How technology can facilitate managing research teams across time, cultures, and distance

Large companies and government agencies often have laboratories dispersed over a wide geographic area— sometimes around the world. Staff members at some of these far-flung laboratories often work together on project teams. Coordinating their efforts can be daunting. Lab managers face the challenges of giving these people a sense of common purpose, a clear sense of their roles on the project team, and an understanding of the roles of their distant coworkers. Managers have to understand what is going on at remote laboratories sufficiently in order to provide long-distance project team members with the resources they need to accomplish company goals while nurturing their career aspirations. Accomplishing this is difficult when tight lab budgets at many firms have greatly reduced business travel between laboratories.

Collaboration can be an important innovation and business driver. From a laboratory manager’s perspective, the primary purpose of collaboration is to promote the sharing of information, the coordination of effort, and, thus, the acceleration of innovation. Collaboration across organizational and political boundaries and across large distances is increasingly a business necessity for firms to prosper and grow, and even to survive. This collaboration often must be achieved despite time zone differences that leave some lab team members hard at work while others are snug in their beds.

Technology enablers of collaboration

A study by consulting firm Frost & Sullivan (jointly sponsored by Verizon Business and Microsoft Corp.), “Meetings Around the World: The Impact of Collaboration on Business Performance,” defines collaboration as the interaction between people enabled by technology such as audio and Web conferencing, e-mail, and instant messaging.1

Collaboration software and communications technology enable the increasingly sophisticated sharing of information and ideas despite the separation of distance and time zones. Project managers can lead people separated by thousands of miles in developing strategies, performing R&D, and protecting the intellectual property that results. Earlier generations of researchers and laboratory managers made do with telephones, fax machines, and business travel. Business travel was time consuming and expensive, while the telephone involved speaking and hearing with no visual component.

Wikipedia offers a lengthy list of collaborative software2 that enables coworkers thousands of miles apart to work together on projects. This software includes both fairly expensive commercial software and freeware. Software types include project management software, presentation software, word processing software, messaging software, and collaborative meeting software.

The WWW also enables firms to buy and sell intellectual property through the vehicle of open innovation.3 Commercializing this intellectual property often requires extensive communication and collaboration between the buyers and sellers.

“Meetings Around the World”1

The “Meetings Around the World” study findings indicate “collaboration can positively impact each of the gold standards of performance—profitability, profit growth, and sales growth—to determine a company’s overall performance in the marketplace,” says Jaclyn Kostner, Ph.D., an expert on high-performance virtual collaboration. “As a general rule, global companies that collaborate better, perform better. Those that collaborate less do not perform as well. It’s just that simple.”

The study surveyed 946 information technology and line-of-business decision makers from a cross-section of 2,000 small-to-medium, midmarket, and global companies in the U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia, and Hong Kong. Technologies included in the study were e-mail, meeting schedulers, instant messaging, videoconferencing, audio conferencing, Web conferencing, desktop or wired PC, mobile/wireless PC, personal digital assistants with and without Web access, mobile phones with Web access, and pagers. Study findings indicated the three collaboration methods most used in high-performing companies are Web conferencing, audio conferencing, and meeting scheduling technologies, with Web conferencing the most commonly used tool. “Measuring the quality and capability of collaboration in a given organization presents an opportunity for management to prioritize technology investments, encourage adoption of new tools, and open up communication lines for improved collaboration,” says Brian Cotton, a vice president at Frost & Sullivan.

Study results also indicated there were regional differences in how people prefer to interact and collaborate. For example, American professionals were more likely to prefer to send e-mail rather than telephone someone. They are also more comfortable with audio conferencing, videoconferencing and Web conferencing technologies than are people of other regions. Compared to professionals from other regions, Americans multitask the most while on conference calls or attending virtual meetings. Europeans prefer telephoning because they like to interact in real time. More than anywhere else, professionals in the Asia-Pacific region want to be in touch frequently during the workday—hence they prefer telephoning and instant messaging.

Social Media

Some managers view social media such as Facebook and Twitter as time-wasting distractions. However, they can offer advantages for global collaboration because they create a sense of community. Social media offer a new style of collaboration through profiles, status updates, groups, feeds, lists, and filters.

