Inc. Technology's editor offers an overview of the issue.
I've been collaborating on a book over the past year (don't worry, I'm not going to plug it). Because we live about 100 miles apart, my coauthor and I, for the most part, have been combining our efforts via E-mail. As the book has taken shape, ideas, outlines, chunks of chapters, interview transcripts, schedules, and other information have been flying around the Internet among us, our editor, our sources, and others. Meetings and phone calls have been the exception, not the rule.
That kind of virtual group project is exactly the sort of thing that more and more businesses are beginning to embrace as they expand their electronic connections to customers, suppliers, and employees scattered around the world.
it's been an eye-opening experience. For one thing, I've learned that conventional E-mail and word-processing software are woefully inadequate when it comes to a meeting of the minds over anything beyond a few simple points. How, for example, do you make sure that everyone in a group has the same version of a chapter that's constantly changing? How do you combine the results of two people working separately, modifying the same outline? If one person in the group poses a question to everyone else, how long does it take for everyone in the group to see one another's responses -- and then their responses to the responses?
It's too bad that when we started the project we didn't have access to this issue's cover story, "Group Think" ([Article link]). In the piece, Anne Field shows how groupware -- a relatively new category of software that can solve the sorts of problems we encountered and others besides -- has become far more affordable and easy to use in the past year.
Of course software doesn't address all the problems that can spring up when you're running a virtual project. In fact, argues William R. Pape in "Virtual Manager" ([Article link]), powering up with state-of-the-art virtual-company technology can get you into trouble fast if you're not applying the right management skills. Pape's list of virtual-manager dos and don'ts can save a lot of wasted investment in tools that, in the wrong hands, simply don't work.
Sometimes it's not how the individual company or person manages technology that matters. Lots of fishermen did everything right, aggressively adopting new technologies to increase their payoff. The result: an industry that's dying. For a better understanding of how the uncontrolled use of technology has put the fishing and other industries at risk, see "Fished Out," by Sarah Schafer ([Article link]).
Two quick notes: Don't forget to check out Inc. Online (http://www.inc.com) for more reporting and resources on some of these stories. And I'm pleased to report that staff writer Joshua Macht, whose interview with DreamWorks CIO Lynn Jacobs can be found [in [Article link]], recently won a Computer Press Association runner-up award for his cover story on electronic partnering (1995, No. 4, [Article link]).
-- David H. Freedman, Editor
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Last updated: Sep 15, 1996
David H. Freedman: A Boston-based contributing editor, Freedman is the co-author of A Perfect Mess, which examines the useful role of disorder in daily life, business, and science. @dhfreedman