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Remote Literacy

Someone recently pointed out Working remotely, a set of ideas from someone who works at Hypothesis where remote working is the norm. The first idea is Read, write everything down, repeat.

It reminds me of two things:

  • The single most cogent piece of advice I've ever seen on how to do remote collaboration well, especially when in mixed environments (some colleagues are in an office others are not): Behave as if at least one member of the team is not only not present in the office but is also deaf.

    I've lost the reference to this advice. If you know it, please leave a comment so I can link to it.

    This advice is the equivalent of "read, write everything down, repeat" but makes one of the reasons why rather stark: Unless you are using asynchronous and persistent media as your primary form of communication and memory, at least one person and probably more will be left out.

  • Different environments value, and thus encourage or discourage, reading and writing differently. I've learned that being able to gauge the value of literacy in some environments is a useful metric for determining the health of some kinds of collaboration, the distribution of power and whether I will find it easy to exercise my own power (which depends on the opportunity to spend time in reflective thought)

These issues are relative easy to deal with in private work environments or small open source projects when compared with large opensource projects like OpenStack (where I happen to spend all my remoting time lately). In large communities the diversity of skills, languages, and predilections makes enforcing "write everything down" pretty much impossible. Especially when people believe that IRC logs and the record of comments in gerrit count as writing.

They do not. In the context of the above guidelines, writing is a conscious and reflective act where time is taken to digest and then summarize what has come before. This takes more time and effort than reacting quickly (IRC) or responding to details (gerrit).

It's no wonder, however, that in OpenStack the preferred media are reactive: They are fast and there's both too much to do and too much danger of wandering into an infinite bikeshed to regularly warrant using something a bit more considered and considerate.

But that's a trap. A reason bikesheds are common is because reactive conversations can be less effective at moving knowledge forward (or to put it another way: are less good at building shared understanding):

  • It's possible to generate a ton of information over and over again but unless it is digested via thoughtful reflection it doesn't turn into the internal knowledge that is the source of new ideas and other progress. Reactive communication requires so much engagement (to keep up and participate) that there is little time for reflection.

  • Without that reflection it is hard to have a proper dialog, one that becomes a real dialectic, that leads to progress and/or synthesis.

So, for at least some of the threatening bikesheds, the best way through them is to pay the price of extensive thoughtful communication and the most inclusive (because any one at any time can "hear" it) and effective (because it engenders synthesis) form of that communication is writing.

(If your preferred answer to these problems in OpenStack is "that's why we have summits and mid-cycles", please read this again and remember vast numbers of participants can't or won't go to those.)

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