Technology and global teams: heaven and hell

If you want to find the most innovative ways of global working, look at how some of the smallest global firms do it. Three firms in the research for Global Teams each qualified as micro-global firms. Each had less than twenty employees but worked in at least seven countries on two or more continents. When you are that small, you can not throw resources at a problem. You have to throw smarts at the problem. In each case, a large part of the solution came with technology.

The focus of the technology revolution is about making communication, performance and progress as transparent as possible. The first part of the technology revolution is to ditch email. Email is aysnchronous and private: the exact opposite of what these firms are looking for.

To keep track of progress, these firms use project management software like Scrum which enables everyone to see everyone else’s progress. Each person is responsible for posting their own work tickets and for updating their progress. This is real time and open progress monitoring. The same approach goes for communication where platforms such as Trello recreated the office water cooler and allow everyone to share banter, ask questions and get support. Again, this is open and real time communication. If there are documents to work on, then again then open platforms such as google.docs are preferred: this eliminates the challenges of version control which afflict platforms such as word.

These micro-global firms are all high tech, and they all recognise the need for high touch. Everyday starts with a very short phone meeting based on YTB: Yesterday’s progress. Today’s goal and Blockers: where blockages are expected and where help may be needed. But ultimately, they all recognise that technology only works with trust and that only works with human contact. So they all invest large sums of money which they do not have in getting the team together. In theory, this helps with planning and skills building. In practice, the main benefit is trust building. Once you have the trust, the quality of communication, delegation, problem solving is transformed.

Of course, all this empowering talk of giving information, control and performance management to front line workers may sound familiar to you. It is the essence of TQM. TQM for the office has always been highly elusive, largely because office work is much more ambiguous than factory work. Technology may be helping us towards a solution.

The technology solution may lead to heaven or hell. The heaven version is one which empowers staff and gives them control over their destiny. The hell version is where your boss becomes an algorithm which monitors your progress relentlessly compared to your peer group; this is a comparison where the performance bar will keep on rising naturally. It is a form of piece work hell which is already being discovered in the gig economy. What starts out as an opportunity for the gig worker to find more gigs, make money and take control, becomes a monster which becomes ever more demanding: Uber and Deliveroo have to struggle with the challenge of getting the use of technology just right to balance the interests of the gig workers, customers and shareholders.

Technology is part of the problem and part of the solution; it is heaven and hell. It is all about how you decide to use it.

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