Information on working with virtual teams:
ARTICLE 1) SUMMARY OF A GREAT BOOK ON THE TOPIC:
Cristina B. Gibson and Susan G. Cohen (Editors). Virtual Teams That Work: Creating Conditions for Virtual Team Effectiveness. (Book Review) Michael Hansen.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2004 Personnel Psychology, Inc.
Cristina B. Gibson and Susan G. Cohen (Editors). Virtual Teams That Work: Creating Conditions for Virtual Team Effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003, 436 pages, $45.00.
The contributions of the multiple authors in Virtual Teams That Work mirror one of the primary advantages of virtual teams: the application of diverse knowledge and skills. Composed mostly of descriptions of many virtual teams studied by a collection of academic researchers, with suggestions for designing, leading, and participating in virtual teams, this volume brings a variety of viewpoints that practitioner-targeted books normally do not. The variety is particularly important with respect to virtual teams became so many forces converge on the members of these teams: traditional team processes, challenges of working with electronic communication and collaboration technology, cultural and language differences, and integration pitfalls of working across time, distance, and organizational boundaries.
Despite the diverse chapter topics, this well-organized book sounds several consistent themes for practitioners across most of the 18 chapters. These themes are: (a) make use of critical face-to-face interactions, primarily to help establish the trust that is crucial to team processes and performance; (b) carefully plan knowledge repositories and other knowledge management infrastructure, a design principle that may be neglected in favor of concentration on communication technology; (c) communicate frequently by email or other electronic technology and establish norms for electronic communication; and (d) discuss cultural differences openly and inquire about the technological, organizational, and other contextual features of other members' work environments.
Although much of the text is devoted to descriptions of virtual teams that the authors studied, the format of the book is intelligently designed with the practitioner in mind. Each chapter ends with an Implications for Practice section, in which most authors successfully distill the results of their research projects into meaningful recommendations for virtual team leaders and members. In addition, the editors provide brief introductions preceding and summaries following the main content chapters in each of the five sections. Although the overlap between introductions and summaries made for some repetitiveness, practitioners interested in "just the facts, ma'am," should appreciate these synopses. However, even better is The Last Word--the full review in the final chapter. Editors Gibson and Cohen provide an excellent wrap-up, discussing the unique qualities of virtual teams, their advantages and disadvantages, and best practices for leaders, members, and facilitators gleaned from the previous chapters.
Although these summary devices should make the book particularly useful to practitioners, a thorough reading of these mostly well-written chapters is essential for a more complete grasp of the many complexities of virtual teamwork. Cohen and Gibson provide an introduction to the framework for the book in Chapter 1. They establish a research framework model that loosely guides the organization of the book chapters. The features of this model include: (a) enabling conditions, such as shared understanding, integration, and trust; (b) design factors, such as group structure and technology; (c) business and human outcomes; and (d) moderators, including degree of virtuality and degree of differences.
Cohen and Gibson also attempt to clear up some of the confusion regarding the term "virtual team." In addition to identifying what a virtual team is not, they define a virtual team as a functioning team that, like a traditional co-located team (CLT), is characterized by interdependence and shared responsibility. However, unlike a CLT, team members are geographically dispersed, and the team must rely on some form of electronic communication technology rather than face-to-face interaction to collaborate.
The framework and definitions are clear and comprehensive, but the editors are selling themselves short on the applicability of this book to a wider audience. Global competition and communication technology also impact CLTs, which must manage some of the same dispersion and technology challenges that virtual teams face due to, among other things, temporary travel assignments. This book is valuable reading for many modern teams, regardless of whether they are truly virtual or primarily co-located.
In Chapter 2, Hinds and Weisband discuss the impact of dispersion, technology, and the lack of shared context on knowledge sharing and shared understanding in virtual teams. Mohrman, Klein, and Finegold (Chapter 3) use a case scenario of a European-American product development team to explain how interactive collaboration and alignment frameworks affect sensemaking. In the first of several good chapters investigating the precariousness of trust in virtual teams, Gibson and Manuel (Chapter 4) explore the obstacles to building trust in multicultural virtual teams.
In Chapter 5, Blackburn, Furst, and Rosen provide a lengthy and detailed description of individual, team, and leader knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) necessary for effective virtual teamwork and recommendations for facilitating the development of these KSAs. Although most of the many excellent points in Lawler's (Chapter 6) discussion of pay systems do not hinge on issues unique to virtual teams, the reward principles and design options he describes for different kinds of teams in general are nonetheless highly applicable to virtual teams.
One of the book's most important questions, from the perspective of the organization, is presented at the beginning of Chapter 7 (Levinson and Cohen): "When does it make sense to operate virtually versus face-to-face?" This dense chapter demonstrates how to calculate return on investment, making use of objective and subjective business outcomes and various design, input, and process elements. Several detailed case examples are provided.
