NASA’s Space Shuttle program had a problem, yet no one at NASA knew. In 2004, NASA hired a Canadian subcontractor to develop the Orbital Boom Sensor System to inspect Space Shuttle tiles during orbit. The project had a strict, hard deadline—a spring 2005 launch—and involved the development of a number of key subsystems.
Because most communication between NASA leaders in Houston and the engineers in Toronto was virtual, it was not apparent that the project had fallen seriously behind schedule and the Canadian firm never let NASA know where things stood. It finally became clear that the Canadian firm was not going to meet its deadline, which put the Shuttle launch date in jeopardy.
This incident is typical of the types of problems caused when people and organizations rely solely on electronic communication. Because it is so easy to share complex information instantaneously, managers think it enables them to manage a project, a team, or a business.
Yet the same technology used to share information also makes it easy to lose touch with the people on the other end of those e-mails. It is easier than ever to make assumptions about what coworkers understand or how they will approach a task. We call this problem "virtual distance," and engineering leaders are going to have to learn how to manage it.
Virtual distance occurs when individuals work together and communicate primarily through electronic media. Research tells us that virtual distance is not about geographic distance alone. Instead, it has three major components:
physical distance – involves distances in space, time and environment
operational distance – includes the psychological gaps that arise from day-to-day problems in the workplace
affinity distance – the emotional disconnects among virtual team members who have no relationship with one another
Because the geographically dispersed managers on the NASA project favored electronic communications, they could not read the clues that they might have noticed during site visits or even through phone calls.
Our book, Leading the Virtual Workforce, focuses on how to manage virtual distance. Based on extensive interviews with some of the most successful leaders of today’s virtual, global organizations, we identified important skills that effective leaders have used to minimize virtual distance.
The most important competencies are what we call techno-dexterity, traversing boundaries, glocalization, and authenticity. We believe these competencies support three key actions that are essential for effective leadership:
creating context - common context lessens affinity distance by fostering a more closely shared set of values and allowing stronger relationships to emerge as understanding grows between culturally distinct groups.
cultivating community - encourages engagement and creates communities of individuals who are motivated to go beyond their prescribed roles.
co-activating new leaders - the process by which team members become influencers and share a role in leadership beyond geographical boundaries.
Old Models, New Rules
While new leadership models are scarce, we recognize that relying on old models alone, built using outdated assumptions that no longer apply, is not going to work any better for us than it did for NASA or any one of the thousands of organizations with virtual workers around the globe.
Those workers come to the job with different perspectives, values, cultures, and skills. The virtual distance leader pulls these people together across virtual landscapes, fostering a sense of hope and a shared responsibility for creating a brighter and more solid foundation for the future.
[Adapted from from "Leading the Dispersed Workforce," by Richard R. Reilly and Karen Sobel Lojeski, for Mechanical Engineering, November 2009.]
Because it is so easy to share complex information instantaneously, managers think it enables them to manage a project, a team, or a business.