Ever get the feeling that your project isn’t running well but you can’t seem to put your finger on the cause? That vague feeling of misunderstanding is often difficult to quantify, define, and diagnose. Nonetheless, misunderstandings and ambiguous communication are important issues that can drive even well-run projects into failure.
Karen Sobel Lojeski, CEO of Virtual Distance International, has developed a method for measuring the degree to which a project may be at risk due to communication and coordination issues. The approach is called “virtual distance,” which she uses to identify and solve these problems for companies and organizations.
Karen, thanks for speaking with the Deck Chairs blog today. How did you develop the concept of virtual distance?
Back in the early 2000’s, I was running a very large IT management consultancy, and I saw that it had become more difficult to get project teams motivated and coordinated. Of course, in the early nineties we were using email, conference calls, and so on, yet something had changed. At that time, I didn’t know what the phenomenon was, nor did I know what the economic or financial implications and risk aspects were either. But I had definitely become aware that something in the environment had shifted, resulting in the problems I was observing.
Having observed this phenomenon, I set out to determine whether it was real. I also wanted to know if in fact it was making a definable and measurable impact on organizations. The research made clear that virtual distance does have a measurable effect, and that the results occur at a very strategic level. In other words, it became evident that this is a serious issue which poses real economic risk to companies and IT projects.
During our research, we observed millions of dollars of project losses that could be attributed to virtual distance. We also saw significant competitive disadvantage due to time lost in completing projects, and we observed how projects fail as a result. The net effect is that virtual distance results in very inefficient management and our research confirms this.
Is virtual distance strictly a function of geographical separation?
No, it’s not, which is one of the most significant findings of our research, which represents the largest database in the world on this topic. We’ve measured high levels of virtual distance in teams working 6000 miles apart, but we’ve also measured equally high levels between people or organizations working in the same location. It’s an interesting finding.
As an example, you can easily imagine someone say they feel more comfortable working with a person in India than they do working with someone in the next building. That’s virtual distance in action. Just yesterday, I spoke with a person whose boss sat literally in the cubicle next to hers. Her boss preferred to instant message rather than talk, and this led to misunderstandings. Again, that’s virtual distance at work. Obviously, virtual distance is not a good thing, and it causes a variety of problems.
Of course, geography can play into virtual distance, but the concept itself is really independent of location. You are at risk for virtual distance any time electronic communications becomes a substantial substitute for talking on the phone and meeting face-to-face. That lack of perceived “closeness” can have very real effects on the productivity, efficiency, and ultimately on the success of, IT projects.
Information hiding and denial are often present on failed projects. Does virtual distance play a role as well?
Information hiding can definitely be facilitated when virtual distance is present. When people feel socially isolated and disconnected from those with whom they work, information hiding can become a problem. Virtual distance can play a role in the breakdown of trust that leads to this type of behavior.
In the past, face-to-face interaction helped mitigate the problems that arise when people work in isolation from one another. Today, extensive use of electronic communication methods as a substitute for real interaction has allowed information hiding to become easier and more prevalent.
When you rely heavily on tools such as instant messaging, contextual cues about the environment and culture are lost. I’m not advocating going back to the pre-IM days, but we should recognize the negative impact that these tools can have on IT projects. Understanding the problems enables you to take steps that mitigate their negative effects.
In the past, a manager could physically see what was happening on his or her team. If there was a culture problem he could act to address it quickly. Today, it’s much more difficult to even recognize the problem, let alone fix it quickly.
How can an organization know when it is facing issues related to virtual distance?
There are a variety of signs that can indicate the presence of virtual distance in an organization or company:
- “Missing in action” team members. For example, a manager may notice that someone doesn’t seem to be around much. The manager may feel it’s hard to know what this person doing, the rest of the team doesn’t seem to know where he is, and so on.
- Team members who “just don’t get it,” especially when there is no explanation as to why. For example, the manager leaves a conference call thinking everything is fine, and then receives an email clearly indicating that the team member is just not on the same page with what had been discussed and agreed upon.
- Lack of participation and collaboration on the part of team members.
- Lack of commitment on the part of the team, especially when it’s really needed.
Often, virtual distance is at play when a team leader seems to spend an inordinate amount of time managing communications. Another telltale sign can occur when things look too good: especially in outsourcing relationships, it’s often a red flag when a project manager always reports that everything is perfect.
Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski is CEO of Virtual Distance International. Her background includes stints in both academia and corporate consulting. She pioneered the development of virtual distance and conducted research on the topic while obtaining her Ph.D. She can be reached through her company at http://virtualdistance.com.