In another chapter touching on trust, Tyran, Tyran, and Shepherd (Chapter 8) argue for an intriguing interaction effect of emergent leadership and trust on team performance. Just when you thought you were getting a grasp of virtual team processes, Manevski and Athanassiou (Chapter 9) reintroduce you to the intricate complexities inherent in the social networks of virtual teams. This sometimes dense chapter also persuasively details how social capital--those useful relationships among team members--can drive the development of knowledge management infrastructure and activities. In Chapter 10, Cramton and Orvis explain how the large volume and highly distributed nature of task, social, and contextual information creates problems for virtual teams.
Virtual teams don't just bring together members from different cultures; Riopelle and colleagues (Chapter 11) outline the impact contextual differences--physical infrastructure, culture and language, accessibility of information, cross time zones, team size, and maturity of technology--on six virtual teams. In Chapter 12, King and Majchrzak define a "bifurcated" view of technologies that treat knowledge as either an object or an action, and they explain the implications of this and other characteristics of virtual teams for sharing knowledge. In perhaps the least relevant contribution, Raven (Chapter 13) compares teams to communities of practice on a number of characteristics, such as their respective use of collaborative technologies.
Readers, after taking in the laundry list of challenges to virtual teamwork, may appreciate Elron and Vigoda's (Chapter 14) conclusion that virtuality tends to limit unacceptable political behavior and influence tactics. Providing more evidence for the importance of trust, Griffith, Mannix, and Neale (Chapter 15) discuss the intersection between conflict and trust for both virtual teams and co-located teams. Studying the same virtual teams observed in Chapter 11, Gluesing and colleagues (Chapter 16) this time draw some important conclusions about the importance of initial structure, enriched start-up conditions, and integration processes for virtual team development. In Chapter 17, Klein and Kleinhanns explain how time zone dispersion can erode "mind-share"--team members' relative focus on the team compared to other work activities.
Virtual Teams That Work is a superior book for practitioners, based on solid research activities and written without excessive scientific or pop management jargon. Dare I use the abused term "refreshing" to describe this book? Yes, I think so. As opposed to the sometimes glum academic literature on the effects of communication technology and the many management books (over)hyping the e-commerce revolution, the contributors to this book have equally clear eyes for the impressive potential of virtual teams and the formidable obstacles for virtual teamwork.
Michael Hansen, Job Analyst, North Carolina State University, Charlotte, NC.
2) InfoWorld, Nov 13, 2000 v22 i46 p55
Virtual teams going global - Communication and culture are issues for distant team members. (Company Operations) Steve Alexander.
Abstract: Roger Rodriguez, customer support manager at BakBone Software, is one of many IT workers and managers who are part of the new corporate reality -- a centralized company with a decentralized employee base. These virtual teams manage to function despite being separated by distance, multiple time zones, and sometimes differing national cultures. Part of what makes it work is communications technology. But increasingly the teams function well because management and workers are adapting to the idea that they needn't work in the same office for the team to function smoothly.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2000 InfoWorld Media Group, Inc.
WHEN ROGER RODRIGUEZ goes to work at BakBone Software, in San Diego, he may be dealing with customer support problems that were passed on to him by colleagues in Lanham, Md., or in the city of Poole in the United Kingdom. As his work day ends, Rodriguez, a client service senior engineer, may hand off other support problems to teammates in Tokyo.
Rodriguez has never met most of these co-workers face-to-face, and he probably never will. But they are his daily working companions on a virtual team whose members are spread across three continents to provide "follow the sun" customer support for storage management software firm BakBone.
Rodriguez is one of many IT workers and managers who are part of the new corporate reality -- a centralized company with a decentralized employee base. These virtual teams manage to function despite being separated by distance, multiple time zones, and sometimes differing national cultures. Part of what makes it work is communications technology. But increasingly the teams function well because management and workers are adapting to the idea that they needn't work in the same office for the team to function smoothly.
"Virtual teams have been around long enough now that people are beginning to recognize them as a fundamental shift in the way people work," says Andy Campbell, a virtual teams consultant for Applied Knowledge Group, in Reston, Va. "What virtual teams begin to get at is a better fit in the way humans organize for work, and in the way information technology dispenses information."
Dispersed need and recruitment
You can ascribe two main reasons to why virtual IT teams are being created today: necessity and recruitment. As global companies create geographically dispersed technical support centers, they need IT staff to function around the clock. Hiring over a wider geographic area and accommodating the desires of workers can help companies deal with the technical labor shortage.
"Virtual teams are driven by the lack of skilled people for the jobs that are needed," Campbell says. "You have the ability to reach out quickly and pull a subject matter expert into the team, all without having to put people on airplanes or relocating them."
