The Inception and Cultivation of Virtual Teamwork

The Web, fortunately, waits 24/7/365 to launch new ideas. It’s as easy as click-and-drag. It was my goal to launch a blog in January 2011 and I’ve procrastinated until the last possible moment. I write my first commentary, on the nature of the virtual workplace and the challenges of remote employees, for my own benefit. If I can convince myself as well as my readers of the value of working smarter among friends and talented collaborators, the network will reach a critical mass to benefit all its members. I’ve been a web developer/entrepreneur for over a decade gaining small business (aka garage) consultant experience. What can a network of consultants achieve that is not possible for any individual? To quote a well-worn phrase ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.’

Losing a Grip on Reality Can Be a Good Thing
Or does reality have a grip on you?

It’s the staple of all downsizing/restructuring stories. The veteran employee is offered “early retirement” to open a position for a younger, greener candidate. The skills that the “older” employee possesses are considered expendable, or at least replaceable. Depending on the age and inclination of the displaced worker, the downsized may find the change a welcome turn of events. There may be some retired activity like golf or hobbies that rush in to fill the void of employment. To others, sudden inactivity leads to a sense of disorientation, an unclear purpose is precipitated by the lack of definite goals and deliverables.

When I left Silicon Graphics in 1997, I wasn’t being pushed out or replaced. To the contrary, I was part of a bloated marketing creative team which had yet to be dealt the blow of market forces. The pre-dot-bomb era was heady and confident, with the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, visiting Silicon Valley, more specifically, Ed McCracken and the wunderkind of SGI.

Changing technology has given many of us the ability to function as remote employees. Where the computer is the means of production (as programmer, designer, support, marketing. . .), there is less and less reason to cling to the traditional model of the “office.” There is no reason that office workers, with the appropriate discipline and commitment to the job, cannot be as successful, if not more successful, working from a home office conducive to concentrating on the tasks at hand. With this opportunity looming larger to me, in 1997, just after I’d just won a year’s worth of 56K Frame Relay from UUNet, I decided that the ‘net was where and how I wanted to do business. Having some dad duties came with the home office territory.

Make Money @ Home – Stuffing e-Mail?

Home and office is not an easy integration. Family patterns are disruptive to work’s traditional exclusivity on working hours and can make scheduling more difficult. Domestic chores conflict with work time – completing projects, answering e-mail, talking on the phone. . .

As a consultant, it’s the slow times, not the busy ones, that are the hardest. It’s those times when you ask yourself “what’s next?” What do I DO next? After 14 years of selling my abilities, I can look back with satisfaction and I don’t measure my success by the size of my paychecks. For some jobs there was no paycheck. When you sell your talents to a client, part of your remuneration is the relationship and skills you establish. Think long-term and win-win.

Home and family is a large investment. When I wasn’t working on business development or client projects (which were hit-and-miss), I had the opportunity to build floors and walls, with the occasional help of my sons. I managed a baseball team. They learned how to hammer nails and use a circular saw. We won a few. You can’t outsource these challenging and rewarding moments – supervision and guidance is necessary.

The Nodes We Travel

The advantage of being 40-something is that we’ve been there, done that. The next step is to do something collaborative with it. I heard David Coleman of Collaborative Strategies label our generation (roughly Gen-X) as “Digital Workers,” which aptly describes our proficiency with using and maintaining fairly complex networks using technology. We are conscious/competent users. Our next successes depend on participating in an even larger network of interconnected nodes. And we’re starting to realize it: Coleman also mentioned that the 40+ age group is the fastest growing population on Facebook.

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a “natural monopoly.” A business in which it costs less to add additional users of a service/product than it cost for the user preceding him or her. Effective collaboration is always win-win. The next node is self-interested in joining. The processes support the growth of every node. The “last mile” is a term in telecom/networking that refers to the complexities of end-user installation. It is the Central Office to home link where idiosyncrases arise. The “last mile” of your network is the space between your ears.

Is Facebook a collaborative platform? I’m not inclined to think so, yet its content serves as watercooler talk, an important forum to share ideas that help personalize business relationships. LinkedIn is an important contribution to the idea of shared dossiers. But are any of these sites putting ‘skin in the game’ where your success is concerned?

