It was all quite unexpected, but when it happened, it felt completely natural.
There we were, all independent business consultants based in three countries. We had never met or heard about each other. Then we were each invited to join this new network called StrongTies[i]. Naturally, we were all curious, but the personal invitations meant we were more interested and inclined to try it out than we might otherwise have been. But it had another advantage over the other business networks that proliferate like mushrooms and for which people like us seem to be an irresistible target. There were no meeting costs and no travel costs: the only commitment required from us was to attend the meetings and contribute to the conversations and, if we liked the experience, to recommend it to others.
What also made StrongTies different was the fact that to join we were all required to undergo a 4G™ profile test. No, before you leap to any wrong conclusions, this did not mean we had now qualified as a certain generation of mobile telephone! 4G™ is a new form of psychological assessment intended to identify how people interact and, therefore, aimed at bringing about better teamwork. One of the specific benefits of this network was the promise that we would be assigned to teams that would be most likely to be able to work together. You could, perhaps, say that it was bringing elements of virtual dating to the workplace!
Anyway, being entrepreneurial types and eager to find new avenues to grow our businesses, we all decided to give it a go. Thus the Scott Joplin group was born.
The analogy with a dating site is not altogether inappropriate for, after a couple of initial meetings and the usual awkwardness and ice breaking, we faced the question of ‘How do we take things to the next level?’ In fact, we were not even sure what the next level was! The primary objective of a dating site has face-to-face meetings of pre-qualified people who can expect to get along. That was not feasible for us, at least not in the foreseeable future, because we were not all in the same country or even on the same continent! So how could we expect to help one another develop our respective businesses if we did not know each other, might never meet, and possibly even had businesses so diverse that there was little chance that we might work together?
One thing we did have in common is that we all had enough experience to know that we did not wish blindly to endorse one another. Recommending others without fully understanding the needs, competencies and personalities involved can be like prescribing before diagnosing, and that is malpractice! Thus – to state the blindingly obvious – we all agreed that trust was an essential element for effective networking.
So there we were, a collection of professionals, all experienced in business, work, and organisational culture-change and development; all with similar values and interests but diverse approaches and modus operandi and – perhaps surprisingly – no obvious overlap or immediately obvious way we could benefit one another.
The group had a number of getting-to-know-each-other meetings online. We then turned our attention to what was involved for trust to be developed. We concluded that ‘working together’ was going to be a better route than just ‘talking together’. This would only work if we shared a common purpose or goal and this realisation changed the group dynamics. Another consequence was the acceptance that group members would need to make a greater commitment of time and energy to the group than was required by just ‘talking together’. From that point on, through a process of self-selection, the eteam, which started out life with ten members, reduced naturally down to five people, with one in France, one in the USA and three scattered through different parts of the UK.
Additionally, apart from this geographic dispersion, we were a pretty diverse team with cultural backgrounds as varied as Jamaican, Jewish, American, British and South African, with expertise ranging from story-telling and the narrative aspects of culture-dynamics, through general management, IT, financial management, and project and change management. One other thing we all had in common was experience of working in virtual teams. One of our members suggested that collaborating on the writing of a book would be a good application of the combined knowledge and skills of the group. Another suggested that as we would be an ecollaboration[ii], then recounting our experience and categorising the lessons we had learned would be a useful topic for our endeavours.
We agreed that, if we could manage our way past the inevitable barriers, the product would be a richer offering than any of us could achieve alone. Our initial research proved encouraging as we discovered that, although much has been written about the growth of ecollaboration within and across organisations and between individuals, there was a distinct lack of publications on how to do it practically, effectively and successfully.
[i] StrongTi.es is a problem solving and collaboration network for freelancers, consultants and anyone who works from home. (http://StrongTi.es)
[ii] We have observed that, over time, anything prefixed with “electronic” tends to become abbreviated to a hyphenated ‘e-‘ and, when it comes into widespread usage, the hyphen ultimately gets dropped and a new word joins the dictionary e.g. email. Accordingly, anticipating this process for all ‘e-‘terms, we have adopted the convention of referring to them as a single, unhyphenated word, e.g. ‘ecollaboration’ and ‘eteam’.