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Keeping Up Long Distance PUBLIC ACCESS

Managers Mustn’t Discount Everyday Collaborative Tools—Like Phone Calls and Instant Messaging.

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Associate Editor

Mechanical Engineering 130(10), 28-31 (Oct 01, 2008) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2008-OCT-2

This article discusses managers who must not discount everyday collaborative tools—like phone calls and instant messaging. To help far-flung team members bridge the distance and feel like part of a team while they hash out ideas, engineering managers must call upon a rich technological arsenal of collaborative tools. To keep up with personal events like that and to let team members have the water-cooler confabs necessary for team building, Garton advocates instant messaging. This type of quick back-and-forth messaging encourages relationship building. To ensure participation, trainers call upon a number of interactive features offered within the tool itself. With all advances of the Web, it can be tempting for managers to overlook hardware advances as they seek to build virtual teams. But new approaches, like a recent newly introduced HP Blade Workstation, which allows all team members’ designs to reside on a server rather than on their individual desktops, can keep teams functioning at top speeds.

Maybe you manage a team made up of engineers you've never met in person.

After all, engineering teams comprising members who work across the country and even across the world from one another are more common than not today.

To help far-flung team members bridge the distance and feel like part of a team while they hash out ideas, engineering managers must call upon a rich technological arsenal of collaborative tools, said Colleen Garton, president of Garton Consulting Group in San Diego, which specializes in helping people learn to manage virtual and global teams.

Such tools go well beyond regular conference calls, though those are helpful, she said. But managers may overlook technologies they think of as pedestrian, or as not for engineering use, and thus may not be fully exploiting all the collaborative software and hardware at their disposal.

Yes, product lifecycle management software has its time and place, but its use can’t be relied upon fully in team-building efforts.

“The tools we all like to use—e-mail and phone and Web spaces—can act as a virtual workspace,” Garton said.

Although more advanced hardware than the telephone is coming down the line to help engineers work together in teams, the telephone is still a necessary instrument to help convey nuances of information that could otherwise be lost in writing e-mail, Garton said.

Garton has been a product management program director for global fraud solutions at a major corporation. She also teamed with coauthor and project manager Kevin Wegryn to write.Managing Without Walls (2006, MC Press Online).

To give an idea of how easy it is to feel out of the loop when playing on a team, Garton cited an example from her own life. At a former job, she hopped onto an elevator next to a coworker she spoke with every day.

“I just stood there with my mouth open. She was eight months pregnant,” Garton said. “When did that happen?”

If Garton spoke with this woman every day, why was she so surprised by the pregnancy? The answer is easy. They spoke via telephone. Though they were members of the same work team, and co-workers, they rarely saw each other in person.

“Our team had conference calls all the time, but they never told me Sherry was pregnant,” said Garton, who worked from her home office halfway across the country and visited the company’s headquarters only every month or so.

To keep up with personal events like that and to let team members have the water-cooler confabs necessary for team building, Garton advocates instant messaging. This type of quick back-and-forth messaging, she said, encourages relationship building.

Even e-mail can introduce an air of formality into conversations. Team members often feel they need to keep strictly on task in their e-mails to each other and to their managers. In an actual office, employees will walk down the hall to speak to the manager in person and conversations can range far afield to touch on personal events. In a virtual workspace, instant messaging stands in for this type of office-door conversation, Garton said.

“It’s the equivalent of walking by the office to see if the manager is busy,” she said. “People don’t feel like they’re bothering someone with an IM. If you don’t get a message back, they don’t take it personally.”

And they’ll be inclined to try again, keeping those lines of communication open, which is always a manager’s goal.

Garton recommends that each virtual team member send at least one instant message to his or her manager daily.

“That way, you send enough that you don’t feel uncomfortable sending messages,” Garton said. “And then you can send questions without feeling uncomfortable.”

Managers should also consider turning to today’s Web conferencing tools, which can be supremely useful for team meetings when members don’t inhabit the same office, according to Matthew Ladzinski, manager of NAFEMS North America, part of the international association for virtual product development. Web conferencing software can be called upon for a variety of purposes beyond holding online conferences, he added.

For instance, Cisco WebEx allows everyone logged in to a Web conferencing session to view one another’s desktop, including pertinent CAD designs housed there, said Grace Kim, WebEx manager of product marketing.

“That’s like having another engineer looking over your shoulder and making comments,” Kim said.

You're more likely to feel a part of a team when you can see your teammates. With some Web conferencing tools, users can stream video of themselves.

Grahic Jump LocationYou're more likely to feel a part of a team when you can see your teammates. With some Web conferencing tools, users can stream video of themselves.

NAFEMS, or the National Agency for Finite Element Methods and Standards, is an independent, not-for-profit organization, and its activities include developing standards for simulation and finite element analysis products. It’s headquartered in Glasgow, Scotland, with North American headquarters in Monroe, N.C. For the past year or so, its volunteer members have relied on the Web conferencing software for online meetings, Ladzinski said.

The organization also conducts online technical training using a WebEx training module. It holds about one training seminar each month on topics that range from practical stress analysis to computational fluid dynamics. When the program was launched about two years ago, each training session included 50 to 100 participants. Now, numbers total around 700, Ladzinski said.

