Collaborative Work in Virtual World Time

Even though our web technologies can connect us in ever more robust ways, straddling time zones remains one of the unsolved challenges of real-time collaborative learning and decision making.

When online collaboration was mostly asynchronous, you didn’t have to worry about how early or late people could participate or when they might become weak with hunger. Webinars rarely last more than an hour so finding an acceptable and humane time to hold them is do-able. Now that many organizations are offering a virtual alternative to their conferences, the live conference schedule drives when things happen. That could change if more people are participating virtually than onsite. When that happens, conference general sessions might move into late morning or early afternoon time slots.

Scheduling is far trickier when you have equal numbers of people participating onsite in different time zones connected into a collaborative experience using web technologies. I am facing this challenge in designing and facilitating a U.S. national summit that will happen somewhat simultaneously in 7 locations in 4 time zones. I had to use a spreadsheet just to visualize how and when I could schedule blocks of common time for speakers and collaborative discussion. I plan to design locally-facilitated discussions and activities that can feed into the collective learning experience when the groups cannot work in sync. 

Thank goodness none of the onsite locations are in Alaska or Hawaii or anywhere else around the globe. Something would have to give—either the amount of real-time collaboration we could have or when people would be able to sleep and eat.

This is not just one extraordinarily innovative summit. It occurs to me this is exactly the kind of anytime, anywhere world we have been driving toward for more than a decade. Global organizations regularly schedule conference calls that disadvantage someone’s body clock. Major corporations are experimenting with passing projects around the global clock in a kind of relay race. With the growth of telecommuting, outsourcing and offshoring, people are discovering how to collaborate across distances and time zones.

The next logical step in this evolution is developing something akin to virtual world time.  What will be the circadian rhythm of this future world? Will power and privilege determine who sees the sun? Or will our most important and comfortable reality be in the connections we make in our virtual world?

All I know today is that our technological capabilities to work collaboratively are outpacing our human and cultural adaptations to the possibilities. It will take much more than a spreadsheet to sort out this anytime, anywhere world.