One of the biggest disruptors of the last few years has been the distributed nature of work. People can now work pretty much anywhere, anytime, with anyone, on any content. And though content still plays a critical part, I am starting to see context as more critical for any type of collaboration. Without a common context it is hard for two or more people to work together.
Tools like email can work for one to many interactions (if you cc the whole organization), but not many to many. Web conferencing also falls under the one to many umbrella. And though a common context is required in those instances, they do not require the deeper knowledge of context that many to many interactions do, as we see in distributed teams.
Each person on a distributed team has many contexts: their personal context, their project context, their company context and their country context. With all that, it is hard to see how anyone gets anything done. Yet they do. It is not just globalized organizations, but many of the start-ups I deal with also have very distributed development teams.
Many to many collaboration tools can be used to support distributed teams. But frequently they fail in not having a true visual nature, high levels of complexity, and an inability to shift context or incorporate new content. I have seen new technologies over the last few months trying to tackle the challenges of distributed teams in new ways. These products are:
Each has taken a different approach to these difficult collaboration problems and each offers a very different solution, yet all have some of the same collaboration elements and all try to help deal with complex contexts. This is not an extensive list of vendors, just a sample of what is available today.
Fuze is focused on customer value, and supports all mobile platforms. It has a mobile first development philosophy, and integrates with Dropbox, Yammer, SFDC, Outlook, Google Calendars and more. It also has an “easy” design policy in mind (one to two clicks to do anything). Since I use Fuze I can tell you it only took me about 10 minutes to familiarize myself with the basic functions, and since it has a stable connection (both audio, video and content sharing) I have begun to use it over Skype (which, after three people, has bandwidth problems). It is currently free for up to 12 simultaneous users.
Figure 1 – Sample Fuze Meeting on an iPad
Groupon is a big Fuze user. It has eliminated all of its other web conferencing tools (WebEX, Cisco Conferencing, Jabber, Tandberg room meeting systems and GotoMeeting) and is rolling out Fuze to all 12,000 employees in 48 countries. Like Adobe Connect, Fuze understands that people flow seamlessly from asynchronous to synchronous interactions throughout the day. Fuze supports persistent meeting rooms where you can put any kind of content you want, all of which is available to share in a meeting.
Fuze understands that you are not going to change your behavior and so, wisely, it wants to integrate with tools that you already use. With an open API coming in Q3 of this year, they also see their tool as a platform and, with the rich API layer, it not only allows you to connect to Fuze data, but allows you to build an app on top of Fuze for something like customer interviews, resume rating or working directly with field support people.
One of Fuze's goals is to move beyond meetings and into Continuous Collaborative Teamwork (CCT). Their spaces are a lightweight way to store relevant documents and create tasks. This scenario is more realistic if you look at a tablet as an "always on" video portal to a group, team or pod. I have seen this work very well a number of years ago at IDEO, where it was used to help connect its eight worldwide offices. It is like the other part of the team is always there and understands the context of the current discussion, adding to it whenever appropriate.
Bluescape, also a new company, is currently focused on opportunities in the US. As you can see below (Figure 2-3) it looks like a big white board, touch sensitive and interactive with a theoretical size of 3 x 3 Acres. The one in the picture is a smaller panel composed of 16 high resolution screens, but Bluescape can also be mobile with a 1 X 3 screen that can be moved from meeting room to meeting room.
Bluescape helps to provide teams with a common context for distributed workers, which also supports colocated workers at the screen. It is also a way to curate or keep institutional knowledge, as well as a way to deal with data overloads (big data) and an inability to find specific data.
Figure 2-3 - Bluescape on a wall and on a tablet
Their goal is not to change the way people work but to make work more visual. It allows multisite collaboration and is widely used by architects, software development teams and people looking to drive workspace excellence. What is critical is that everyone sees the same thing at the same time, no matter what device they are on. With all the current focus on big data, Bluescape is a great platform to explore and collaborate on.
Oblong offers a tool called Mezzanine (figure 4) which is ideal for remote teams. Somewhere between a telepresence room and a collaboration room, Mezzanine is an “infopresence” system that supports multiple screens, multiple users, multiple devices and multiple streams of information. You configure each meeting -- you can dedicate a screen to each remote site or you can have multiple sites on a screen. Mezzanine is really a room, and includes the screens, cameras, white board, “cork boards” (screens off to the side) and a wand to manipulate the data and images around on the screen (the wand works by small RF sensors in the ceiling which are able to tell where it is in space and what a movement means). Mezzanine can also be controlled from an iPad or laptop.
