I picked up a used copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s “How the World Was One” which recounts the communications revolutions kicked off first by transatlantic cables starting in the 1860’s and by communications satellites in the 1960’s. Fiber optic technology has revitalized underwater cables (see a great recap by Neal Stephenson in Wired “Mother Earth, Mother Board.”)
Writing in 1991, he opens with a memory of attending a lecture by the historian Arnold Toynbee in 1947 “The Unification of the World,” at a time when much of the world was still recovering from World War 2. Clarke characterizes Toynbee’s thesis that developments in transportation and communication would seen create a single planetary society as unusually farsighted.
Thanks to transistor and the microchip, that dawn has certainly arrived–if one uses a somewhat generous definition of the word culture… Nevertheless, Toynbee is essentially correct. Except for a few dwindling tribes in equally dwindling forests, the human race has now become almost a single entity, divided by time zones rather than the natural frontiers of geography.
As more and more startups add global team members or even start out as global teams, the key challenges to communication and coordination have less to do with distance and much more to synchronization and managing across different time zones. It’s much easier to manage a team 3,000 miles apart spread from Vancouver to Costa Rica than Palo Alto to Boston for example. Much less a global team where any three members span at least five time zones.
Skype, or other low cost VoIP solutions enable easy voice communication. Wikis and source code control repositories allow for the teams works product to be easily revised–sometimes recovered–so that a current snapshot of “the truth” about a product is always available to team members. So applications are being layered onto the basic communications infrastructure to make global teams (and their complex work relationships) more effective.
The rule of thumb a decade ago was to co-locate a team to make it maximally effective. That’s probably still true, but collaboration technologies now make it possible to include a more diverse, and often more collectively creative, group of team members. We find ourselves with a global practice now. Most of our clients are still in Silicon Valley, but perhaps a third at one any one time are “out of region” many 3,9, or even 12.5 hours away.
I have two observations about long distance work relationships:
- Time zones matter more than miles: once people are not in the same room the offset in their circadian cycles is harder to manage than geographic distance.
- Anthony Jay suggested in “Corporation Man” that managers should embrace systems that augment memory but distrust and minimize the use of systems that replace communication. Because what matters in communication is not what’s said but what’s understood, synchronous communication enables you to quickly close the feedback loop to make sure that you understand what the other party meant and vice versa.