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What replaces co-location in Agile?

What replaces co-locations and face-to-face collaboration?

In the Agile Manifesto's 12 principles we see the requirement for collaboration, this one however requires co-location.  How else will we get face-to-face conversations?
The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
There are many suggestions for the substitution or replacement of co-location, but none to date have been effective.
  • Conference Phones
  • Web cams 
  • High end video conferences
  • Virtual rooms
  • Holodecks

Virtual Room at the Melbourne Museum


Web cams are a cheep (you get what you pay for) alternative.  If you are going this direction, my advice is to buy a MacBook ($1000). Buy one for both ends of your connection. I believe Apple will be a leader in the video conference/phone market place within 5 years (see timeline).  I can FaceTime with my iPhone and your MacBook, talk about portable!

PCs with USB cameras are a poor choice.  How effective will it be to pick up your laptop with all the cables running out of it and carry it to the white board to show the remote team your architectural sketch?  The MacBook has a built-in camera and 10 hour battery life.  The last web cam conference I was in the PC had a USB camera, USB mouse, power supply & cat 5 network cable.  The battery wouldn't last the whole meeting; the user preferred a track ball over the poor track pad, the hotel's wifi wouldn't support video therefore a hardwire.  There was no portability of the laptop - the primary key feature of the device.

My experience is that web cams are better than a conference call alone, but what is the nature of the collaboration.  Does this promote and foster true dialog? Is their a replacement for two people moving an object like a marker and pointing at different areas of the drawing while saying - "we inject the widget here in the process flow".  "Oh, there, no here!"

The communication channel degrades to one person talking at a time, very slow exchange of information flow (people have to pause a lot to check keep from stepping on each other's words).  The web cam displays a little bit of body language and facial expressions, but they are typically time lagged, and rarely life sized.  Web cams require someone to take on the role of camera operator.  Don't expect your meeting facilitator to do both.

Tips & Techniques

Brad Swanson of Propero Solutions in Denver has a nice article on tips and techniques to help remote teams. To summarize Brad;  invest in infrastructure, hire coaches at both ends, practice XP, have a large travel budget, shift work days to overlap, learn about cultural preferences, keep an eye peeled for new and better tools.

Is it Truly Cost Effective?

While outsourcing appears to save the accountant money, the systems-thinker must ask if we have improved our customer's lives by having remote teams.  It is after all our customer that arbitrates the choice to buy our product or their best alternative (similar to BATNA).   Did the quality of the product increase?  Did our speed to market increase?  Did we deliver the right features, within budget, and in a timely manner to meet the customer's desires?

Scott Ambler's Agile Adoption Rate survey of 2008 found a 23% drop in success rates for remote teams (co-located success rate 83%; remote success rate 60%). I wonder if the accountant has that factored into the bottom line spreadsheet.
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