In the past, a company’s staff all sat in the same area, cubes or desks in a little area where they were grouped by their job functions. Shipping sat here, processing here, accounting there. IT had the closet. As time passed and systems grew, teams became more diverse. The shipping mavens needed to know what the processing people were doing, and cross-training became the norm. People stopped being able to say they had one role at work, and started becoming generalists instead of specialists. There was always (and will always) be a role for the super specialist, but not everyone had to be one.
In IT, this has become even more prevalent. It’s not good enough to just be great at Windows IIS, you have to know Apache, Lighttpd, nginx, and countless other systems, just to keep up with our fast paced world. Thankfully, a lot of us spend our time learning the basic concepts of how things work, we learn to think logically, and apply that skill to any product, regardless of our familiarity with it. We adapt.
But for the brick and mortar companies, many people have sat ‘with their team’ for their careers, and the idea of splitting up is mind boggling. “How can we work if half the people I need to talk to are in another building?” they cry, after a reorganization moves people around.
Here’s a true story.
We split up our teams recently, into ‘Design The Software’, ‘Build The Software’ and ‘Support The Software.’ The designers are ‘architects’ who create the scheme of things and decide how the software will work. The builders do the grunt work and build it. The ‘Supporters’, for lack of a better term, are the folks who use it every day and answer the phone when it breaks. Oh yeah, they have to fix it when it breaks.
Many of us straddle at least two teams, and some of us are in all three, so where you actually ended up has very little bearing on what you do, and more on where you sit. I sit a floor away from people I work with every day. Now, when a server goes down, someone over there may be working on it at the same time I am, and conflicts come up.
We’ve tried to address this with ‘team twitter’ accounts (not actually Twitter, we made our own little applet for it in Sharepoint). Someone will post ‘Ticket Foo came in, I’m on it.’ and we know to look there first. Sometimes we post ‘Hey, server Bingo is crashing. Anyone know what’s up?’ and we’ll reply. Personally, I wanted to grab a page from WordPress and make a P2 blog where we could all just login and post, but that got shut down.(We’re trying to rewrite it for SharePoint right now, but oddly people are against sharing personal information with other people who already have access to that information…) Still, not everyone remembers to use it, and since it’s ‘just us’ and not a corporate initiative, we get people complaining ‘I have to run across the hall, down the stairs and down another hall to tell Bob about this!’ and ‘I can’t hear what’s going on!’
We’re far too set in our ways, clearly. The fact that no one is willing to even try to look at the benefits of distributed collaboration depresses me. I don’t have to sit by someone to IM them a question. I don’t have to call them to ask a question. I have email, I have IM, I have a phone, I have a group ‘board’ where we can have lengthy discussions about ideas, before we sit down and waste an hour in a meeting.
What I don’t have is buy in. I don’t have people willing to try something new. “The old way worked!” they shout. No, it really didn’t. It looked like it did, but how much time was wasted running around trying to find someone, not knowing where they sat, when you should have just put a message up and they should have read it, replied, and moved on. Interoffice memos in J.K. Rowling’s world were paper airplanes. Wouldn’t it be nice that you could use that? Oh wait, it’s called email!
The future of communication in a company isn’t going to be ‘How do we schedule a meeting across four continents?’ but in ‘How do we keep our communication flowing, 24/7/365?’ At this point, my company has offices in over a dozen counties. We still rely on ‘shift hand-off’ emails which no one reads because we get too many emails to begin with. We have people who spend so much time filtering email that they half-ass updates to support tickets, so the next shift has only half an idea of what’s going on.
Your company needs to be available when people use it. For a Bank (like I work for), that means every day except the days you’re legally obligated to be closed. Which means there actually isn’t a time when we’re 100% closed.(Sometimes I joke that the sun never sets on our company.) Obviously this isn’t true of all things. A grocery store should be open most hours of the day, if possible. A restaurant should have longer hours on the weekend. An on-line store maybe needs 24/7 support, or maybe it just needs 5 day a week so people can catch a break. But you decide when you need to be available, and then you make it happen. And if being available means you need someone to be around for 14 hours, then you need a way to hand off that person’s work to the next guy in a way they can easily pick up and run with.
The future is decentralization. It’s time to embrace it and learn how to use it best.