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Working together apart #ghc12 #tech

Judith Olson of UC Irvine developed an online assessment tool to evaluate distributed work relationships. She shared that this was the “punch line” of the talk. The tool is the result of many years of research and observations on how teams collaborate successfully.

The Collaboration Success Wizard

By answering questions about a specific project, the software provides feedback on strengths, weaknesses, and ways to improve.

Wizard Origination (not Hogwarts)

Olson has been researching this topic for about 20 years, and has studied both academic and corporate environments. The book Scientific Collaboration on the Internet (Acting with Technology) has many case studies, and Olson has an upcoming book Working Together Apart.

Olson and her colleagues have developed the Theory of Remote Scientific Collaboration (pdf). They have identified 500 collaborations, located in a public database, termed “collaboratories.”

In the presentation, Olson defined five factors of success that they found, including the nature of the work, common ground, collaboration readiness, management and organization, and technical readiness.

The nature of the work is important – if the work is more partitionable, it is friendlier to long distance collaboration.

Common ground, that is, mutual knowledge and understanding, is key. In long distance collaboration between two parties from different fields, the same word can have many meanings. In addition, if the parties are very different, they may have different expectations of deliverables and measures of success.

Collaboration readiness boils down to – can you work with other people? Can you react to an adapting environment? Are you willing to share your work? (not sharing is a common cause of failure in distance collaboration) Do you trust your team? Are the goals aligned between members of the team?

Management and organization is a key factor because it’s difficult to know what people are doing (if people don’t share), and because there has to be trust in the relationship. A project manager can be a great help here – they keep tabs of what’s going on, help people communicate, and manage overarching interests (ex. for scientists, funding!).

Communication is key in the management factor. Developing a communication plan and being clear and transparent on how and when you’ll be available is key to success. When working across time zones, it’s key to share inconvenience. Night somewhere is day somewhere else, work days are different in different countries and cultures.

Technical readiness is being able to use the tools to work distributed and understanding them. How many times has someone deleted something from Dropbox and you’ve had to scramble to find another copy? Understanding these tools is key to communication.

Progress over time

Many technical tools have arisen, ex. Google Drive, video conferencing, chat, since this research has begun. Project management has also improved, with importance given to in person, face-to-face kick off meetings to discuss plans and course of action.


It’s still hard. That’s why they created an assessment tool! (punch line)

The tool

It is based per project. If you’d like to use it, go to the website and put in your information. It is free.

Some of the questions included: what to do if you’re the person that discovered the drops in communication, how to set up a project for success, whether it’s better to move or stay in your own location, and more. I thought the one about moving was very interesting. For example, for someone in another country, it’s easy to “be an American for an hour … But not forever.” Moving someone isn’t truly a solution, communicating better is.

Overall, I really enjoyed the session. I think she glossed over a bit how many tools have arisen to make working in a distributed fashion much easier. I’m very interested to check out the tool, and in particular, I think it was very curious that it is currently remaining free. That’s just amazing. There’s definitely a product in this research.

This blog post is coverage of a talk at Grace Hopper 2012.

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