Distributed Collaboration: Work’s Future in View

Issue 61

Steelcase 360

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Distributed Collaboration: Work's Future in View

Capitalizing on collective intelligence is an imperative – and, when it works properly, one of the great benefits of a global strategy.

Everyone agrees. Collaboration is more important than ever to help solve complex business problems and drive innovation in today’s globally competitive environment.

And collaborate we do. People are working on teams more than ever before, and the ratio of individual work to collaborative work continues to mount on the collaborative side. Even 10 years ago, according to research by Gartner Dataquest, employees spent 60% of their time working in groups and only 40% on individual work. By 2007, individual work had decreased to just 30%. And this trend is expected to continue as research shows that the collective intelligence of groups outperforms that of the individual worker, thanks to the group’s access to a diversity of experience and skills and the benefits of team members building on each other’s ideas.

But collaboration in this global environment poses its own difficulties. Members of these teams are widely distributed, chosen for their expertise and skills and not where they are located in the world. And “distributed collaboration” – working with people around the world to solve problems and co-create – is not the same as sitting around a work table.

The Challenge of Collaboration

Despite the difficulties, putting heads together over great distances is seen as an imperative – and, when it works properly, one of the great benefits of a global strategy. This idea is explored in the 2010 IBM report Working Beyond Borders, a global study of over 700 chief human resource officers (CHRO). According to the study, organizations must capitalize on collective intelligence by finding “new ways to connect people to each other and to information, both internally and externally.”

The study acknowledges that organizations are struggling to make this happen. Even with the advances in communications technology, the authors say, “the global workforce still finds itself encumbered by numerous impediments that inhibit the ability of organizations to quickly respond to emerging opportunity.” So what’s the problem?

The CHROs say capitalizing on the collective intelligence of global teams is one of their top priorities, but the majority struggle to effectively connect their workplace, and 78% said their organizations are ineffective at fostering collaboration and social networking. Only 21% had recently increased the amount they invest in the tools required to promote collaboration and networking.

Although some consider collaboration as a “soft” skill, the study says it can have “bottom-line consequences.” It found financial outperformers were 57% more likely to use collaborative and social networking tools to enable global teams to work more effectively together. Yet, only one-third of organizations are regularly applying collaborative tools and techniques to enable global teams to work more effectively.

Deeper Levels of Interaction

“Companies are finding that as their people spend less time together, collaboration becomes more difficult, social networks can weaken, little problems become big problems and things slow down,” says Lew Epstein, general manager of the advanced applications group at Steelcase Inc. “They need solutions that enable them to connect with staff, customers, suppliers and subject-matter experts, quickly and globally.”

But connecting technology isn’t the only answer. Collaboration means team members must go beyond simply coordinating activities and communicating information to actually co-creating a solution from an exchange of ideas and viewpoints, and so deeper levels of interaction must occur. For one thing, it is difficult for groups to get things done without first achieving a level of trust and understanding – a prerequisite of collaborative work. Group members discover the knowledge each member brings to the group and their basic orientation toward the project. Collaborators also need to spend significant time in a creative second phase where they generate possible approaches and solutions before entering a third and final phase of evaluating the best route forward.

For these types of group sessions, phone conferences or traditional approaches toward videoconferencing – with its formal face-to-camera, eyes-forward, upright-posture setups – don’t provide a productive setting to build trust and get creative because they don’t support a more natural back-and-forth exchange of ideas and information. They just don’t create enough opportunity for participants to interact when generating new ideas.

media:scape with High-Definition Videoconferencing

The convergence of new collaborative technologies and spaces designed to promote the easy exchange of ideas and to equally engage meeting participants is happening. Employees at Venadar (pictured right) use media:scape and high-def videoconferencing to collaborate with new product scouts all over the world.

“In a truly collaborative work session, teams need to share complex ideas, drawings or explanations,” says Epstein. “They want to share content on their laptop or get up and write or draw on a whiteboard, and they need all the subtleties of face-to-face communication, too. For them, videoconferencing must be as good an experience as being in the same room.”

And that means the video, audio and data feeds going back and forth are only part of the equation. It’s equally important for there to be a certain comfort level, both with the people involved and with the place where the interaction occurs. “For true collaboration, groups need spaces that nurture the process of collaboration,” says Epstein. “Work is not defined by what you do at a desk and organizations are no longer confined within office towers. Collaborative teams need comfortable, versatile collaborative spaces to work in.”

A New Way of Working

The convergence of new collaborative technologies and spaces designed to promote the easy exchange of ideas and to equally engage meeting participants is happening. In Atlanta, a team of consultants and category experts using media:scape® with high definition videoconferencing gather around a bar-height U-shaped ledge, each with a laptop plugged into a Puck™ media-sharing device. On one high-definition screen, executives of a major corporation based in another city engage with various participants, displaying photos, drawings, charts and data from their laptops on a second HD screen.

The conversation is multi-sided, ideas are flowing, laptop displays change frequently, and the mood is relaxed. Some people stand, some sit, and they shift places or enter and leave the room without interrupting the proceedings. When necessary, the camera controlled by a videoconferencing system remote zooms to one of the speakers or a product placed on a table.

This is the scene at Venadar LLC, a leading external innovation firm that helps Fortune 500 companies extend their brands by finding proven innovations around the world. With scouts for these new products based in 35 countries, high-definition videoconferencing is the best way to make everyone feel like they’re in the same room, on the same page, and on the same team and looking at a tangible product.

