Name: Howard B. Esbin, PhD
Headquarters: Vancouver, Canada
Superpower: Bringing high touch into a high tech environment
Operations: Social entrepreneur, serious game developer, and virtual team collaborator at Prelude


We need to hold on to our humanity while we become more efficient.

Howard Esbin has developed a cloud-based game for virtual teams called Prelude. Prelude uses a novel mix of psychometrics and creativity to help foster team member rapport and trust prior to the start of a new project.

Howard’s background is in corporate management. In the early 90’s, he did a doctoral thesis and studied the transmission of knowledge between older and younger stone carvers in Kenya. Little did he know, that these same communication styles would anticipate the web. In the late 90’s he was working with a fair-trade company in Canada with about 50 groups in 30 countries around the world. As they started migrating online, it became clear that there was a new way of thinking, learning, and communicating. And so, Howard began developing Prelude as a blended learning product game to enhance this new way of working.

In this interview, we discuss how teams get to know each other and connect virtually.

Prelude game process

What are the benefits of working virtually?

Technology is now ubiquitous and things that might have seemed fantastical six several years ago are commonplace today. Because of the ubiquity and inexpensive nature of technology, there is clearly a greater proliferation of activity around virtual teaming. You find it’s happening in the military, in healthcare, in education, certainly in business, and even in voluntary organizations. If you go to the United Nations website, they’re really trying to inculcate virtual volunteerism.

Junior Achievement Canada are is bringing together 150 young entrepreneurs from around the world for a multi-day conference.  And now they’re thinking about enhancing that by creating a virtual school so that young people who might be in different countries can create virtual businesses together. These are businesses that don’t consume energy, don’t pollute the atmosphere, don’t cost unnecessary money and yet, at the same time, could conceivably find a cure for malaria or cancer.

The savings in travel costs can be significant. We have a colleague in India who’s working with a very large global corporation. They used to bring in 20-25 managers from across the world for a two-day workshop and the travel costs were nearing the 10’s of thousands. Lets redeploy that money for more intrinsic gain rather than being squished into an airline economy class for 10 hours. I think there has to be a better rationalization for spending that money to come together. That’s where the market’s going. Decision makers and stakeholders are becoming more and more aware of the relevance of doing this.

Harvard published an article where they say they are expecting 1.3 billion people to be working virtually within the next year or two.  That’s a significant number of people.  All of us who are in this emerging field can call ourselves pioneers as we are finding traction and common language.

What are the challenges of working virtually?

Working with time zones will always be a challenge. If somebody’s in Winnipeg, Canada and somebody else is in Tokyo, that’s a 14-hour time zone difference.  Somebody is going to suffer in that conversation. Somebody is going to bed very late or waking up very early and it isn’t going to be what he or she would rather do.

Technology of course is an issue.  You may have an engineer in Toronto who’s very versed in using technology but you may have a marketing person in Zurich who’s very uncomfortable.

And then there are cultural differences.  In some cultures, making eye contact is not a good thing.  So if all you’ve got is a video, and somebody keeps averting their gaze, it’s not because they’re rude or shy, it’s because culturally, they’re uncomfortable. In the developing world, they are also dealing with the challenges of unreliable electricity sources.

Play PreludeSo there’s time, there’s technology, and there’s culture. But the biggest issue, and this has been a consistent throughout the literature, is lack of rapport and trust.

The reason being is because in a traditional co-located team, one has all the extra senses. We could go out for coffee, we can have a chat in the hallway, we can come in early and compare notes, and we can have a drink after work.

And all of this allows for important informal conversations “Yes, I’m a skier.”  “Oh, you’re a skier too?  Do you go here?”  “Yes, I go there.”  “Oh, my kids go to the same school.”  None of that is happening in virtual teaming because the organizations that have bought into its efficacy have this myopic view that just because you’re an expert in your field and I’m an expert in mine, there’s an assumption that we should just get on with the project.

If you had an orchestra that was coming in from another country to do a concert, they don’t just go on stage and they start performing cold. They first tune together, and warm up so that when it’s time to perform, they’re ready to entertain.  And similarly with sports teams, a team doesn’t sit on the couch all summer drinking beer and eating pizza and then the day of the gold event say “I’ll meet you at the stadium and we’ll win.”

Virtual Team PreludeThe research is showing that unless you have some kind of an intervening process to get people to know each other, what you’re going to get is the opposite of what you hoped for.  Managers, corporate executives in particular, haven’t gotten their head around the fact that a new dispensation is called for that requires some intervening point before the actual project starts.

In general, training and management skills still leave a lot to be desired but then when you go into the world of virtual team management, it’s a harder set of skills to learn, and requires that much more commitment and dedication.  I think virtual team management, as a discipline, is where project team management was about 10 or 15 years ago.  And it took a long time for that field to become accepted as a discipline in its own right where you have MBA programs in specialty project management, etc.  And you have the Project Management Institute certifying 3 or 4 hundred thousand project managers around the world and they share a standard and a common language and a common vision about what this discipline is about.

With virtual team management, it’s not going to take 10 or 15 years. Brandeis University in the United States has just created an MSC in virtual team management.  And certainly INSEAD based out of Europe has a new program around virtual team management.  So we’re starting to see this awareness and I think we know who will carry the day: it won’t be the Boomers.  It’ll be the Millennials and the young people who just are digital natives to begin with. They know that this is a great medium for communication, or creation, and for fun and entertainment. And so I think that’s the shakeup. I think we’re going to see more and more proliferation of innovation and creativity in the next few years so that in, I would say 5 years, a conversation like this will seem antiquated.

Tell us more about Prelude

Prelude-logoI’ve been reading extensively about virtual teaming and trying to identify emerging best practices that are unique to this particular issue of how people can better interrelate before the project. I wanted to develop something that’s cost effective, efficient, engaging, safe, and do it in a way that will then act as the tune up for that project team in the same way that the orchestra or the sports team would have. The game is designed in a modular way. There are 4 or 5 30-minute modules spread over time so there’s no heavy investment. It takes 2-3 hours in total, and it’s fun, simple, and intuitive. It’s a small investment for a lot of return.

Prelude is based on my doctoral research about visual thinking and communication and how it has its own center of gravity.  If we enfranchise that visual part of our mental and affective apparatus, if we give it scope, then the quality of communication is enhanced as opposed to just us talking back and forth or comparing text notes. The minute you bring visuals in, it suddenly enhances awareness and understanding. When you see that you’re working cross-culturally, visual communication becomes even more important.

So one case in point is in an international airport where you have common iconic signage so you know what is the women’s or the men’s bathroom. That power of the immediacy and trans-cultural understanding of iconic symbolism is certainly part of our game process.

The emerging best practices are calling for exactly that kind of interface in advance of any project. In other words, helping a team to externalize its own mental model of itself through some visual means. When you are working with gaming, you are working with mechanisms for people to feel like “There’s an opportunity for me to know more about you holistically” rather than simply “You’re the engineer who’s handling this part of the project.”

There is gap right now because we’ve gone high tech but we haven’t yet fully developed how to develop rapport, or empathy. How do we bring high touch into a high tech environment? There are a lot of tools out there that will help you collaborate but not necessarily get to know each other better virtually in a more holistic way.  It’s important to share a common understanding and a common language that creates a bond. And if this common understanding isn’t there, it needs to be developed in a very legitimate, transparent way.  We need to hold on to our humanity while we become more efficient.

Connect with Howard




Watch the full interview

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