Digital collaboration of distributed teams
An example of what went wrong and works better in the transformation from analog to digital.
When it comes to digital collaboration between distributed teams, you can rely on an infinite number of software products. The offer is so confusing that you already need a lot of time to get an overview. And the result: Every tool can do something well, but you search in vain for an “all-rounder”. Maybe there can’t be one, because everyone has a different idea of what’s important. And if you want to develop an “all-rounder” yourself, you inevitably have to fail because of the complexity of the requirements. It’s easy to get the hell out of programming and so the cardinal errors in IT are repeated over and over again because of all the entanglements in the details: “Everything is programmable”.
What makes collaboration so special? And what makes it so difficult to structure them in zeros and ones? People in organisations and projects develop ideas and discuss them in smaller and larger groups. Analogously we can imagine this: we sit at the table and it goes back and forth. In addition, documents, i.e. descriptions, are created in the team or with each individual about what is important and to be recorded. These can be sketches and drawings, but also insights from experiments or simply thoughts. We also know that. In a long process we exchange ourselves and give ourselves new information, which in turn affects many people. Sure, a new development is compiled from a lot of information and ideas of people. And that very often includes many 1,000 documents and “messages” and hints and changes and much more. So far we have managed that somehow already.
How can distributed work be supported by IT?
How could we solve the described with the means of information technology? If everyone is sitting in one room, then it’s easy. If teams consist of twenty, thirty or hundreds of colleagues who work somewhere distributed, it becomes confusing. So what to do?
Let’s start with an abstraction in the sense of “what can IT actually do?” There is no question that highly structured, repetitive processes (ERP) can be organised quite well. Likewise, great instruments have been created that make the cognitive work of an individual extremely easier (CAD, CAM, calculation systems, graphics systems, animation, etc.).
In order to understand what the challenge is in organising digital collaboration, we need to get to the roots of the meaning of programming, i.e. the automation of processes. Where a computer is faster than a few bits per second, it is simple and logical. Even with highly structured repetitions, it’s simple and clear for everyone. But when it comes to collaboration tools, this is NOT the decisive aspect. One avoids the question of what constitutes the cooperation of people: Ideas and spinning, new solutions, things you have to try out to see if they work. (Evil note: You’d rather develop the idea of AI than network people and let them act intelligently.)
Collaboration in project management
Let’s take an exemplary look at project management. When distributed teams work together, there is rarely a common clarity and it is not possible to agree very quickly on what is effective and efficient – what we need to work well together.
If you are looking for simple solutions, you usually have to fight your way through a storm of objections and confusion. Often you don’t get to the simple solutions. You feel the anger and inefficiency, but you don’t get a picture in your head of how it could be easier. We lose ourselves in things that we find beautiful and partially “totally super”, but which do not produce any benefit. Question: What tools have really been created that make a “value contribution” that is really significant?
There are many areas of interest in project management. In planning, we would like to have beautiful Gantt diagrams that are basically ZERO relevant. I can paint them as I like, it has no influence on the effectiveness of a project. It is SHOW! Then we would like to have perfect automatic postponement of appointments and tasks if something changes. The famous network plan. Yes, and with that the personnel and capacity planning should also be covered. There is also time recording and much more. Every halfway smart project manager knows what it means to change a network plan. We are constantly subject to the seduction of “everything can be programmed”. Of course, there are tools, especially in software development, that are really good, but they have no files and only manageable iterations.
We are deceived that optics and pleasant usability are effective. It is absurd to have to understand why the idea of a Kanban board is visually reflected in a project management tool, when the application was used very sensibly analogously and no more than 2 boards are used in parallel in a workshop. As long as I only have a few boards, everything is easy.
Switching in my head. It’s not the question “What can be programmed beautifully” that’s important, but what stops me, what slows down my performance, what do I need the most for my work?
What is really important?
We systematically ignore the question: What is really important? We have been “suffering” for 25 years from this “disregard” of our wishes and have now done something. But first a check! If the following criteria apply to you (or two or three of them), please read on:
- You are more than 3 employees who are not sitting in one room.
- They exchange thoughts and ideas and discuss them (probably by e-mail and telephone).
- You use MS Excel as a planning or project management tool.
- You use MS Excel for status processing of processes and work packages.
- You use MS Office (Explorer) as document storage.
- You use MS Outlook for communication.
- You also happen to be a company that develops, designs, produces and sells products.
- You organise complex projects with many documents and information.
- You work on a company server (not in the cloud).
Have you ever realised what you are doing to yourself? You are worsening your life, especially your working life. You may even get paid for all these absurdities, but it can’t satisfy you or even make you happy. But it won’t get any better if you buy these “feel-good tools”. Only nicer.
You have probably “come to terms” with the situation. There is the saying: “Hans never learns what litte Hans failed to learn”. But that is no longer the problem today. It’s much more dramatic: “What litte Hans has learnt, Hans will never forget”.
We are trapped. We got used to something that wasn’t planned, but simply happened. We have replaced our beautiful guide folders – which were lovingly and very effectively (yes) maintained by the secretaries – with exactly the same logic, namely folders, but in electronic form. However, the order has been completely lost. Because the secretary was rationalised away and everyone writes into the folders as he wants.
