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Case Study: Red Hat and WHO Build a Remote Residency Program

The tech company aimed to create an open learning platform to help WHO better serve healthcare workers. Then the pandemic hit.
Mar 31st, 2022 12:11pm by
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Featured image by U.S. Mission Geneva via Creative Commons.

Red Hat’s Open Innovation Lab team has explained how it successfully adapted its “residency” program in response to COVID-19. But its story reveals some limits to just how far it can accommodate remote workers across multiple time zones.

Chris Baynham-Hughes, open transformation principal at Red Hat Open Innovation Lab, and Mary Provinciatto, the Lab’s senior engagement lead, told the Seacon 2022 enterprise agility conference in London on Monday how Red Hat was poised to kick off a “residency” program with the World Health Organization Academy when the pandemic started in March 2020.

The aim was to create an open learning platform to increase WHO’s efficiency and effectiveness in getting information out to frontline healthcare workers. “It currently takes between 10 and 17 years for proven advice to become adopted practice,” Baynham-Hughes said.

The residency, intended as an eight-week program, would have brought together up to 16 people from nine countries and five time zones at the WHO office in Lyon, France. But COVID lockdowns clearly meant it couldn’t proceed as planned, even as the aim of the program was more relevant than ever.

So, Baynham-Hughes said, the team was forced to ask how it could run the program virtually — and, given the time zone issue, asynchronously.

“We put a lot of stock in the team and developing that. And that generally means a lot of face-to-face, building that psychological safety,” Baynham-Hughes said. “That’s why we call it a residency, because people actually come together and work in an intense fashion.”

Pivoting after the Pandemic Started

The foundations of the Red Hat Open Innovation Lab were what allowed it to pivot online once the pandemic began, he said. Its practices focus on transparency, inclusivity, community and collaboration.

The approach, Provinciatto said, takes as its starting point Red Hat’s Mobius Loop framework, which “helps us to effectively combine Lean product development and Agile, DevOps and any other approach or method that we need in order for us to tackle challenges and actually have success with a use case that we have to hand.”

So when it came to moving the residency online, she said, one of the key practices was a “social contract.” This aims to establish a baseline for trust in how the team interacts and is particularly important when bringing together a team from different backgrounds and countries.

The WHO team members were mainly new hires who had not even been inducted into the organization before the pandemic hit.

Communication was another key area, she said. “We had to make sure that we could visualize all the aspects of the work and we could share that with everybody who should have access to that information”

In practice, she said, this meant “over-communicating everything we were doing.”  This extended to what the team meant when a team member announced something as “ready” or “done.”

This is particularly important when a team is spread across multiple time zones, because when someone has a question, the person who can answer is not necessarily available.

Residencies normally involve some out-of-office time together. So the virtual team created a team space, where members share personal stuff, such as holiday plans, the games they’re playing or songs they’re listening to.

In addition, said Provinciatto, before a standup meeting, “they will take five minutes to have a conversation about something on the team space.”

In parallel to this, of course, the residency was exploring engineering practices, such as CI/CD, everything-as-code and automation.  “All those things helped us reduce cognitive load,” she said. The team used pairing and mobbing to ensure skills and practices were being shared and picked up.

Lessons Learned from the Project

Given the extreme circumstances, the residency shouldn’t have worked, Baynham-Hughes said. Instead, “by the end of it, what we saw was this really solid, high performing team, [and] strong psychological safety.”

The WHO team produced working software and a platform, he said: “They have the seeds of an open community. So they’re looking for contributors, and people to join them in this quest to have a significant impact on world health.”

As for Red Hat, it learned that a virtual residency can work, though the minimum time is six weeks rather than four for traditional face-to-face engagements.

“We take more time to build personal connections to build for psychological safety,” Provinciatto said. And going forward, it will try to minimize the number of time zones a residency spans.

Baynham-Hughes added, “We’d never do a full day on your video conferencing platform of choice. We generally stick to three hours a day, maybe four.”

Ultimately, he said, “We decided to ask ourselves … how might you run this residency remotely? That allows us to really challenge our assumptions, challenge our preconceptions, our biases, and allows us to really look at it differently.

“And what we decided was, once we’ve done that, we can design an experiment. And that’s the essence of Agile.”

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