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.
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
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
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.