The classic efficiency error
I know what I’m talking about, as a child in a family business I was already interested in the organisation at that time. I saw that at the beginning of the folder there were so-called update lists. Every change in the folder was documented in one line. Everything that happened was recorded. Everyone could understand it. Information was recorded on note pads and stored in the folder. Of course again with information about it. Order papers in the company were sent by pneumatic tube mail. Yes, it sounds crazy, but it was effective. The production control (control station) took place via ….yes… one person. The employees reported their order status via intercom systems. This all worked smoothly, especially because unstructured information was immediately cognitively processed by a person and the right people were informed. Changes in the production program were a piece of cake. Yes, it looks as if I would like to go back to the “good old days”. By no means.
It’s something completely different for me. Before we come to the resolution, I want to tell another little story of an erroneous development: That letters (yes, paper letters) were slow is undisputed. But that’s exactly why the authors tried so hard to formulate something meaningful and completely understandable. A letter had a purpose. But it did not (usually) contain a hectic message, but basic options for action, contract descriptions or quite personal exchange. One could wait for the answer. Nothing has become more effective and efficient with electronic communication, with the exception of speed. However, in the 20 years since electronic communication has been used commercially, it has not been learned to make electronic communication an effective working tool. It is still – and here we come back to litte Hans – a letter that is only created and sent electronically.
But the electronic letter has become a completely absurd control instrument for entire organisations. In recent years it has been recognised that at least communication works better via chat rooms or messenger tools. But otherwise one has learned practically nothing. We have become sloppy, which our secretaries would never have allowed. There is nothing left to be found, we only have information and document graves. But everything is nice and super nice to look at. Unfortunately, this is the classic efficiency error in which primary costs are avoided, but secondary costs are increased many times over.
Negative usefulness and new absurdities
I have already appreciated the gigantic benefits of digitisation in repetitive processes, but nothing has improved for human collaboration. On the contrary. In addition to the complete failure to use e-mail, it has become established to use wonderful tools such as MS Excel for tasks that miss the target completely and consume an incredible amount of resources. Suddenly there are topics that didn’t exist before. Several people can open and edit a document and nobody knows what the current status is. Not everyone even knows that a document was created/changed/deleted at all.
In summary, it can be said that hardly any of the previous problems have improved:
- We don’t know who is doing what, when, why and how.
- We have no idea what topics are dealt with in the project and what is important.
- We do not know the current status of documents and other information.
- We are groping in the dark and receive information that is elementary for our work, only by chance or incompletely or per cc as side info.
Do you want to work as a developer, engineer, designer, technician, procurer, prototype builder, account manager, etc.? Even if it sounds totally boring and maybe it is: It needs something useful and not something nice. Of course it would be nice if you could combine both, but that would be the real trick we’re still working on. It’s about what we need the most:
- Making the analog efficient with the digital!
- What do people achieve? They create connections, they combine them and they develop solutions.
- What do software programs do? They are much faster than we are, they carry millions of retrievable information in them and they can connect people with it, as is well known on Facebook and so on.
My request: The combination of both worlds
People create information, create documents and want to drive things forward. If you want to easily link thousands of information with thousands of people and thousands of documents, then a crucial question arises: HOW? I developed SYSTEMDREI for HOW. SYSTEMDREI is an analog/digital converter that contributes to the understanding of “what can the machine do, what can we do better and how can we combine both worlds”.
For the combination of the both worlds it is important that companies consider their own culture of cooperation. Unrestricted information about aspects that take place in an organisation is often socially unacceptable. Although a company is a highly objective matter, the actors are people of flesh and blood who themselves determine who gets what information when and in what form. Most companies do not (yet) have a culture of unlimited cooperation. When selecting tools, company management should therefore always keep the corporate culture in mind and not just the technical gimmicks of tools that make a big impression.
SYSTEMDREI is an application based on MS Office that intelligently links people and information. Man and tool have equal responsibilities, so that the organisation can become many times better. Information about SYSTEMDREI can be found at https://systemdrei.de/.
Born into a family business - his grandfather produced the "Wimmer Motorcycles" in the 1920s - Axel Wimmer was confronted with business processes even as a child. Born in 1964, he experienced the complete transformation from analogue to digital. His father, who was also an inventor, was very interested in the latest technologies and had already created an ERP system for 80 employees in 1979. Also an IBM PC with 20 Mb hard disk and 64 k memory (10.000 German Marks!) was needed. It was completely useless. Axel Wimmer, who studied mechanical engineering, could immediately observe how the digital was acquired indiscriminately. He was able to see what was efficient and useful and what had greatly deteriorated the processes. After the successful sale of the company, Axel Wimmer started consulting and studied philosophy, politics and economics at the LMU in Munich. He is a specialist in the interaction of man and machine. He is critical of a completely exuberant digitalisation mania and against completely unreflected delivery to the machine. He advises companies on the interplay between strategy, structure and culture, including the use of IT. From this awareness, the software Systemdrei emerged, which delivers a very simple symbiosis of man and machine.