I’m a Pro – Pro Bono

You could ask yourself why I feel I have the expertise to critique the suite of current collaborative solutions. Have I built anything that has utility for virtual teams? Well, no, I’ve built something that has utility for virtual and physical teams – Little League of Palo Alto’s website and intranet, pabaseball.org. Local Little League organizations are a myriad of processes that are accomplished by self-interested volunteers with enormous efforts and rewarding success.

I became involved with the Palo Alto Little League as a Board member and built the website because my sons were participating in the program. The Board agreed to bankroll website development efforts. I continue to appreciate the efforts of the organization’s volunteers. Coaches spend hours weekly teaching the game to young baseball players. Board members interact with community members and perform administrative duties. A small amount of coordination via centralized web processes yielded large savings of volunteer hours completing mundane, critical tasks. At the time we are most under the pressure of our lifestyles and other activities, we need these efficiencies.

We apply efficiencies to all aspects of our lives. Every website you visit to buy, pay, communicate, share, is an environment that was created and now supplies a “cloud” service. By their nature, every website is a service.

My small-business clients have custom needs, but within a more generic template of functionality. Design and content are important, but also are budget constraints. The client is more-easily satisfied when you take a collaborative approach to the design that offers trade-offs and tiered implementation. My aim is to be more efficient in the management of each successive client.

Vendors provide expertise and produce client deliverables. Clients, on the other hand, offer the vendor an opportunity to collaborate and learn more about business processes and trends. Sometimes a client can feel like a mentor, especially to a consultant whose paycheck depends on supporting the client’s business model. Clients assist vendors by suggesting implementation strategies and indicating preferences that help build profiles that can be applied in other instances, with other clients.

I like it when a client offers me more than I ask for. Compensation negotiations, approached collaboratively, respect the value that the vendor’s contributions add to the client’s business.

Be a Rock Star

A collaborator is on a mission. The mission statement is ‘Rock and Roll.’ We all benefit from music that we resonate to. Rock groups and choirs are examples of collaboration at its most visceral. The themes are the same for groups of entrepreneurs riff-ing on ideas that will save the world or make ‘a million’ or both. Successful organizations have self-interested collaboration at their heart.

I’ve been honing my chops for over a decade as a consultant. I’ve met many other people who feel their experience is under-utilized and want the excitement of change and challenge.

Where’s the gig? Making a long-term investment is the thing. The band stays together to make great music. Collaborators have passion and vision and things are constantly evolving. Early efforts are important, no matter what size. The benefit is multiplied over time. I’ve tried to give my clients more than they expect – a little more than I was capable of, a little more than they paid for.

Back to the Future

The goal of collab.us is to build a system that supports individual contributors offering and soliciting skills and jobs. As a node in the network, you will have access to tools that allow you to manage collaborative relationships.

Personal examples of recent collaboration illustrate my idea. Here’s a shout-out to Mark Olson of Ex3 Solutions, a friend and fellow consultant. Mark is an electronic marketing automation guru. I helped implement his website and some other tools he uses on a server he’s prototyping. Mark is also an SQL master. Recently, I’d done some work for Mark, but instead of exchanging payment, Mark is writing SQL to help me optimize a product I’m developing. This morning, I took a phone call order for the Marker Parker, a product my friend Robert developed. I built his website (with online ordering) and help him with order administration. While this is a sideline/pet project for Robert, he is receiving orders and can learn from his growing list of customers. I’m helping another Rob brainstorm the marketing message for his product targeted at the commercial fishing industry.

The collab.us collaborative tools will embrace the ad hoc nature of personal/professional relationships. As the network grows, expect more features and functions, different ways of communicating, sharing and developing. Join the team for your own reasons. Think collaboratively, be self-interested. I welcome feedback and contributors. I invite you to join.

In future posts, I’ll explore other themes and ideas, including collaboration technologies. My work environment is defined by the technology I’ve incorporated. The ability to work remotely is facilitated by the Internet and mobile technology that provides seamless communication and distribution of ideas and data. The future is full of possibilities. It’s exciting to be a part of it.

I look forward to your success.

Peter

About Peter

As a consulting professional in the Internet industry, I have helped small- and medium-sized businesses and community organizations effectively design and deploy web services and information. Years of hands-on design and project management experience for this market have inspired me to post my ideas and insights on a public forum -- blog.collab.us.
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