Tim Miller, director of client services at BakBone Software agrees. "One of the reasons we went to virtual teams in our support centers is that it's difficult to attract the caliber of people you want who are willing to work at 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning on Saturday and Sunday. Virtual teaming is the alternative to having a massive staff in one location," Miller says.
Miller's staff of 13 technical support representatives, many with computer science degrees, is spread over four call centers in San Diego, Lanham, Md., Poole, England, and Tokyo. "Virtual teams also allow you to draw from a more diverse talent pool because you're hiring in different geographic locations," Miller says.
Regular and accurate communication becomes overwhelmingly important for global teams. For example, Rodriguez stays in touch with others via telephone, e-mail, and a company-wide database that tracks actions taken on specific customer problems.
Rodriguez also has learned to express himself clearly and concisely, because a co-worker thousands of miles away can't ask him in the middle of San Diego's night to clarify his last message. "Passing off information to another virtual team member requires a certain level of discipline. We have to summarize the issues in an analytical engineering fashion. We have to be clear," Rodriguez says.
Diane Orzechowski, a program manager on a virtual team in Nortel's network engineering group in Raleigh, N.C., agrees. "Everything you say and do must be clear, because there is no room for confusion," says Orzechowski, who acts as a liaison between engineering and business people. She is a member of several functional teams, including individual teams for LAN engineers, WAN engineers, network management, contracts, and business metrics. Although the teams, which include members based in the United States, Asia-Pacific, Europe, and Central and South America, total about 400 people, on any given day she deals with anywhere from half a dozen to 20 people.
Not everyone embraces the virtual team work model. Even the information technology industry, like many traditional hierarchies, has some managers and employees who prefer co-location. The boss may like having workers in the office because, in traditional thinking, it's easier to monitor employees' work habits that way.
"Many of us were raised at time when you measured people by the amount of activity they were engaged in," Applied Knowledge's Campbell says. "Conventional managers still base a lot of their assumptions of an employee's effectiveness on observations such as, 'Do they look like they are working?' The idea is that if people appear to be working, then they must be, even though we know that is not necessarily true."
Campbell says that virtual teams hold out a promise that employees will be judged more on what they actually do than on what they appear to be doing. "If you do virtual teams right, the chances are much higher that you'll get an evaluation that is not influenced by other things."
Not all employees are suited to work on virtual teams. Some prefer a traditional office situation because it provides camaraderie and a work routine that may not require much independent action.Virtual teams, by their very nature, require independent action, such as proactive discussion initiated by team members.
The success of a virtual team also depends on the ability of individual members to be self-starters. Employees working in remote locations must be able to set goals and accomplish tasks even though the boss isn't peering over their shoulders. "People who don't like to open up to other people and who need artificial deadlines are not going to do well on virtual teams," Campbell says.
Miller says virtual teams work well at BakBone Software because considerable attention has been devoted to communication and information sharing with his 13 team members, all of whom have programming backgrounds in C or C++. In addition to communicating via the shared database of customer support information, he favors regular conference-call meetings.
Such communications need to be carefully managed to take into account the cultural differences among team members, Miller says. For the moment, team conference calls are limited to the native English speaking employees.
"It's more difficult to do conference calls with the Japanese because, even if they speak flawless English, they think their English isn't all that good. As a result, they tend to be a little more quiet," Miller says. For now, conference calls with the Japanese team members are handled separately.
Rodriguez says being a virtual team member at BakBone taught him how to carefully ask his Japanese co-workers questions. The reason for his care is that questions to his Japanese counterparts may elicit different answers than from his English-speaking colleagues. His state- side teamies will usually say what they mean. In Japan, a yes-or-no question almost always results in a "yes" answer -- even if it shouldn't.
Such savvy communications skills are the key to making the virtual team work across cultural boundaries, says Craig Gardiner, BakBone's U.K. support manager in Poole. Gardiner works with Rodriguez on Miller's geographically dispersed team. "The rule of thumb is to be precise in what you want and how you ask for it. Due to the time zone differences, if you don't ask for the right information at the right time, you could be a day behind in getting something done," Gardiner says.
But despite the cultural and time differences, the virtual team works well because the people on it know each other via continuous interaction, Gardiner says. "Obviously, with the various problems we encounter as a team, we deal with each other frequently," he says. "We know who all the people are and what skills they have. Just because you don't see someone face-to-face doesn't mean you don't know that person."
Another IT person trying to bridge the cultural gap on a virtual team is Ori Eizenberg, executive vice president and chief operating officer of ItemField, a New York-based b-to-b (business-to-business) software developer with a 15-person IT shop in Israel. The firm's U.S. and Israeli members are on a virtual team that faces both a seven-hour time difference and cultural issues. The company tries to overcome obstacles via e-mail, a shared Web server, conference calls, and soon will incorporate videoconferencing to their communications tools.
