Managing Dispersed Development Teams for Productivity


The traditional approach to managing productivity is that employees punch a clock – in at 8, out at 5 – and employers must assume work is being done during the intervening hours.  However, the current reality for many, if not most, businesses, is that the traditional approach no longer works.  It has become unclear whether or not work is being accomplished regardless of hours logged at the office.  With the increase in outsourced and offshore teams, many developers are scattered across different states or even different continents and throughout a variety of time zones.  As a result, it’s not possible for a manager to ‘swing by’ a developer’s cube to get a status update on a project or even just to do a quick check that a team member is present and productive.

In addition, with the creeping costs of wasted employee time on recreational Web sites, missed team deadlines, failed projects and ever-increasing standards compliance – businesses of all types are being challenged to become more efficient and accountable in their everyday work.  Ultimately, regardless of whether developers are in the office or scattered around the world, the question remains the same:  what work is getting done?

Project Management – Not Enough

There are numerous technologies that have tried to address this problem, the most widely-recognized being the oft-dreaded Microsoft Project.  Traditional project management tools like Project focus on plans which are often large, cumbersome, and inaccurate.  These plans provide little to improve the productivity of the individual contributor, and especially the offshore or remote contributor.  While everyone wants to know that they are executing against a plan, the actual planning itself is primarily a management function.  In addition, even the best project plan does not provide any kind of work flow or process automation. 

Ultimately project plans really do not benefit the individual contributor at all, especially a remote or offshore contributor.  In isolation of the rest of the team, viewing a massive project plan with little or no context can be overwhelming for a worker. Managers of dispersed teams must focus on providing tools to manage work at the task level.  This allows employees to manage their own workloads and prioritize what the most critical tasks of the day are and simultaneously permits managers to direct, prioritize, and obtain real-time status of projects and ongoing work from wherever they are.

Collaboration without Documentation

This brings us to the next alternative approaches to getting dispersed development teams working toward a common goal with good communication:  collaboration systems.  For the purpose of this article the definition of collaboration system includes email, ‘blogging,’ wikis, and other more traditional systems like Lotus Notes. 

While these tools can foster communication among team members, they are unstructured and can quickly become unmanageable. For example, each user has a different e-mail, spread sheets become ungainly and vertical tools like defect trackers can be rigid and not suited for other tasks. While these tools may help with communications, there is no documented or automatic way to track the communication. Ultimately, collaborative systems are too free form and cannot implement process or traceability, making them unsuitable for organizations that need to meet compliance requirements. 

The Best of Both Worlds – Task Management

So what this really comes down to is that dispersed teams really need the best of all worlds, good planning, processes and communications. There is a solution that addresses these needs – task management. Using task management workers worldwide are able to record tasks in a relational database, allowing them to be prioritized, assigned, and completed with detailed documentation of pertinent discussions, notes, attachments, and a record of the time spent on each task. The system then automatically provides a detailed history and audit trail of all work being done – recording every work request, change and task through to completion. 

When managers of dispersed teams implement systems that automate and manage process at the task level, they ensure that work continues to flow through the organizations efficiently and at a granular enough level to help workers quickly and easily grasp what is required of them and when – again regardless of location. The ability to immediately capture all relevant correspondence and documentation along with this well managed workflow provides teams with the best of all worlds, the unique formula offered by task management.

Millipore -- Workflow, Prioritization and Visibility

For example, the BioProcess Division of Millipore (>a leading bioprocess and bioscience products and services company that employs approximately 4,500 people worldwide) >develops software used to monitor and check the integrity of filters used in the production of pharmaceuticals>.  During any given project, the development team might consist of people in the Massachusetts-based headquarters, but also others scattered around the world and in different time zones.  Millipore’s BioProcess division uses a task management software system that enables members of the project team to record their tasks in a relational database, allowing them to be prioritized, assigned, and completed with detailed documentation of pertinent discussions, notes, attachments, and a record of the time spent on each task.

Regardless of their time-zone or location, members of the R&D staff can instantly view and organize their assignments, create and update tasks, and collaborate with other team members. Reports and live views are easily generated for a variety of organizational needs. In addition, management can quickly get a snapshot view of the of individual user or project workloads,  identifying bottlenecks, balance workloads, streamline group communications, and better leverage his employee resources to ensure development projects are completed by their due dates.

According to the team leader of this group, the net result of using task management in their software development process is, “Good communication and ultimately a great audit trail for our customers.”

Productivity – Remote and Local

Overall, to address the efficiency problem of teams – remote or local -- instead of limiting access to the Internet or trying to monitor an employee’s every keystroke, managers need to seek new, more flexible alternatives for helping employees become and stay productive.  By automating and managing work processes and making them transparent to the entire organization (including who’s doing what, when it’s due and whether /by how much it’s overdue), project managers can boost overall efficiency and help workers answer the most basic productivity question:  “What are the most important things I need to do today?”   When project managers help workers prioritize tasks and when everyone -- from the CEO down to team members around the globe -- gets a report at the end of the day highlighting whose projects or tasks are overdue and who or what they’re dependent upon, people are far less likely to waste valuable hours during the day Web surfing instead of working.

Rich Bianchi is President and Founder of Alexsys Corporation, an innovative provider of team project management software.  Prior to founding Alexsys Corporation, Rich spent 10 years leading critical projects for large organizations like Bull and Honeywell.  He has several patents to his credit for the Honeywell mini-computer emulator on UNIX.

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