The concern many organizations have with social media is associated with controlling access in order to maintain confidentiality of proprietary information while still allowing large numbers of people to participate. Many companies have created project wikis within their corporate websites. Team members must complete sign-in procedures and provide passwords to access information stored in the wiki. After signing in using a password, team members can collaborate and report results.

Leadership

Effective leadership is essential for laboratory managers, project managers, and team leaders to achieve success when working with geographically dispersed people they do not control and seldom meet with face-to-face. In contrast, traditional management involves leaders achieving success by working with people they control. There should be one overall leader and sub-leaders for each team involved in big, multi-laboratory projects. This lessens any negative impact caused by major time zone differences. These leaders should agree on the role of each team involved in the project. From the top leadership on down, each person on the project should be educated on his or her role in the project and how to work effectively in that individual role.

Leadership goes beyond understanding and executing a project strategy. Leaders have to understand the perspectives of the diverse team members and encourage communication and a sense of community. They need to understand how cultural and staff age differences can impact what motivates project team members. Leaders need to act before conflicts arise by playing dynamic roles as mediators and communicators. They may need to resolve conflicts between individual and common goals.

Leaders also have to be willing to take calculated risks. To build enthusiasm for the collaborative effort, they must be passionate about it themselves. They must be optimistic, not pessimistic. They need to share knowledge, power, and credit for success.

Risk Management

If the project is highly strategic to a firm, there can be risks involved in relying too heavily on outside collaborators. These risks can often be dealt with by carefully dealing with potential issues in the contract defining the working relationship between the two collaborating organizations. The most obvious risks are ownership and use of intellectual property developed through the collaboration. A related concern is that a collaborator’s level of security, risk awareness, and risk management is not adequate. Another is that one collaborator may identify and develop unanticipated applications of the intellectual property, resulting in the two collaborators benefiting unequally from the collaboration. This situation can damage the working relationship between the two organizations. Again, careful writing of a contract between the two firms can address such potential developments.

Inadequate communication between collaborators can doom a project by delaying decisions. Some of the communication between team members may be done through videoconferences and telephoning (including such software tools as GotoMeeting). However, much of the interactions between team members also are done through writing and reading e-mails and instant messaging. One has to use some of the same principles as employed in effective listening but do so in writing. The most important principles include asking open-ended questions and restating what another person wrote in order to clarify understanding. Leaders need to remember that some team members may face special challenges in communicating effectively because English is their second language.

Inadequate reporting procedures or differences in reporting procedures between laboratories can lessen communication effectiveness. For example, one laboratory may use different project management tools or employ different reporting software and report formats than the other. Project leaders should agree on communication protocols at the start of a collaboration to prevent this.

Cultural differences can delay projects

Cultural differences—whether between countries or between the workplace cultures of the organizations involved— can derail effective collaboration. For example, a major petrochemical company was designing a large project in the Pacific Basin. The project was nearly to the pilot scale demonstration stage when the company decided to transfer project management and delivery from a U.S. laboratory to an Asian one. The Asian laboratory personnel had no input into the original project design and some of the major project decisions. They wanted to reconsider both the project design and previous project decisions. This led to delays, disagreements, and, on the part of the Asian personnel, frustration. Problems also occurred due to cultural differences between the veteran U.S. employees and the very recent graduates staffing the Asian laboratory. These differences were compounded by differences in language and work styles. The complex project quickly began falling behind schedule.

Wrap-up

Collaborating on R&D projects can be challenging. Many of the issues associated with collaborative projects are more challenging to manage than when a single organization performs all the work associated with a project and does the work in a single laboratory. However, collaborating with other organizations and surmounting these challenges can result in financial rewards greater than those that can be achieved when your organization works alone in a single laboratory.

References

1. Anonymous, “Meetings Around the World,” http:// newscenter.verizon.com/kit/collaboration (2006).
2. Anonymous, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ collaborative_software.
3. Borchardt, J.K., “Open Innovation Becoming Key to R&D Success,” Lab Manager Magazine, http://www. labmgr.com/articles.asp?pid=163) (January 31, 2008).