The Virtual Water Cooler:

Solving the Distance Problem in Networks

By Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps
from Firm Connections, May 1993


When companies work together across corporate boundaries, they must first solve the "water cooler" problem. Without the local coffee pot or cafeteria as a daily meeting ground, groups of people require very different work processes from those used by people located in the same place and organization. "Working together apart" is how George Metes and Ray Grenier describe this relationship in their book, Enterprise Networking.

Mythed Connections

In our view, there is a distinction worth drawing between teams and networks. A team is a connected group of people that focus inward on their shared task at hand. Networks have an outward focus - they reach across distance and time, in effect to discover and establish new ideas and tasks. This distinction leads us toward a third, sharpened concept that we call "teamnets" - inward-focused teams that also focus outward and work across boundaries with other teams. Teamnets capitalize on the advantages of both to think and produce more effectively - and we believe they are what flexible networks really strive to become.

To achieve "teamnet" status, members must take seriously the challenge of working together apart. Some have solved this problem. But many still struggle with it, frustrated by three major myths that keep people from staying connected.

Myth A: Networks are just the channels of communication.

Digital Equipment Corporation, host to the world's largest private electronic communication network has a saying: "just because the bits traveled around the world doesn't mean they were understood." Unfortunately, some people, particularly those with a high tech perspective, can see only the physical links of a network. They notice the wires and completely miss the members. Others are blind on another dimension: They cannot see the other essential links - the ones that indicate trust and other invisible ties. Boundary crossing teamnets need a lot more than copper wire or fiber optics to be truly connected.

For a group to accomplish any goal, give-and-take meetings, phone calls, memos, letters and the like are required. To interact, people need communication links - both technological (phones, paper, computers) and people-oriented (relationships and roles). When a group makes it to the point where its members maintain multiple voluntary relationships among themselves and use many communication channels frequently and wisely, it gets work done.

Myth B: Relationships are impossible to grasp. They are intangible, unreal, fleeting, short-lived and can end on the turn of a sentence.

In a way, the people who believe this myth are right, because it is difficult to "see" the ineffable stuff of the relationships that bind teamnets together. But relationships are real, and the good ones do last. More to the point, they are essential to the dynamics of working between companies.

Indeed, personal relationships are the threads that bind any network. "You do business with the people you know," says Jerry Nagel of the Red River Trade Corridor based in Northern Minnesota. Such solid and useful relationships can only be built over time. First, people have to get to know and trust each other, because until there is trust, nothing happens. And then they have to be able to communicate easily and effectively.

Many people's jobs consist primarily of passing information, making connections (both personal and conceptual), and staying in communication with the vested interests. This is the special "networker" role, the person who focuses on the linking function. Such people can be found setting up information systems, serving as "switching centers," facilitating and encouraging a trusting environment. Teamnets need interdependent links, both physical connections and voluntary person-to-person relationships, and the "networker" role is crucial to cultivating both.

Myth C: Electronic communication can replace face-to-face meetings.

More than a few network "experts" claim that electronic mail, computer and video conferencing, and conference calls can replace face-to-face communication. Some go so far as to suggest that travel will be reduced if companies employ these technological aides. On the contrary, electronic communication of any type, when used effectively, tends to increase the need for face-to-face meetings. Research shows that when useful communication starts, people's need to get together expands because they've extended their ability to work together.

However, the electronic link does contribute something very important: a reliable, vital means of communication when people cannot be together. Companies that use these technologies typically come to their meetings better prepared. Agendas and issues and contexts can be set - and set well ahead of time - making the in-person exchange more focused and valuable. In the meantime, between the face-to-face encounters, people are able to exchange vital information on an as-needed basis, free from the tyranny of artificial time-zone and 9-to-5 limits.

Find the Links That Bind

Therefore, leave plenty of space, time and support for communication links. Without them, your teamnet will go nowhere. Consider these suggestions to help build strong connections:

Develop a joint presentation that captures the purpose, mission, goals and plans of the group. Use this to recruit new members and marshall resources.

Solve the distance problem by holding a brainstorming meeting to figure out what technology is available to people and what kind of communication system you would like to have. Then, tally up the inevitable cost in dollars.

Develop a simple handbook of key shared information and a glossary to capture common vocabulary. Include the membership directory as a section in it. It doesn't need to be fancy to be helpful.

With these ideas in mind, the people working in your network will always be able to gather at the "virtual water cooler."

A brief review of The TeamNet Factor: Bringing the Power of Boundary Crossing into the Heart of Your Business by Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, 1993.

"Networks," Lipnack and Stamps conclude, "are the organizational form of the information age." Their new work offers a fresh look at networks as a framework for revamping American business. Lipnack and Stamps examined network activities around the world and combined them with their own research and work with hundreds of companies to produce a lively, informative discussion. Not only does the book summarize many of the national and regional efforts. but it provides guidance to any management considering network opportunities.


Article provided by NetAge Inc., Newton, MA, USA.
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