Thursday, September 30, 2004

People : Keep remote teams involved.

Development teams away from the head office normally feel left out of what is happening . They feel left out of the loop even if nothing is actually happening. I have worked from our company headquarters and from remote locations long enough to realize that you will feel that way when you are in a remote location no matter what your position is. There are a few things we can do to mitigate such feelings. Instead of broad suggestions, I'll talk about the things that we do with some degree of success.

Remote Project and Production Managers feel that enough information is not reaching them at the right time to enable them make their execution plan.
1. Online CRM applications like Salesforce.com can address these problem to some extent. Give access to your CRM application to your production managers and remote functional managers so that they know what projects are coming down the pipeline. You don't have to be a Fortune 500 company to have Salesforce.com or other online CRM applications. Small companies can afford it with very little capital investment. Most online CRM application provide a pay per use model.

1a. If you are part of or manage a distributed team, one way to share information with remote team members is to post your meeting minutes [or chat notes] in a collaboration tool like Sharepoint. This not only makes the information available to others, but also allows them to add their thoughts and comments [if they have the rights to do so] to the minutes. Some of us may argue that we can do this by email. While email is very effective, it is still a communication tool. I have seen teams use email to collaborate but I believe that online collaboration tools are more efficient and serve the purpose better.

1b. Content development teams and professional services teams that need to work together closely to deliver a product can benefit from document sharing systems like WorkSite from Interwoven. Such systems allow you to store documents, version them and share them with remote team members online. Teams spend a lot of time asking each other about documents and such systems can eliminate waste of time and improve quality and efficiency.

One of my colleagues, Brunda, once emailed my team inquiring about a few blueprints my team members wrote for some of our customers. It took her about 5 emails and about 15 days before she could get those documents. My team mates are normally very responsive, respectful of each others time and prompt in their actions. However even such a responsive team took a lot of time to respond to such requests because of other pressing customer requirements. Brunda probably did not feel well supported and probably even felt ignored. We wanted to correct that and give our content engineering and quality engineering teams immediate access to all blueprints we write.

We then moved all our documents to a document management system. All employees of the company have access to the system using their corporate login. [This is important because they dont have to remember another password]. We have clear direction in our site about where to look such documents. I hope that this has improved our credibility with our distributed teams. Since we made this site available, I believe our engeineers have realized that it is faster to go to this location and check for blueprints rather than email us and wait for a while.

The system also shows us a history of all the documents. We now understand who uploaded the document, who viewed the document and when they did so. For example, if i send the link to an engineer and if he keeps asking me questions that are answered by the document, I check to see if he saw the document. If not I persuade him to do so.
  • I want to mention that enterprise systems like WorkSite, and Documentum are fairly expensive and require careful consideration and a big budget.
  • You may have to work on changing people's behavior before such systems can become useful. If you keep emailing your documents back and forth, users will never be encourgaed to go to the online site. We are still working on our sales teams.

2. Get the development managers involved in the Sales Proposal or Design review process. The very fact that you asked them and respected their thoughts will increase your credibility with them. You may be surprised by the amount of knowledge and skills they can bring to the table.

3. Nothing can replace face to face communication. Plan and budget for functional and production managers to travel to the headquarters and customers sites. You will spend the money any way. It is a question of doing it proactively and creating opportunities versus spending the money to fight fires.

Some inputs to team members in remote locations:
1. It is up to you to access information from the appropriate portals of the company. Find out which are the useful portals to go to. Develop a working relationship with one or two people in other teams [the sales team or the consulting team] so that you can get a personal point of view.
1a. Demand teams and consultants need the help of design and development teams all the time to make the sale, build prototypes, demonstration, understand products etc. So it can be a mutually beneficial relationship.

2. Sometimes you are not involved in what is happening because probably nothing is happening.


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