To ensure participation, trainers call upon a number of interactive features offered within the tool itself. For instance, participants can raise their hands virtually. Icons, displayed as hands, allow all participants to view the raised hands.

“That way, we can see who’s participating,” Ladzinski said. “This is for accreditation, after all.”

According to Kim of Cisco, capabilities include an online testing engine that includes a grading function, and opportunities for members to break into small groups and speak privately, via instant messaging, which furthers team building.

It was after the success of the training courses that NAFEMS began using the Web conferencing tool to house virtual meetings for members of the stochastic and simulation data management working groups. Members are located around the world and meet to plan publications and to trade information and ideas.

“Because the members are volunteers, we can’t force them to travel to be together,” Ladzinski said. “We just held a meeting of the stochastic working group where one guy from General Motors was presenting on a topic and about 15 people from the United States, Europe, and Australia were attending.

“This way, they share stochastic information across industries,” he added.

Of course, the late-morning United States meeting time wasn’t exactly convenient for NAFEMS members in Asia, Ladzinski said. But the meetings are archived by the conferencing tool, so working group members can play them back as needed. That feature also helps any member who wants a refresher on subjects covered during a particular meeting.

Although NAFEMS doesn’t use another WebEx feature yet, Kim said that many users choose to stream video of themselves—captured via a Web camera atop the computer—during seminars to personalize the event. Members who know what one another look like are more apt to feel part of the team, she said.

But, as many users know, these types of video streams can be clunky. Users can’t make eye contact, which makes them only all too aware that they’re relying upon wires, cameras, and an Internet connection to see each other. But at least one company is working to make Web conferencing more comfortable.

Eon Reality Inc. of Irvine, Calif., is working on an interactive 3-D HDTV-quality system for virtual meetings. It mounts a camera behind a semi-transparent screen. This setup conveys a psychological benefit, according to Dan Lejerskar, Eon’s co-founder and chairman.

As the viewers look at the screen, they are also looking into the camera. It avoids what Lejerskar called a gaze-avoidance effect that one encounters with the common practice of mounting the camera above or next to a monitor. The system runs in real time with a T1 connection and allows direct eye contact between people who could be half a world apart.

The psychological benefit bestowed by Eon’s system is backed up by new research from Finland that shows the way another person looks at you—gaze direction or gaze avoidance—is integral to the way you process that person’s face. If the person is looking straight at you, you’ll find them approachable.

One virtual reality company is at work on technology that helps Web conference-goers make eye contact and do away with what's referred to as the gaze-avoidance effect.

Grahic Jump LocationOne virtual reality company is at work on technology that helps Web conference-goers make eye contact and do away with what's referred to as the gaze-avoidance effect.

Researchers at the University of Tampere in Finland found that the human brain’s visual system processes another person’s face more efficiently when the person’s gaze is straight ahead than when the gaze is averted.

“Our studies also show that the eye contact between two persons affects the functions of the neural mechanisms that regulate approach and avoidance behavior,” said Jari Hietanen, a psychology professor at the university, who led the research. “Another person’s direct gaze prepares for an approach, an averted gaze for avoidance.”.

The research measured the function of the brain’s frontal lobes via electroencephalography. The physiological measurements showed that another person’s gaze direction affects brain systems that are involved in the regulation of human reactions, Hietanen said.

With all this talk of the Web, it can be tempting for managers to overlook hardware advances as they seek to build virtual teams. But new approaches, like a recent newly introduced HP Blade Workstation, which allows all team members’ designs to reside on a server rather than on their individual desktops, can keep teams functioning at top speeds.

The new method allows for easier design collaboration between team members because it tracks designs as they’re checked out and upgraded, making for streamlined version management, said Vern Rhead, product manager for the Blade Workstations.

The workstation splits the difference between the mainframes that old-timers still long for and the workstations younger users are fond ofbut that can have security drawbacks. It acts as a kind of CAD design warehouse. The CAD software and the CAD designs themselves reside on the server, which can be accessed on any workstation, PC, or laptop.

Because the designs reside on the server and can be called up on the laptop, users can work on any member’s designs—with the proper password—or get a little work done on the road, Rhead said. The CAD files remain on the server. When the workstation is turned off, no trace of the design remains on the desktop.

“With this approach, the design never leaves the data center,” Rhead said. “It just streams to the team member, who interacts with the application as though it’s on the desktop.” Peter Basso Associates Inc., an engineering-services firm in Troy, Mich., has been using the hardware for the past several months.

“At first we wanted them for the remote thing,” said Bill Case, manager of technical support.

“But we do lighting analysis and it’s really data- and processor-intensive; you’re analyzing how the light changes throughout the day and bounces off different services. It’s a lot of math and your computer can get pretty bogged down with those calculations,” Case said. “If we can have software sitting on a shared Blade, then the electrical designer can put in the numbers and still work on a different workstation while calculations are taking place.” Then, of course, there’s always the telephone, a piece of hardware often overlooked as engineers—and everyone else—have turned instead to e-mail, Garton said. She suggests that every now and again you give your lonely team member a call to discuss a sticky issue in real time without Internet technology getting in the way.

Copyright © 2008 by ASME
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