2007/12/08

Virtual Organizations

Effective virtual organizations was the focus of an article I read today from a high quality online resource for high productivity computing.

Virtual organizations, from my viewpoint, are informally or formally-structured groups of people who work together toward a common goal or goals with a majority of the group's interaction and collaboration being done via telecommunication tools because members' geographical location or other considerations preclude daily or weekly in-person meetings.

Another definition of a virtual organization, from a 1999 issue of Organization Science, is "a collection of geographically distributed, functionally and/or culturally diverse entities that are linked by electronic forms of communication and rely on lateral, dynamic relationships for coordination."

Wikipedia appears to prefer the term 'virtual enterprise' rather than 'virtual organization.' The entry for 'virtual enterprise' has a number of definitions and is worth reading if interested in this topic.

Several factors or trends have contributed to the increasing prevalence and importance of virtual organizations. Reading "The World Is Flat" by Thomas Friedman, although it's several years old now, will give you a good starting point for understanding these four factors:
  1. The internet and increasing adoption of high speed internet connections (rather than dial-up) has made it possible for people and organizations to communicate and work together in ways that were never possible before.
  2. A huge new labor pool in China, Russia and Eastern Europe has become, or is becoming, available to the "free world" markets.
  3. Organizations and individuals are changing their communication and collaboration processes in revolutionary ways:
    1. Large organizations are outsourcing critical functions such as innovation and human resources -- these once rare or unthinkable moves are now becoming common.
    2. Individuals are maintaining and building ties around the world, irrespective of employers, cultures and age -- widespread horizontal networking.
    3. The internet/web is becoming a primary source of information, with hard-copy information being nearly irrelevant to a large segment of people under 30 years old. Many of those under 30 use a printed telephone book rarely, if at all.
  4. An increasing number of coworking or shared office facilities have been launched, such as the Hat Factory, Citizen Space and CitizenDesk.
Prior to the 21st century, a geographical critical mass of people with the same interests was important for forming an effective organization. The organization's members needed to meet daily or on some other regular basis in order to discuss their common goals, work activities, problems and potential solutions to effectively accomplish their goals. The invention of the telephone and rapid travel (railroads, cars, airplanes) allowed organizations to expand and have offices in separate cities, states, and countries. But a certain critical mass of people in one geographical location and a fairly regular in-person interaction between organization members was still required to keep the organization successfully moving toward common goals.

In the world of 2007 and beyond, virtual organizations are exploring ways to create 'virtual critical mass.' That critical mass is still required to make an organization effective in reaching its goals, but the critical mass is being achieved in new ways such as:
  1. Collaborative websites
    1. Google Groups, Yahoo Groups
    2. Wikis, such as Wikispaces, MediaWiki or PB Wiki
    3. Google Docs, Zoho or other online productivity suites
    4. Separate web productivity apps, such as Backpack, Gcalendar, or MS SkyDrive.
  2. Mobile and internet communications
    1. Apple iPhone
    2. Blackberries
    3. Smartphones
    4. Cellphones
    5. Skype, Jajah, Grand Central
    6. Gphone (Android) -- soon, I hope...
  3. Online conferencing (voice, video, whiteboards, etc)
  4. Blogs
  5. Organization websites
  6. Unconferences
If things work out well, I'll be headed to a "Building Effective Virtual Organizations" workshop in January 2008. Learning how to build or participate in effective virtual organizations is a skill which will help me better enjoy tomorrow's world. Stay tuned for more about the workshop and virtual organizations...

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