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Director’s Cut - Friday, 17 April 2009
Knowledge Work in a Virtual Organization
By Kimo Goree, Director of IISD Reporting Services (IISD RS) - kimo@iisd.org
Kimo Goree
Director of
IISD RS
With some luck, the creation of our organization, IISD Reporting Services, occurred during a very propitious time in history. Or, perhaps, looking at the situation in reverse, it might be said that the panoply of new communication tools that were invented in the last two decades provided the right environment for an organization like ours to flourish.  Either way, we have certainly taken advantage of the emerging internet technologies to create a new way for a team of environment and sustainable development policy wonks to work together from all over the planet, creating a steady stream of highly regarded knowledge products.

One of my favorite books is Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century, by Thomas Malone from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.This study, undertaken during the second half of the 1990s, looked at some of the new ways that businesses were working and concluded that the organizations of the next century would be both decentralized and externalized. Although we were never part of the MIT study, as IISD Reporting Services grew during the 1990s, we could certainly have qualified as one of the “interesting organizations” that Malone and his team studied: http://ccs.mit.edu/21c/io.html. These organizations were, according to Malone, “interesting” because of their:

Organizational structure or approach to organizing work (for example, "virtual companies," companies with a unique collaboration with suppliers or customers, etc.)
Strategic approach (globalization, alliances, use of information technology, etc.)
Remarkable success (in agility, productivity, new product development, etc.)
Innovative approach to a common function (marketing, finance, human resources, etc.)
Area of application (electronic markets, advanced technologies, etc.)

As always, necessity is the mother of invention. During the early 1990s, as we began to grow, I watched several other non-profit organizations lurch from one financial crisis to the next, burdened by the cost of expensive office space and dozens of staffers on the payroll (who were either terribly overworked or worried about being laid off between projects). How could we avoid these sorts of problems? Three aspects of IISDRS that characterize our organization now were not so much planned, but were adopted due to our lack of financial resources and the need to get work done as cheaply and quickly as possible.

The Decentralized Organization: Is it possible to create an organization without a center? In 1992, the three founders of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin were living in Canada, the US and Brazil, putting together the funding and format for this new publication without a budget for phone calls or faxes. We found that, except for the times when we met to provide coverage for a UN meeting, we really didn’t have to live or work in the same place because we could do all of our planning, writing and editing using this new, cheap alternative called “electronic mail.” Over the last seventeen years, we have continued to work virtually and as we hired additional staff, we discovered it made a lot of sense to base people in low cost centers and have them work from their homes. This approach both saved us money and allowed our small team of full and part time workers the flexibility to raise children and live where they wanted. Even now, our Operations Manager works from near Köln, our Digital Manager handles all our websites and lists from Bogotá, the Deputy Director works from his home near San Francisco, our Online Editor logs in from outside of Washington DC, the accountant keeps the books at IISD Headquarters in Winnipeg, the Thematic Experts provide updates to the Climate-L.Org Editor in Barcelona, our French translations are done from Tunis and our Spanish texts are prepared in Buenos Aires. The Reporting Services “office” in New York is one small room full of filing cabinets, books on environmental policy and several computer workstations. All of our work is done using email, Windows Live Messenger chats, Skype video calls, threaded discussions and document sharing on SharePoint and our web servers located in Canada.

Harnessing Intellectual Capital: Most businesses, profit and non-profit, have various forms of tangible capital: buildings, patents, land and/or equipment. These companies have a lot of money tied up in offices full of people sitting at computers. However, IISDRS is a different kind of organization that has focused its energy on accumulating intellectual capital. By making ourselves into a people-centered team, valuing the distributed brain power that each of our staff and consultants contribute to our online publications, we have invested in creating a cerebral collective. In the book, Thinking for a Living: How to Get Better Performances And Results from Knowledge Workers, author Thomas H. Davenport writes about harnessing organizational brain power and concludes that the best way to motivate a virtual team is to provide them with the shared benefits that come from participating in a “community of practice.” Our Reporting Services team members not only earn money while on contract with us, but between meetings they share in the rich exchange of environment and sustainable development policy, news, insider intelligence and information gleaned from the meetings all of us attend.

Scalable staffing: Last month, during the middle week of March, we had thirty people working on staff as well as at a water meeting in Istanbul, a forest meeting in Rome, a fish meeting in New York and a plants meeting in Buenos Aires. The following week, just the five full-time and four half-time staffers showed up, online, to work each day.

Working with a pool of trained consultants (the ENB Team), all of our teams at meetings are hired on short-term contracts, allowing us to “scale-up” for the seventy meetings we attend each year and “scale-down” just as quickly. This allows us to keep our fixed costs to a minimum and gives us the staffing flexibility we need to cover several simultaneous meetings in various cities during busy times, yet still survive during the slow months of July and August without having to worry about an expensive payroll.

Nonetheless, despite the many advantages of having a virtual organization, there are limits to the things that can be done electronically. During one week in May, two dozen members of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin Team will gather here in New York for internal meetings. For some of the participants, it will be the first time they have met despite working together, online, for years! For four days, we’ll put aside the computers, chat sessions and streaming video for some good, old-fashioned face-to-face conversations about the future of IISD Reporting Services. There is some comfort in knowing that even for the most virtual and “interesting” of organizations, some basic things never change.
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