Learning to build virtual teams of people of diverse backgrounds is an urgent challenge.
The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the June 2010 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2010/6/92490).
The "Profession of IT" Viewpoint "Orchestrating Coordination in Pluralistic Networks" by Peter J. Denning et al. (Mar. 2010) offered guidance for distributed development teams. As a leader of one such team, I can vouch for the issues it raised. However, my coordination problems are compounded because email (and related attachments) is today's de facto medium for business and technical communication. The most up-to-date version of a document is an email attachment that instantly goes out of date when changes are made by any of the team members; project documents include specifications, plans, status reports, assignments, and schedules.
Software developers use distributed source-code control systems to manage changes to code. But these tools don't translate well to all the documents handled by nondevelopers, including managers, marketers, manufacturers, and service and support people. I'd like to know what workflow-management tools Denning et al. would recommend for such an environment.
Workflow tools are not the issue. Many people simply lack a clear model of coordination. They think coordination is about exchanging messages and that related coordination breakdowns indicate poorly composed, garbled, or lost messages (as in email). Coordination is about making commitments, usually expressed as "speech acts," or utterances that take action and make the commitments that produce the outcome the parties want. People learning the basics of coordination are well on their way toward successful coordination, even without workflow tools.
We don't yet know enough about effective practices for pluralistic coordination to be able to design good workflow tools for this environment.
Peter J. Denning
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