“Venadar actually has two of these [media:scape] rooms, both in our central hub and identically outfitted,” says Venadar managing director Mark Kaiser. “They get plenty of use. A lot of times, we’re showing clients product as well as having a meeting. You can place it on the table and zoom in on it. It’s very 3-D.”

Venadar sits at the forefront of a new way of working – widely distributed but highly collaborative and as agile as a start-up enterprise. It’s critical to the organizations that source, sell, consult, and compete across markets and continents.

Like Being There

Venadar’s HD videoconference is indicative of where distributed collaboration is headed, with comfortable, informal settings that allow for long sessions with people coming and going, seamless sharing of digital content, full-range audio, flexible use of the camera, and a picture so crisp that it’s just like being there.

And when collaboration is seamless, organizations are getting results. At Venadar, Kaiser says the media:scape spaces are paying off. “The distributed workforce needs to come together,” he says. “Our videoconferencing rooms have created a much more intimate relationship, especially for our international workforce, and that pays off in the amount and level of work we can accomplish.”

It’s demand from organizations like Venadar – working in a global marketplace, facing extreme competitiveness, quick response and cost-effectiveness – that has driven the evolution of HD spaces that support distributed collaboration.

New Possibilities

Recent technological developments have changed the game, says Peter Secor, senior director of development at Polycom Inc., one of the world leaders in videoconferencing technologies.

“Two or three years ago, the industry broke through those technological barriers when IP networks became broad and widespread enough to handle the audio-video traffic of videoconferencing and the semiconductor industry developed chips that could compress HD video down to a manageable size,” says Secor. “Now, over a cheap Internet connection, it’s possible to support full HD videoconferences with anyone
in the world.”

A Virtual Collaboration Center installed at GE

Virtual Collaboration Centers have been installed at multiple GE locations around the world to support distributed collaborative work. “We look at our collaboration centers as a true competitive advantage,” says Vic Bhagat, site leader, GE.

Combined with more collaborative videoconferencing environments, HD video conferencing is helping creative professionals whose work is highly visible or who need to share complex data, especially when no single group or individual is in charge. General Electric is installing what they’ve dubbed “Virtual Collaboration Spaces” throughout multiple locations, beginning with its new Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center in southeast Michigan. These spaces support working for hours at a time from remote sites on lean manufacturing and new-product development processes.

“We look at our collaboration spaces as a true competitive advantage,” says Vic Bhagat, site leader at the Michigan location. “They help us reduce cycle times, reduce the need for travel, and help us get things done faster. This is changing the game for us.”

Space Takes Collaboration to the Next Level

Ed Hemphill, director of sales and engineering, Americas, for LifeSize Communications, Inc., an industry-leading company that’s developing HD videoconferencing technologies, says these types of environments can make participants forget they’re on a videoconference.

“That’s important because if you feel they’re right there next to you, you achieve another level of communication. That can really pay off in the long run. Sure, it keeps you from getting on a plane sometimes, but it’s really effective in making something out of all those meetings that are now so effective and full of information. And that’s why it’s the next step for videoconferencing.”

Designed to Make a Difference

The media:scape environment used by Venadar and GE directly targets these deep and extended kinds of collaboration.

Behind media:scape lies considerable research into collaboration and how groups work together. Steelcase along with IDEO began a study into ubiquitous computing back in 2004, and has conducted numerous product development and user-group sessions in an iterative design process.

“We wanted to create a different type of setting that would better foster collaboration,” says Ryan Anderson, product manager for media:scape. “There are several principles that make media:scape different. As an example, everyone can easily have eye contact with each other as well as with the information – as if the information had taken a seat at the table. Democracy promotes collaboration more than hierarchy, so we used table shapes that didn’t encourage someone to sit at the front and take control. The content becomes the priority. Another principle was to create settings that are optimal for up to four, six or eight people. Our research indicated that groups of more than eight often need to break down into smaller groups or they revert back to leader-led meetings with someone in control. We were aiming for a greater level of interaction between meeting participants and the content being displayed.”

Collaboration Beyond Conversation

The combination of the comfortable setting and the easy sharing of data and images creates an environment that will connect globally distributed teams seamlessly and transform any meeting space into a more dynamic forum for teamwork, within the workplace or around the world. It becomes a space where people can stay for long periods of time and where interaction can go far beyond a formal transactional meeting.

“What you get is a space that augments team members’ ability to collaborate effectively,” says Anderson. “Collaboration moves beyond simply seeing and hearing one another. We share information with one another, we become more generative as ideas emerge, and we are able to evaluate concepts without distance impeding us. We all learn. There’s an equal opportunity to contribute – verbally and visually – with your data, drawings or photos, and to respond and create that enriched conversation that’s so essential.”

Evening Out the Future

This evolution of the collaborative workspace is welcome news for companies that need to knit together teams working across time zones and continents. With the trend toward distributing teams around the world instead of in one building, the challenge becomes how to connect those people and their knowledge. As more people connect instantaneously with the tools they carry in their pocket and back pack, the willingness to use collaborative technologies has never been higher.

“Distributed collaboration is an area of great impact from several key strategic perspectives: global competitiveness, productivity, human resources, and real estate,” says Anderson. “Decisions in all these disciplines are being influenced by the role of space and the use of these improved technologies in enhancing creative work over great distances. It is right at the center of the future of work.”

In 2003, author William Gibson wrote, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” Now, with collaboration technologies that make it possible, the distribution is gradually evening out – and work’s future is in view.

Filed under: 360 Magazine, Featured Articles


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