My phone rings during a filmed interview. The crew oblige and I take the call, and though it was a little contrived, I was still delightfully surprised to hear the caller tell me I had made it as a member of the first YouTube Symphony Orchestra (YTSO). As probably the only one in that group with a background in the collaborative software industry, I view this grand experiment in YouTube’s brand upscaling from several perspectives. At the moment, the orchestra is a very large, diverse, global virtual team. Routes to market, the channels through which products and services are delivered to end customer – direct sales, resellers, distributors, OEMs and the like, are large, global, and usually diverse teams. In trying to enable, motivate and coordinate the activities of these audiences, vendors often feel as though they are trying to herd kittens down a beach. There are lessons to be learnt by vendors with such complex routes from other complex virtual teams. Before I offer some firsthand insight into how the YouTube Symphony team is gelling, for those not familiar with the project, permit me to offer you some background detail.
The idea for an orchestra auditioned entirely via YouTube was cooked up by two Google product managers. YouTube, home to pimples and the puerile wasn’t attracting the demographics that excite advertisers. Classical music on the other hand has a high brow brand image, but judging by dwindling live attendances worldwide, may be losing its pulling power to old age. Could a marriage of the two attract higher disposable income types to YouTube, increase equity for Google and provide a shot in the arm to a sclerotic art form? Google seemed to think so, though I am certain those product managers had little idea how the idea would snowball.
The first grand idea of one year ago was to audition an entire orchestra exclusively through YouTube videos. Now you can’t audition an orchestra without showing them off at some point. Unlike many projects, those you find in sports and the performing arts most often have immoveable deadlines which help to focus the mind. A stake was put in the ground – April 15th 2009 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Then make prospects create a sub five minute audition video from familiar, out of copyright repertoire. On YouTube, people could be submitting from any country, so Google had to be prepared to fund the flights of musicians from any part of the globe and put them up in New York long enough to get over jet lag and to rehearse. Also they had to find a conductor and soloists – people usually booked two or more years in advance which was well outside the window they had allowed themselves.
The second grand idea was to create a performance solely out of downloaded performances, a huge mashup. For that you need a piece to play, so why not commission one? Better still, commission a well known composer with international appeal, and get the London Symphony Orchestra to record it as a YouTube video. Google chose the Oscar winning Chinese composer, Tan Dun. Competitors had to submit a second video, playing their chosen part from the commissioned piece, “Internet Symphony #1 “Eroica”.” To keep them in synch, have them play along with a silent video of the conductor, in this case also Tan Dun. To assist the players, make a couple dozen master class videos by the London Symphony’s principal players, and get the support of music conservatoires and leading orchestras around the world, some sponsors to help underwrite the cost of the venture and engage a world class conductor who leads in outreach and music education, Michael Tilson Thomas.
By now you get the drift that the complexity of this idea was escalating rapidly. A large press launch in New York at the beginning of December 2008 marked the call for musicians to submit audition videos by January 28th, 2009. There must have been some nervous people in Google, because most of the submissions were loaded in the two days before the deadline. Once that deadline had passed, professional musicians filtered the candidates down to a final 200. Those finalists were subjected to a week-long public vote in February. Following that stage, Michael Tilson Thomas made the final decision of who would be in or out, taking the public vote into account. That is as good as democracy gets when picking a team in the arts or sports. This isn’t X Factor or American Idol. And this was to be no small chamber ensemble either. It is a full scale symphony orchestra of 96 members, plus a team of ten professionals from leading orchestras and conservatoires who will act as section coaches during live rehearsals in New York s beginning April 13th.
The orchestra has from April 13th to April 15th – three days – to rehearse for the live Carnegie Hall concert on the evening of April 15th. Members come from 30 different countries. Some, understandably, do not speak English very well. Many will still be jet lagged for the first couple of days. Crucially, hardly anyone knows anyone else, let alone has ever performed with anyone else. So the rehearsals have to concentrate on two main things – playing together in time and in tune. Orchestras in different parts of the world have a different sense of where they should play when the conductor’s baton or hand reaches the bottom to signify the first beat of a bar. Some play “on the beat” – the bottom of the curve means start now – and some play up to half a second later or “off the beat”. Then there is issue of finding a common pitch. Some people play concert A at 440Hz, the most common pitch in North America, whilst some European orchestras can be as high as A445Hz. For most instruments, it is not too much of an issue, but for oboists things are more problematic, which is why an orchestra tunes to an oboe, piano or organ before a concert.
The question left for Google once the orchestra members were announced at the beginning of March was this – “What could Google do during the six week run up to the live concert to motivate and prepare the winners and increase the chances of a successful concert?” They had 96 winners, mentors, a film crew creating a documentary, soloists and an enthusiastic conductor with an ambitious repertoire in mind scattered across 30 different countries. These people when they got together in person would have to work as a tight team, but for the period leading up to that point, they must work as individuals, without group rehearsals, entirely on their own. For six weeks, the YTSO is a large virtual team. For the first three weeks of that period, team members had to fulfil a number of tasks, and for the last three weeks, when they were given access to their parts, they would have to master the music. Success in Carnegie Hall and the overall brand elevation project is dependent on how well each individual winner prepares for the event. And, as my high school music teacher once said, a band is only as good as its three worst players.
