The Pros and Cons of Virtual Collaboration for Product Innovation

2021-01-28-10-36-55-02c91c (1)Colocation was one of the central tenets of the Agile manifesto, but times have changed. With all the new digital tools at our disposal the potential for long term, successful, remote collaboration now stretches invitingly in front of us. It promises access to the world’s best workers, greater productivity and, of course, cost savings. But what are the pros and cons of high tech product innovation in a virtual world?

Digital collaboration tools like Slack, Zoom, Accello, Asana, Teams, Kanbanize, Hive and Binfire - have all become ubiquitous in recent years,  And now immersive digital meeting spaces like Mozilla Hubs and Gather are going mainstream. The opportunity for businesses to change their work models and go ‘Virtual First’ (with remote collaboration as their primary working mode) has never been greater.

Can ‘virtual first’ work for you?  Will it help or hinder high tech product developers? What are the pros and cons of this approach?

The pros and cons of product innovation in a virtual world


It’s a real commercial opportunity

It’s true that remote collaboration has opened up new opportunities for development teams. We’re able to employ the right people wherever they are in the world, power more productive third party partnerships, and save money by reducing our physical overheads, into the bargain. Downsizing our space needs and spending more money on people rather than place makes more sense in a global, knowledge-based economy.

Flexibility has come of age

Workers have been clamouring for more flexibility for years - claiming they could be more focused and productive in their work if they only had more control over how and where they did it. But it took a crisis to prove the point. Covid 19 was a forced international experiment in remote working that’s paid off and persuaded us to take the plunge. 85% of businesses say that remote working during the crisis has actually increased their productivity - reducing sickness, increasing project focus and reducing burnout. There are daily news stories of companies abandoning office blocks and going ‘virtual first’. PWC is famously investing in VR headgear and spending $75 million on optimising their hybrid working potential. These are all signals that remote collaboration is here to stay.

It can bring faster results

Digital collaboration is instantaneous and becoming ever more sophisticated. Low code, digital Project Management (PM) tools have meant complex development workflows can be automated, accelerated and optimised by project managers in real-time. Faster file sharing, mobile-first design, integrated IM and PM platforms have all meant we can work anywhere and everywhere with lightning speed.

Faster flow - from anywhere

Think about all those ‘digital nomads’ sitting on beaches in Thailand contributing to documents in real-time. They’re perfecting the ‘flow’ dreamt of by agile developers. They’re making decisions together, handing off tasks seamlessly when they’re done, iterating in real time - all while finding personal fulfilment in their camper vans. As long as they don’t get sand in their laptops, they’ll be fine.

It can make collaboration effortless and error-free

The technology is making the collaboration experience more seamless, organised and less prone to error. Collaborative platforms, when they’re set up right, ensure that the right people see the right documents at the right time. They ensure outputs can be looked at side by side with specifications, that governance can be increased, while all the time reducing painful physical bureaucracy.

It’s liberating

These digital collaboration tool kits give us more choice. The choice to meet up virtually, work ‘side by side’ virtually, go into a ‘coworking space’ when we need to, work from a cafe, or just switch everything off and go ‘heads down’ for a spell. Research shows that it’s this choice over modes of work that can really power creativity and innovative thinking. Frictionless working makes for the frictionless generation of ideas.


It’s fragmenting our attention

But then there’s the real danger of fragmentation. Multiple platforms and messages whizzing around. The potential for important communications to be lost in the blizzard of comms. When you’ve got so many communication possibilities, the danger of siloing actually increases. The ability to discern between what’s a suggestion, what constitutes official approval and what’s a stupid idea may be more difficult. It’s bad enough marshalling digital communications in a physical workspace, make that workforce digital, and the potential for errors and miscommunication escalates.

Isolation and distraction

And what about the isolation and distractions experienced by remote workers? There’s the loneliness, the Zoom fatigue and the inability to ‘switch off’. Not to mention the practical difficulties that a younger generation have experienced trying to find comfortable working spaces in cramped living accommodation. Not everyone has enjoyed remote working in the pandemic. And, as some businesses are discovering, it’s often not great for onboarding or nurturing younger workers into workplace culture. The innovators of tomorrow may never learn how to innovate.  

