White Board Reality Meets BPM by

Laurence Hart, aka @piewords, has written the perfect post to explain why local collaboration matters.

This wasn’t a post about BPM offshoring. But the parallels in the debate Laurence is engaged in are pretty fascinating.  So let’s go through the post and relate back to BPM and offshoring:

Recently, Ron Miller wrote a nice little article explaining that there is no need for collaboration to be done in the same room anymore. He says, based off of a tweet of mine, that those that think that face-to-face interaction is needed are living in a White Board Fallacy.

This is basically the view that most offshore proponents have: we’re in a digital age with digital tools and collaboration over Google hangouts and Skype and IM is just as good as being there. If you firmly believe that, then by all means, collaboration with a team you’ve never met 10,000 miles away will seem like it can be just as efficient -because in theory it can be. Reality just tends to interfere with the theory of better, faster cheaper, remote.

Laurence rebuts the argument pretty well on another axis – after all, what happens when the collaboration isn’t getting time sheets right or exchanging drafts of a paper or doing an interview? What happens when it has real complexity? Or when it has personal effect on the participants lives or livelihood?

First there is trust. The more complex the concepts or problems being worked upon, the more trust is required between the collaborators. While this trust can be built online, it is always made stronger, and faster, when built with in-person interactions. If a strong level of trust exists prior to the collaborative effort, it is easy to start as there is a stronger rapport between the collaborators.

When that trust isn’t there, in-person meetings are always better. It isn’t the physical presence, but the extra communication cues that go into meeting face-to-face.

If ever there was an issue of trust, it is in getting BPM projects from ideation to production.  First, you have different parts of the business that don’t trust each other, and different parts of IT that may not trust each other.  Next, throw in the age-old business-IT divide.  Finally, to make matters more challenging, you often have overtones of staff reduction, or organizational change, of judging the “way we do things now” as being inadequate.  People may interpret a critique as blame, as a hatchet job.

No one likes to see their baby called ugly.  And yet, the first step to fixing a problem is to admit that we have one.  That’s a delicate phase in BPM.  And it doesn’t go away when the project starts.  The collaboration, with playbacks, continues all through the project.  And it isn’t just a two-person meeting, it is representatives from many teams coming together and (hopefully) deciding to row in the same direction.

Google Hangouts or Skype you say?

When two people meet via Skype, things are simple. If they need to collaborate on authoring something, it is simple.

Throw in more people, the video demands start to become problematic. It isn’t just bandwidth, but real estate on the screen. Some tools solve this by switching the video feed to the current speaker. This quickly removes the ability to gauge the reactions of other participants to what is being discussed.

Right. If you don’t really care what their reactions are, this is fine. But chances are, you need to gauge their reactions.  Silence isn’t agreement. It could be lack of interest, it could be frustration with what they see as an unalterable direction.  It could be they’re busy reading twitter.

Life isn’t simple. Whether in consulting or at AIIM, issues arise that need considerable thought and attention. I’m not talking about the departure of a key employee or an acquisition. I’m talking the design of a system, strategy for putting together a winning proposal, or determining how to rework an offering to increase revenue.

Brainstorming that evolves into solution building.

Yes.

Shoot, just pointing being able to use our hands to illustrate the concepts, giving the white board a 3rd dimension, was very useful.

Yes.

And that is my point to Ron. It isn’t that things can’t be accomplished with current business tools to facilitate remote collaboration. My point is that work is MORE EFFICIENT when the collaborators are all together.

It isn’t limited to large group. I can state for a fact that my development team is more productive when they are all in the office together. While they could make better use of their tools to improve remote collaboration, the spontaneous conversation or overheard comment made while trying discuss something with a staff member is valuable.

(emphasis added) Yes.

There’s a difference between seeing a static image already drawn, and seeing it drawn live, with voice over, interaction, and Q&A.  And hand-waving!

Now, revisit the BPM discussion.  Is there anything more crucial in a successful BPM project than the quality of collaboration?  The ability to navigate and mediate sensitive conversations at critical points of the project is a key differentiator for BP3 and other successful BPM specialists.

And with a quick iterative turnaround methodology, there just aren’t big chunks of work to hand off offshore as there would be in typical waterfall design methodologies. And really, if you’re still doing waterfall development, you’ve missed out on the last 20-30 years of software development methodology learning.  1985 called and wants its methodology back.

Laurence has done a great job reminding us how much in-person discussion – even a whiteboard – can add value to a collaborative effort.  Now we just have to remember that the quality of collaboration is one of the key indicators of BPM success… or failure.

[Author's Note:  if you visit the BP3 offices you'll find high-quality whiteboards everywhere.  20 years ago I often used whiteboards for to-do lists.  Today we use them to capture, pictorially, ideas and brainstorms and models of the world or the market or our software.  It works.]