Risks and Challenges with a Globally Distributed eLearning Team

In the last post we looked at the advantages of having a globally distributed eLearning development team.

While the advantages are numerous and can bring large benefits to whoever can execute such a model well, it is not without its risks and pitfalls.

There are 7 risks which I will cover in this post.
1. Communication
2. Cut off from the client
3. Getting everyone on the same page
4. Time zones
5. Cultural differences
6. Lack of interpersonal relationship
7. Team building difficulty

1. Communication
Despite products like Skype and google hangouts, remote communication isn’t easy. It is hard enough when you need to serve a client who is remote. It is even harder when your eLearning team of 5 to 10 people is spread across different locations. To overcome this challenge, clear communication guidelines and channels need to be defined. Adherence to well-defined processes and clear handovers between team members is required. And finally, everyone needs to have a little extra patience for each other and not get frustrated to quickly when there is a communication breakdown.

2. Cut off from the client
Most members of a globally distributed team are going to be far away from the client. But a project manager and/or instructional designer will have face to face access to the client. So these folks need to become the bridge between the client and the rest of the team. Without a doubt, being cut off from the client is a disadvantage for everyone. The only way to overcome this challenge is to intensify the level of communication between the client and the team. For instance, you could schedule an all hands meeting between the client and the team once a month and give “air time” to each team member in this meeting.

3. Getting everyone on the same page
A downstream effect of the communication challenge mentioned above is that it can sometimes become difficult to get everyone on the same page. Sending a group email with regular updates can be a way around this challenge but there will always be someone who didn’t get a chance to read the email or missed something in it. There are two ways to deal with this challenge: (1) Build processes which require minimal communication and handover between team members and (2) Have a weekly online team meeting with the specific intent of getting everyone on the same page and verify that everyone got it.

4. Time zones
If you have a client based in the US and the eLearning team based in Asia, you have to deal with a 9 to 12 our time zone difference. To make matters worse if your eLearning team is also spread just as widely then you risk delays and miscommunication because of inadequate time windows when everyone is awake and/or working. So if you are planning to pursue a distributed team model, then try and limit the time zone difference between the team members to avoid problems.

5. Cultural differences
There are two possibilities of cultural differences being created. One – between the client and a team member. And two – between team members themselves. The latter is easier to deal with because everyone is on the same team and can adjust more easily. But the former is harder. Cultural differences result in small annoyances. Here are some examples:
1) Starting meetings on time: In some cultures a meeting scheduled at 1:15pm starts at 1:15pm. Not at 1:13 and not at 1:17. Whereas in other cultures, a couple of minutes here or there is acceptable.
2) Tone in emails: Some cultures tend to be very direct in their native language. Translated into English, it can come across as rude when it is not.
3) Language: An international team speaks English. It may seem obvious. But in some parts of the world (especially in Europe) the client may refuse to speak English because he doesn’t think it’s his problem that the eLearning vendor cannot speak his language. Such a situation needs to be handled delicately and requires a native speaker in the team who can talk to the client in his language and have cultural parity with him.

It is important to handle cultural differences early on in a relationship because those things which start as small annoyances, if are not nipped-in-the-bud can soon become large problems resulting in permanently damaged relationships.

6. Lack of interpersonal relationship
When a team is distributed, it becomes difficult to build relationships between team members. Team members don’t hang out together, go for lunch together or have any kind of social relationship beyond the online one. So a team lead needs to find ways to help build such relationships as much as possible online.

7. Team building difficulty
A direct result of the difficulty building interpersonal relationships is that Team Building becomes difficult too. After all, a team is a collection of human beings with feelings, aspirations, fears and egos and a lack of a meaningful relationship makes it harder for the team to come together as a whole. The only way to not let this affect the quality of work done by the team is to try and remove tightly-knit teams as a necessity of success. And this brings us back to the need for very clearly defined production processes and clean, frictionless handover from one team member to another.

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