The end of osmotic communication

And the quality of collaboration may suffer in other ways. Years ago now Alistair Cockburn one of the Agile Manifesto signatories identified osmotic communication - as one of the principle benefits of colocation.

“Osmotic communication means that information flows into the background hearing of members of the team, so that they pick up relevant information as though by osmosis.” (Cockburn, 2005)

Overhearing conversations between colleagues that sparks ideas, ‘absorbing’ work culture, best practices and vital information about ‘the way you do things’ - is an important way for knowledge to be transferred and built on. Take the physical workspace away and that’s more or less impossible to achieve.

‘Presence disparity’ disrupts our flow 

Hybrid working is proving difficult to accommodate. Many are flagging the difficulty of ‘mixed presence’ teams collaborating. With some people ‘in the office’ and some at home, meetings often have a lopsided feel. Team members reduced to boxes on screens may be sidelined by the physically present team members, poor quality connections may hamper and slow up proceedings. Hybrid is being hailed as the way forward, but it’s going to need some serious digital investment to make work.

Goodbye to serendipity?

In innovative businesses, the serendipity of casual real word meetings by the water cooler, are often said to fuel new ideas and initiatives. Lose the possibility of chance encounters and you could lose your Jobs and Wozniak moment. But, of course, the cynics among us might say that for every serendipitous conversation you have had at work, there are 100 that are just plain irritating, mind-numbingly boring and pointless.

A new era of digital collaboration changes the game

But does virtual collaboration have to mean the end of serendipitous encounters and osmotic communication?

Now virtual meeting locations like Mozilla Hubs and Gather are offering more immersive collaborative experiences where we can ‘live on line’ in our work identities. Here’s one journalist’s description of joining an on line class at the University of Nottingham via Mozilla Hubs:

“My avatar is a small, red cartoon fox... I’m also floating.. I move by using the arrow keys on my keyboard... I can look around the large room… There’s a smaller area with armchairs for more private meetings, and other larger rooms for exhibitions; one huge wall is taken up by a virtual fish tank. There’s no video here – we speak via our avatars, who wobble or move in a human-like way to show who is talking. [The teacher] can conjure up a 3D taxi that hovers in the centre of the group as they discuss its features. At one point, several students enable flying mode and hover high above the car. To examine another bit of tech, they all pile inside the taxi, laughing.”



Do you want to be an avatar?

If teaching can be done inside a ‘Second Life’ style virtual world, why can’t we all live and collaborate in virtual offices? It’ll be cheaper, less isolating with intriguing potential for real time creativity and development work.

But if we thought the startup culture of the noughties documented by Dan Lyons in ‘Disrupted’ sounded crazy then this could be even more insane. In ‘Disrupted’ nerds lolled around on bean bags stuffing themselves with venture capital, captivated by the potential of their own disruptive technology but unable to properly monetise it.   Still, at least they were real.

What level of crazy are we going to reach when we’re all avatars in virtual buildings, floating around digital atriums scrawling ideas on the cyber walls? Yes, we’ll be able to share ideas incredibly quickly, we’ll be able to literally ‘get inside’ the proposals and prototypes we’re putting together - but how will governance happen, how will we systematise our approach and how will we introduce necessary regulatory and commercial controls?

How can you control the creative anarchy?

The truth is that these virtual collaboration tools and new digital possibilities will be trialled, used and absorbed into our working lives over time. There will be excesses, there will be disasters and there will be notable successes.

But the smartest companies will integrate and control these collaboration tools in planned and sustainable ways.   They’ll anchor their experiments around trusted pieces of tech. They’ll choose the document and quality management systems with the right integrations and safeguards that can capture inputs and organise outputs from multiple sources in disciplined ways. Above all, they’ll ensure they have the processes and structures that can bring order to creative anarchy, keeping themselves profitable and accountable in an unpredictable, commercial world.  

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Tags: New Product Development

Paul Walsh

Written by Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh was one of the founders of Cognidox. After a period as an academic working in user experience (UX) research, Paul started a 25-year career in software development. He's worked for multinational telecom companies (Nortel), two $1B Cambridge companies (Ionica, Virata), and co-founded a couple of startup companies. His experience includes network management software, embedded software on silicon, enterprise software, and cloud computing.

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