Karen Sobel Lojeski has written and spoken extensively on virtual teams and introduced the concept of Virtual Distance – an index of how far apart a team is – not in terms of distance but in their degree of separateness which affects their ability to work as a cohesive team. When Virtual Distance is low, trust increases, organizational citizenship behaviours rise, innovation increases, and projects are completed faster, with greater job satisfaction. There are serious implications for organizational costs. She maintains that Virtual Distance is affected by three main variables each with three or four sub variables: Physical Distance; Operational Distance and Affinity Distance. How well would the YTSO score on each during the six week period before it has to play together in New York?
Physical Distance is made up of three main components: geographic distance; temporal (time zone) difference; and organizational distance (the sense of separateness as a result of differences in organizational affiliations). With Google, conductor, soloists, mentors and orchestra members sitting in 30 different countries on all major continents, working for different organizations, the physical distance index for this virtual team could not have been much higher. That was anticipated, so social network tools are being used to build a sense of community in the orchestra.
Operational Distance is the sense that you are playing in a different game from everyone else in the team. It is made up of four components. The first is communications distance – the ability to communicate effectively between members. Over half the orchestra are not native English speakers and they range in age from 17 to 55 so the communications distance is bound to be high. During week one of the virtual team, a mail group list was created for winners. It was clear that from some of those who replied to emails (by cc’ing the entire list) that there were communications misunderstandings. So “communications distance” is high for the YTSO.
The second component of operational distance is “multitasking”, the degree to which members are overloaded with work. As some are students preparing for exams during this period and presumably most of the rest are in full time employment, this project is an afterhours extra. Though they may have been in shape for their audition video, will they maintain or even improve on that form, with their normal demands in the six week space? It is safe to assume that multitasking distance is high. This was clear due to the number of people missing deadlines. When asked to do an autobiographical video to help the public get to know the winners, less than half responded positively in the given period.
The third operational distance component is readiness, the degree to which the technology works. Though Google brought up a dedicated site with plenty of information on it for winners, probably due to the factors above, some people were still not accessing that site several weeks into the six week period. However the site that Google did make is comprehensive and it certainly does work well, as does the YouTube platform, the mail list and the Facebook group (with only 22 members). To be a winner, someone had to have mastered the skills needed to upload YouTube videos, yet someone might have done that on their behalf. Because there is no control of the participants’ infrastructure, the risk of some members being incommunicado for some time during the six week period is high. I would assume that operational distance is therefore medium to high.
Distribution asymmetry, the final component arises when there is an uneven distribution of the team e.g. when some members are clustered together in an office and others are scattered. Because everyone is isolated as individuals in the YTSO team and everyone is seen to be scattered, within the YTSO this index is low.
So far things are not looking good, but the last variable in virtual distance is “Affinity Distance” and it is the most important one. Affinity distance depends upon the strength of the social relationships within the team. It too has four components.
Cultural distance is the first component of Affinity Distance and it is based on shared values. Whereas one might assume that this multinational, multicultural team made up of people from diverse ages, languages and organizations would normally have a very high cultural distance, the common language of music is a powerful cultural adhesive. All the winners reached this stage of the competition because of their skill within the field of classical music. Most would have had a great deal of experience playing in ensembles similar to the YTSO. They know what is required of them to make the team work in live rehearsals and performances. A good classical musician is a seasoned, responsive and flexible team player. And it is safe to assume they have a great deal of passion for classical music. Music has its own culture and so the YTSO has a low cultural distance.
The second component of affinity distance is social distance – the gaps between those of high status and low status. Compared to some well established orchestras where there is a definite pecking order, this nascent band has a open feel and that is partly due to the disposition of its conductor who is an advocate of music education and the culture of California. Social distance in the YTSO is very low.
Relationship distance, the third component is related to the history of the relationships between team members. When members have worked together in the past, it is lower. Clearly this started out very high, yet by encouraging the use of social networking within the group, Google are trying to lower it. Nevertheless, no matter how many email exchanges, Tweets, or video comments are made, it still won’t compensate for the fact that these people have never worked together before. So the relationship distance of the YTSO is high.
The final component of affinity distance is interdependence distance – people’s commitment to one another. This will be no small event in a rehearsal studio without an audience. With a Carnegie Hall performance attended by many relatives and YouTube recording the proceedings, this is a high stakes game. Though thrilled to be there, everyone understands their individual reputations are on the line. This distance is very low, and together with the lack of cultural and social distances should be enough to ensure that the orchestra produces a professional performance that is satisfying for the performers as well as for attendees and viewers.
There are implications for sales channels. Annual partner conferences held by vendors do work, provided they are not seen to be money making exercises in their own right. Social networking tools for partners do help create cross pollination opportunities and improve communication. Tapping into and feeding the common passions of channel partners will lower that ecosystem’s virtual distance making it easier to reach sales targets and unlock the innovation that exists beyond a vendor’s walls. And now, with only nine days to go, I have to get into shape!