Good communication is always a top priority in team-based work, but in interregional collaboration it’s especially vital. The trick is to use the right channels. I’ll divide the communication methods in two groups: instant and delayed.
If something is unclear to you, you need to know something, or just need to hear how other team members are doing, instant communication is the best solution. The most useful tools for instant communication are:
- Instant messaging software: software like MSN, ICQ, Jabber, AIM and such, allow you to manage a list of contacts and to see whether they’re online or not. If they are online you can send them a message instantly, which is received instantly. Most of the problems where communication is necessary can be solved by using IM(Instant Messaging).
- Skype: if lengthy discussions are necessary between two people, it’s most of the time more convenient to actually talk about it (you know, using your mouth). “Skype”:http://www.skype.com is very easy to use, free software that allows you to simply call up another Skype user and talk to them using a microphone as long as you want, for free. There is a lot of other internet telephony software available, but Skype is one of the few that always work without hassle.
- Phone: if discussion is needed immediately and the person you need to speak to is not available online, phone is the only option left. It works just as well as Skype, but it costs money, especially if it’s an international call (which is not uncommon in interregional software development projects).
Many issues are of lesser direct importance. These issues can be discussed through other channels; channels that are not necessarily instant. The most important two are:
- E-Mail: notifications of certain events or even long-stretched discussions are possible via e-mail. However, many people favour forums for this, these days.
- Forums (a.k.a. bulletin boards and discussion boards): software like “YaBB”:http://www.yabbforum.com, “KeyTopic”:http://www.keytopic.com, “SMF”:http://www.simplemachines.org, “IPB”:http://www.invisionboard.com and “phpBB”:http://www.phpbb.com, just to name a few, can be used to discuss matters that no instant decissions have to be made on. Discussions can take days, sometimes even months. The trouble with this medium is that each team member has to remember to check for new messages once in a while. This is also true for e-mail, but e-mail often is more part of people’s lifes than forums.
When I worked on YaBB, which was also developed interregionally, we essentially only used instant messaging and forums for communication. The use of forums was an obvious choice, we were developing a forum after all, instant messaging fulfilled the other needs that we had. Our meetings also took place using instant messaging software (ICQ at that time). The development of YaBB went quite smoothly, which proves that purely virtual communication can work; even though we had never met. Hell, I didn’t even know what the others looked like.
It’s a good idea to keep in mind that there are very large differences in how people talk to each other in different countries. A discussion in China is likely to be very different from one in the USA. Depending on the differences in culture between you and the people you’re talking to it’s usually a good idea to don’t push it too far and to stay polite. Don’t use too strong language as some people may take it the wrong way. Also, and I don’t usually say this, take advantage of smilies. If you make an ironic remark, mark it with a ;). If it took your friends a while to understand your obscure sense of humour, don’t expect foreigners to understand it without smilies.