sucked into the groupthink of whatever group you’re in. Microsoft collectively needs to be constantly reminded what the world looks like to people whose view isn’t fogged up by our typical drizzle or distracted by the scenery on the sunny days.

We’re entering an era in which our personal, social, and professional lives are increasingly network-mediated. Trust-at-a-distance is a new possibility, with economic ramifications that everyone from Yochai Benkler to Jim Russell is trying to figure out. As someone who’s worked remotely for 8 years, and is about to work remotely for a company with relatively few remote employees, this question is extremely interesting to me.

On the one hand, I’ve learned that I can accomplish a lot because I spend an abormal percentage of my waking hours in flow rather than in meetings. I’ve also learned that network-mediated interactions can be more productive than F2F interactions. Consider my August screencast with Jim Hugunin, or my May screencast with Anders Hejlsberg, or indeed any of the other screencasts in that series. They’re all scheduled events, mediated by telephone and screensharing. I can’t see how physical colocation would improve them.

On the other hand, there’s the “watercooler” effect: being in a place, you see and hear and smell things that aren’t otherwise transmitted through the network. I have no doubt whatsoever that shared physical space matters in ways we can’t begin to describe or understand.

But as collaboration in shared virtual space takes its rightful place alongside collaboration in shared physical space, shouldn’t a company whose products are key enablers of virtual collaboration be eating its own dogfood?

Of course things are never as black-and-white as they appear. So I’m going to bookmark this posting and return to it in six months. Hopefully by then I’ll know more about the value of being here and of being there.

8 thoughts on “Being here, being there

  1. Michael Champion

    “shouldn’t a company whose products are key enablers of virtual collaboration be eating its own dogfood?” Yes. I hope your virtual presence reminds people of that!

    But this isn’t just a Microsoft issue, there’s a meeting-centric culture everywhere I’ve ever worked. The same thing happens at W3C. I remember being frustrated when I first got involved with them that F2F meetings were where most of the work got done, and had the same reaction – why not use the Web to do more of the shared document development? When Wikis came along, there was no technological excuse not to.

    I think the basic issue is *attention* – if I’m here in my home office (at the moment) and you’re in yours, and we’re working with 5 others scattered around various timezones, and we all have different priorities on what absolutely has to be done today, and all sorts of incoming distractions, then the chances of having a focused email, IM, or collaborative Wiki sesssion for more than an hour or so are not good. Dragging people into a conference room forces them (at least before WiFi!) to focus on one issue and the group in the room. This may be particularly important at Microsoft because so many people have so many things going on in their heads and (given the relatively non-hierarchical “meritiocratic” culture) that its necessary to shut off the other stuff to get collaborative work done.

    Getting the bulk of work done remotely can be practical, especially since research, contemplation, and prose-crafting is best done in private, and then just the give and take of critiquing, responding, and deciding can be done in person… leading maybe to a decision, or to another round of research and contemplation. But the tendency most places is to just call a meeting, and jumble up the research, thinking, evaluating, and deciding. Changing that requires more than eating dogfood.

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  2. jonudell Post author

    “Dragging people into a conference room forces them (at least before WiFi!)”

    Quite the parenthetical zinger, though, eh? Incidentally, there was a Polycom videoconferencing setup in one of the rooms I was in, and we used it to reasonably good effect — modulo the obligatory wasted time fumbling around to get it started up.

    “Changing that requires more than eating dogfood.”

    Well, there are some important missing flavors of dogfood. Your point about attention is spot on. We’ve invented lots of ways to be always on, but not enough ways to be selectively on and off. This matters more and more as the tech erodes the ability of the walls of the meeting room to keep anything out or in.

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  4. Jeremy Dunck

    Almost certainly not an original idea, but:

    Instead of your connection being off or on, perhaps a platform-wide “available/busy/unavailable” switch to kill email polling, chat notifications, etc.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: SpinFlow » Jon Udell: Being Here, Being There

  6. Darrell Icenogle

    Jon, when you get around to re-visiting this, there’s another angle in the ftf vs. virtual meeting comparison that hasn’t been considered, here. In ftf meetings, there are those who are adept at controlling the flow, and those who are not. The former group consists of people who know the right moment the right volume to use to get the floor, and who think well on their feet. The latter group may include people who, regardless of their ability to focus, may be incapable of getting a point across effectively in a meeting room. This group often feels liberated by the ability to reflect, compose, and edit asynchronously.

    Those who most resist virtual meetings are often the ones who are more adept at controlling ftf flow. So, there’s actually a political dimension to the comparison, because it can change who has the advantage, and as a result change the conclusions and outcomes of a meeting.

    To take it a step further, if Microsoft is a ftf culture, it is likely dominated by folks who are adept with that mode of interaction. It is also likely that they will, consciously or otherwise, strive to maintain the status quo. Microsoft may manufacture dog food, but leave it to the dogs to eat…

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