CEO at Econsultancy
07 March 2001 08:49am
Whether 'virtual' project management, using online tools and processess to manage projects, actually works, and with what degrees of success, has been the subject of some debate more recently. There certainly seem to be numerous students writing theses on the subject.
Recently I have been working on a large global web project spanning Europe, US, Far East and Australasia. The 2 centres of project management, and where the core teams are based, are London, UK, and Sydney, Australia. Obviously the travel / accommodation costs and time implications in shuttling team members to and fro between these locations make virtual project management very attractive in theory. Send one consultant from London to Sydney to do 2 days works there and you end up paying up to £10k what with business flights costs, the several days 'lost' in the air etc.
The time difference between these 2 locations is 11hrs. Sydney is 11hrs ahead of London. Even by today's long working days standards, this means that if you actually want to talk 'live' to another human someone is getting up early at one end of the globe and someone is staying up late at the other end. It should not be under-estimated how gruelling this can be when sustained over many months.
My experience has been that whilst virtual project management serves some useful basic functions, there is still no substitute for physical proximity to optimise communications and, ultimately, the quality of solutions. Here are some of my observations:
- a project management web site is good for file management, document archiving, digital asset storage and retrieval
- more collaborative interactive tools (accompanied surfing, document reviewing, chat, discussion groups etc.) are difficult to make work. The technology is easy but getting people used to working this way (who have varying degrees of technology savvy, different functional areas of interest etc.) is much less so.
- speed of international connectivity / interactions. Easy one to forget, but the speed of the internet pipe that connects Australia to the rest of the world is not overly impressive. FTP was painfully slow. Bear in mind which countries you are planning to work across and their backbone connectivity.
- lack of actual human contact depersonalises the team interaction experience such that over time morale, spirit and commitment can falter. There's no denying that we all need a little face-to-face and flesh contact now and again...
- where the project involves a consultative, iterative approach to decision making where the joint team is learning and growing together over time (and I haven't experienced a web project yet that isn't like this), you have to have person-to-person physical proximity, at least for a core team.
So what does this mean now and going forwards?
- whilst good programme management and reporting processes and structure + a well managed project web site add a lot of value, there is no substitute for having people on the ground interacting with each other. Make sure you have at least some core team members with project management skills in every major location.
- it will be interesting to see if broadband internet, where video-conferencing over the web becomes more of a reality, will make the experience any more 'touchy feely' for the fact that you can see the whites of other peoples' eyes, see them smile, frown etc. My experience of current video-conferencing leaves me unconvinced. It stills feels too distant and is still confined to a particular time and place. You still miss the nuances, relationship building and guiding influences that day-in, day-out contact give.
What do others think of the above? I'd be particularly interested in hearing from people who have had experience of working with development teams based in other countries.
There is a growing trend to use (in particular) application development teams based in other countries (e.g. India is very popular at the moment, but also Russia, New Zealand etc.) largely to gain access to talent for much lower costs. Whereas I can see the commercial gains to be had, I wonder how this plays out as a project management experience in reality and whether the end quality, time to market, total costs etc. actually make the perceived savings worthwhile?
Executive Producer at smartchange
19 March 2001 15:58pm
On 8:49:6 7 March 2001 ashley wrote:
>What do others think of the above? I'd be particularly
>interested in hearing from people who have had experience
>of working with development teams based in other
>There is a growing trend to use (in particular)
>application development teams based in other countries
>(e.g. India is very popular at the moment, but also
>Russia, New Zealand etc.) largely to gain access to talent
>for much lower costs. Whereas I can see the commercial
>gains to be had, I wonder how this plays out as a project
>management experience in reality and whether the end
>quality, time to market, total costs etc. actually make
>the perceived savings worthwhile?
Well I've been involved in project managing 'virtual teams' for about a year now - with me mainly working out of London and the teams in Eastern Europe.
Over the last five months I've been working with a Bulgarian team of about 7-8 developers. The time diff between Sofia and London is 2 hours.
Obviously it's easier to work face to face, however as pointed out often there isn't a choice in the matter.
Also we have found substantial cost savings - coupled with an equal amount of 'non-financial' grief. Face to face meetings are essential - regardless of cost - if you want to run a successful project.
All said and done though it does work - but it is hard. I wouldn't recommend it to organisations who do not have experienced project managers in house to manage the relationship.
There are large risks if the project goes astray and I wouldn't recommend relying on legalalities to protect you - you'll have to rely on the strength of the working relationship ie the social capital you manage to build.
We don't exactly use a project site - we use a 'workflow tracking system' which tracks requests between London and Sofia, including deadlines and briefs.
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