Productivity of Far-Flung Teams

[via Ross Mayfield] Fast Company writes:

A B-school professor at the University of North Carolina has studied 54 global teams in 31 companies, from Intel to Royal Dutch Shell. One big surprise: These virtual teams, largely composed of people who have never met, were not only productive but also more innovative than “face-to-face teams.”

“They make decisions faster with more input from others and develop policies that are implemented worldwide with fewer problems than conventional teams,” writes Professor Arvind Malhotra, a professor of information and technology management at UNC. In a smart essay in the fall 2004 issue of UNC Business, Malhotra takes on numerous myths associated with these global teams:

Myth: Far-flung teams are deployed to save money on travel.
Reality: High-performing far-flung teams are measured on faster, better responses to rapidly changing environments.

Myth: Far-flung teams require hands-off leadership.
Reality: Far-flung teams require communication-intensive leaders. Far-flung team leaders check in on each of their members frequently, mentor them, establish and communicate team norms and continuously monitor adherence to norms and adjust them as frequently as required.

Myth: Far-flung team leaders dont deal directly with diversity.
Reality: Far-flung team leaders handle diversity purposefully, recognizing it early in the teams life cycle and leveraging it throughout the teams life cycle.

Myth: Face-to-face meetings are required early in a far-flung teams life cycle to build trust.
Reality: Far-flung teams build trust through a planned team communication strategy and frequent in-process, team-tuning sessions (mostly without ever meeting face-to-face).

Myth: Given the restrictions of time and space differences, far-flung teams are best served by allocating one task to every member.
Reality: Far-flung teams build trust and simulate intellectual growth by pairing diverse members into subteams that perform highly interdependent tasks.

Myth: Face-to-face meetings are required for brainstorming.
Reality: Electronic brainstorming gives far-flung team members more time for reflection and produces quality ideas.

Myth: Far-flung teams only need weekly conference calls to stay connected.
Reality: The joint use of real-time synchronous (audioconferencing, electronic white-boarding, application-sharing and instant messaging) and persisting asynchronous communication (living virtual team rooms with document repositories and electronic discussion boards) enables far-flung teams to coordinate and collaborate across space and time.

Family Business

The Economist writes: “More family firms are facing up to their biggest problem: avoiding a crisis as the business passes from one generation to the next.”

The vast majority of family businesses consist of a single founder-owner or founder-couple, sometimes employing relatives who come into the business to help or to find a job. A study by four family-business gurus, published seven years ago (Generation to Generation), reckoned that about three-quarters of family firms in America took this form. A further 20% are sibling partnerships; and 5% are cousin consortia. Succession is the ultimate test of a family business, say the authors. Once the business has been transformed from an individual venture into a family enterprise, its continuity becomes a unifying concern. The very task of keeping the family firm in existence may thus sometimes provide the glue that holds quarrelsome relatives together.

Succession in a family business is not an event but a process. Rarely does the patriarch sit with his lawyer for a morning and hand over the family company at the stroke of a pen. Instead, there is typically a two-stage process. It involves the transfer of both management and ownership. Succession is not complete until both management authority and ownership rights pass on, says John Davis of Harvard Business School. But they tend not to pass at the same time. The older generation may hang on to ownership until deathor even beyond, in a sense, if ownership is vested in family trusts.

Parents may willingly hand over the burden of management to the next generation, long before they give up the privilege of control. Passing on the key right to vote shares involves transfers of power, of status and even of identity, says John Ward, who teaches family-business management at two business schools, one on each side of the Atlantic: Kellogg in the United States and IMD in Lausanne.

Hawkins On Intelligence has an interview with Jeff Hawkins, who has recently authored a book “On Intelligence” about brain research.

If you look at a human brain, you can essentially divide it into two pieces. You have got this big thing on top, which is the cortex, and you have everything else stuck up in the middle. It looks like a little post and that thing in the middle is the old brain. It’s what every other animal has, but only mammals have the cortex.

The cortex is a thin sheet like a dinner napkin, and it’s about as thick as six business cards stacked flat on top of one another, about six millimeters thick. It is important because it was determined many years ago that this is where all intelligence lies. It is the location for language, map, music, art, programming culture–everything that we think about (as) humans. This is where all the things that we think (of) as higher-level thought perception occur. The key to understanding what intelligence is, is in understanding the cortex.

So if I want to build intelligent machines, I’m not going to base them on the old brain. I want to base them on the rational part of the human experience. Fortunately, the cortex is this extremely uniform structure.

American Innovation

Harold Evans (the author of “They Made America”) wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal:

There is actually so much more to celebrate than prosecute since the U.S. has been — and remains — the source of most of the innovations that created our modern world, and many of them have sprung from a desire to serve rather than steal.

So much might be obvious, as obvious as the American innovations of the airplane and the PC, jeans and the cellphone, bio-tech and the sewing machine, TV (and 24-hour news) and the search engine, but we forget the invisible innovations. A day without rubber would be a day where nothing works. No shower, light, clean clothes; nothing unspoiled in the fridge; no shoes, cars, trains, planes; no TV, no radio, no computer, no phones; yet we owe this material not to a research lab, still less government, but to a Yankee tinkerer who hadn’t the faintest idea of the organic chemistry he was meddling with to convert useless raw rubber to practical use.

Here is a curious fact of American culture, supposedly so obsessed with business. The Founding Fathers promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and there have been thousands of presidential biographies and histories tracing the political struggles to honor those ideals. But none of the promises could have been honored without the business innovators who have had nothing like the same attention. You cannot much pursue happiness if you are starving, or unable to move your family to a better place, or protect it along the way, or communicate.

Innovation will continue in America. It is in the nation’s DNA. But if the scope of it is not to ebb in the face of global competition — in large part the consequence of Malcom Maclean’s innovation of container shipping — we must honor more the risk-takers who really get things done.