The information superhighway that was much lauded in the 1990s is undoubtedly here. Indeed, developing countries are leapfrogging the traditional wired modes of communication with cellular systems that require far less infrastructure. At the same time, packet-based modes of communication such as instant messenger and Skype are becoming the de-facto standard for communication between overseas buyers and suppliers.
But the promise of the videophone, trumpeted by IBM at the 1964 New York World's fair has never taken hold, despite the best guesses of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and James Cameron's Aliens, to name a few. In part, the lack of counterparties with similar technology held it back, but it is equally likely that many people were simply uncomfortable with the prospect of the other caller seeing them disheveled or unwashed. Purely auditory conversation masks non-verbal cues, and sometimes that little obfuscation is comforting.
It is often cited, however, that nonverbal communication makes up the bulk of information flow between individuals, and the perplexing popularity of emoticons provides ample testimony that words aren't always enough to get the point across. For creative teams, these adages hold even more fully. Any design meeting likely includes: hand waving, gesticulation, volume changes, uncomfortable silences, glares, sketching, annotating other peoples' drawings, and hopefully healthy doses of laughter. Something magical happens when you pack a room full of creatives, and that spark is often lost on the phone or in multimedia conferences.
In Higher Creativity for Virtual Teams, Steven MacGregor and Teresa Torres-Coronas have compiled a comprehensive assortment of scholarly papers on the subject of virtual teams -- collaborative creative efforts between people who happen to be separated by oceans and time zones. Between international sourcing and free trade, the problem of virtual teamwork is rapidly becoming a major one for large corporations and is beginning to trickle down to working designers. While virtual collaboration seems functional in concept, however, coordinating such efforts remains a massive problem. The persistence of creative centers like Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and even Bangalore and their respective real estate markets provide testament to the fact that human beings still like face-to-face meetings, and the astronomical prices of business class airfare as compared to coach demonstrates that they are willing to pay for them too.
That said, the ubiquity of labels like "Made in China" and the existence of massive overseas call centers illustrates the necessity of global manufacture in our interconnected free-market society. Somewhere between those two extremes lies a comfortable balance, but we haven't settled upon it yet. Higher Creativity for Virtual Teams is a scientific analysis of the pitfalls of traversing that gulf.
In no way shape or form is this book fluffy or overdesigned. Wallpaper or ID, it is not. Any designer will likely be rapidly distracted by the inconsistencies between the text and the graphics, the awkward tracking, mixture of font sizes, strange kerning, and the uneasy coexistence of serif and san-serif fonts in the same level of informational hierarchy. Even more frightening to the average creative is the inclusion of heavy statistical analysis, R-squared tests and the profusion of acronyms and peer-reviewed journal citations. Those same cues that I must admit made me physically uncomfortable as a designer after reading an endless series of gorgeous coffee-table books, however, are the sorts of signposts that pervade real scholarship and academia. Higher Creativity for Virtual Teams looks and feels like a business school textbook, but is also virtually hemorrhaging with data, ideas and statistics.
The Peter Principle, proposed by Laurence J. Peter in his 1968 book of the same name could be roughly stated as "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." In the creative field this manifests often when star designers are promoted to management roles only to find their creativity stifled and their days filled with tasks that they aren't suited for. Ultimately when promoted to the upper echelons, every job becomes management and sales. It is a rare sort of person who can be both a creative and a manager.
As such, Higher Creativity for Virtual Teams makes the designer in me very uncomfortable, because I know that the unpalatable problems discussed within await me, and are a lot less fun than sketching at a desk. Having tried to explain PDF schematics via instant messaging to factories in Guangdong and playing Skype tag with machinists in Mexico, I know how hard a problem that is. Frankly I'd rather stay in my ivory tower. Life, however, doesn't work that way.
So while the need for books like Higher Creativity for Virtual Teams is very clear, the text would be far more useful if it offered a panacea where it does not. Instead it remains a compendium of difficult or insoluble problems, presented in exactly the sort of way that provides business-types an advantage over designers. It's often quipped that Harvard MBA's wind up presiding over the (in some people's minds) far more intelligent MIT engineers across the Charles River. A comparison of salaries provides ample statistical evidence to that gulf in power. MacGregor's work is precisely the sort of book that could be assigned in business school, or in an institution like Stanford's much heralded fusion of design and business, the "D-School." There is a profound need for this sort of scholarship, but for designers, Higher Creativity for Virtual Teams may be a bit much.
Then again, for those artistic types lucky enough to have been promoted to management, the problems that virtual teams present are likely more excruciating than any textbook. In those cases, it may be well worth putting on "graphic design blinders" and soldiering through this work of scholarship. Frankly, Higher Creativity for Virtual Teams is a bit ahead of its time, but the problems it presages are only going to grow. For now, however, most creatives can consider themselves blessed not to need resources like this. But for those designers "privileged" enough to have been promoted to leadership positions in our global market, this book may be just what's needed. You know who you are and I don't envy you a bit.