The Mezzanine system (room) can cost between $100,000 and $150,000 and can be used for many different collaborative situations where multiple distributed people need to be able to share their context with others.
Figure 4 - A Mezzanine Collaboration room
If this technology seems familiar, it was the underlying technology for computer screen interaction for Minority Report and IronMan3.
Figure 5 - Lab Display in Oblong Technology for Iron Man 3
Vobi joins the ranks of new technology companies. Its mobile first development technology rides on the BYOD, mobile and video trends, but also capitalizes on the way IM/Chat cannibalizes many email conversations (especially when email was not the right technology to use in the first place).
As you can see from Figure 7, Vobi’s big difference is that it offers an always on activity stream/chat/discussion on the left side. This offers a continuous collaborative context, and allows you to rewind and play back specific parts of a time line. Both the “always on” feature and the timeline rewind feature make Vobi great for distributed teams. You can go from a discussion in chat into a video conference with one click, or share a screen with everyone in your Vobi space. It has a SIP client for mobile, web and desktop, as well as WebRTC integration built in. Vobi is also smart, in that its network knows who you are and who you are communicating with. The system also knows your location and is able to find content based on your context.
Figure 6 - Vobi screen shot showing both the mobile as well as continuous nature of the tool
Vobi's goal -- much like Oblong's -- is to immerse you in the interactions and make them frictionless. Targeting companies of less than 1000 employees, Vobi is currently free but will eventually cost $5 per user, per month.
Sococo is an interesting choice for a distributed team because it includes presence and location information in a virtual office environment. As you can see in the figure below, both Steve and Rachel are in Steve’s Office, indicating Rachel’s presence in his office, and implying that they are having a conversation. You can also see Project Room 1, which has much of the team in the same room, which might indicate a meeting. Sococo enables you to enter a video chat with one click (see Figure 8).
Figure 7 – Sococo Virtual Office Environment
This "always on" ability is a great way to create a community for distributed workers, and it also gives the interaction a more personal feel. Remote workers report that “they feel like they are part of something.” Sococo is designed to eliminate the friction between different modes of communication between distributed parties. Sococo is one of the only tools I know of that can handle multiple video chat streams, which allows something like a video conference but with chat functionality. It also supports voice chat, so that if you are in the same (virtual) room with someone you can just start talking. They also support screen sharing, multiple screens and telephone integration. Like many of the other tools in this article Sococo also allows you to invite guests to a room, a chat, a project, etc., at no extra cost.
Sococo has been around for a few years and has gone through several management teams. It's available on many platforms, including the iPad, and it has a robust third party and partner program including Plantronics, Dropbox, Jira and Box. Its largest customer has 2500 users, and CEO and cofounder Paul Brody seems to have a good handle on the market and is aware of how useful his tool is to distributed teams.
The final product to support distributed teams is Dashcube, which can be thought of as the love child of Trello and Slack or Basecamp and HipChat. What it offers is an activity stream/chat/discussion integrated with task management. When I interviewed the founders they told me that “planning tools usually have poor communications ability, and communications tools have poor planning ability, so Dashcube is a marriage of the two to give a distributed team the best of both."
A young company, Dashcube announced their public Beta at the Office Optional show in late April. Its target market is “knowledge workers,” but many of the initial beta sign ups have been distributed development teams. It very much supports agile methodologies both for its own team and with its product. Watch the introductory video to get a better sense of the product.
Every object in Dashcube is stored as a unique event, which gives it the unique ability to do a project replay. This is not only great for distributed team members in different time zones (they can login and reply to what happened while they were sleeping), but is also great for onboarding in a project, group, community or company. Once out of beta, Dashcube wil be $99 per user per year, and allows guests to be invited into projects at no extra cost. The project manager or project creator pays the subscription fee, as well as other identified project team members.
Dashcube allows a lot of flexibility -- you can create custom projects, tasks and sub tasks, and you can set it up in what they call a “scale,” which is a particular view of the information. This is not a full blown project management tool -- you will not see dependencies or Gantt charts -- but, rather more like a very sophisticated task and to do list for distributed teams.
From Fuze to Dashcube, we are beginning to see more tools that not only support collaboration, but support it in a way more natural for today's flexible and distributed work environments. I expect to see an increase in these tools as the number of remote workers -- now roughly 30-45 percent of the workforce -- grows.
Distributed teams are the right social construct to spearhead this movement. Generally small (six to eight people), both collocated and distributed, and with clear outcomes and timelines. The idea of a distributed team doing a two week development sprint, with members scattered in many time zones, means that work can be going on 24/7. This gives distributed teams the opportunity to be even more productive than collocated teams -- but only if the collaboration is excellent!