Such efforts can bridge cultural differences. For example, Israeli team members who develop software don't work on Friday, thereby putting them out of synch with U.S. team members. To compensate for the cultural difference in work schedules, new hires in Israel are told they must be on-call on Fridays to support the U.S. sales force and customers, Eizenberg says
If something is missing on a virtual team, it's informal conversation time, BakBone's Rodriguez says. "You don't have the time for open-ended conversation. You can't informally brainstorm with someone."
Eizenberg agrees. "I think virtual teams are less productive in the sense that you're missing out on those corridor talks between the sales and technical people that sometimes bring about very good results. We're trying to overcome this by sending our technical people in Israel to visit the U.S. office, but it's not as perfect as having everybody sit in the same building." Eizenberg says
Jessica Lipnack has another take on dispersed teams' productivity. She believes that virtual teams can be more effective than traditional ones. Lipnack is co-author of the book Virtual Teams: People working across boundaries with technology, and co-founder of Virtualteams.com, a software firm in West Newton, Mass.
"The virtual team is smarter than the traditional team because most of its communication is digitally encoded and there is a repository of shared information-- postings to Web sites, e-mails, documents. Because the team is working almost exclusively in a digital environment, information is not getting lost," Lipnack says.
Keith Parks, senior manager of ASP business delivery at Nortel Networks in Raleigh, N.C., has been on virtual teams, or running them, for four years, and believes they work well. His team of 20 includes IT workers. "I feel like virtual teams are more productive than working in an office. There's increased employee satisfaction, and it saves the company money in real estate and facilities costs," Parks says.
Those who run virtual teams also believe they can manage employees effectively without seeing them every day. BakBone's Miller is not worried about evaluating employee performance because, in a support center, he can measure the time it takes workers to solve problems. He also visits the four support sites periodically.
Nortel's Parks, too, is not concerned about not seeing his team members frequently enough to keep close tabs on their work. "I don't think you can get hung up on exactly what people are doing day-to-day or hour-to- hour to achieve their objectives. You have to focus on the objectives themselves and see what's measurable."
Steve Alexander is a freelance technology writer in Minneapolis, Minn. Contact him at email@example.com.
Virtual team management tips
Virtual teams present unique management issues. Here are three of the most important issues as explained by Andy Campbell, a consultant on virtual teams for Applied Knowledge Group, in Reston, Va., and West Newton, Mass.-based Jessica Lipnack, co-author of the book Virtual Teams: People working across boundaries with technology.
1) Managing the invisible team
Campbell: Virtual teams must be organized. "We have not found anything better than project management software. One way of evaluating people is on deliverables. Are they delivering what they said they would, and is what they are delivering producing the results the team decided to measure itself on?"
2) Establishing trust
Lipnack: Virtual team managers must foster relationships. "The biggest challenge of using virtual teams is building trust. That trust is built by living up to your promises, just as it is on face-to-face teams. My experience with you on the team will answer the question 'Can I trust you to do what you say you are going to do, or do I have to keep an eye on you and check 45 times to see if you've done it properly?' "
Campbell: If a manager is not fostering trust on the team, he or she needs to be held accountable. "You're going to need to have team members evaluating each other on their contributions to the team. And you're going to have team members evaluating the team leader, too."
Lipnack: If there is trust on a team, communication becomes simpler. "You can give up the idea that three people in different time zones must have a phone conversation by someone getting up in the middle of the night. If you have high trust, you don't have to worry about not being in the meeting."
3) Communicating and connecting with workers
Lipnack: The more communication the better. "Always doubt your first instinct about other person if it's negative. It's so easy to misinterpret an e-mail, to read between the lines."
ARTICLE 3) SAM Advanced Management Journal, Autumn 2004 v69 i4 p4(7)
Leadership challenges in global virtual teams: lessons from the field. Kenneth W. Kerber; Anthony F. Buono.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2004 Society for the Advancement of Management
A steadily growing number of managers find themselves leading project teams with members located literally around the world. Yet, in many instances, the budget doesn't allow the team to meet on a regular basis--if at all. Many of the managers we have spoken with in these situations note that while demands are high, team performance often falls short of expectations and, at times, the team seems to be spinning apart. These managers have numerous concerns from start-up issues to long-term performance: What is my role as a virtual team leader? How can you build high-quality relationships when people seldom, if ever, see each other in person? How can I enhance the performance of my virtual team? How can virtual relationships be managed more effectively using the company's existing communication technologies? Is it possible to manage performance and ensure accountability at a distance?
The Challenge of Virtual Teams
The pressures associated with getting new products and services to worldwide markets are prompting organizations to choose the best people for these projects, regardless of their location. This has resulted in a rapid increase in distributed work groups, or virtual teams as they are more commonly known. Like any team, a virtual team works on interdependent tasks guided by a common purpose. But unlike traditional, collocated teams, a virtual team works across space, time, and organizational and geographic boundaries (Lipnack and Stamps, 1997; Moyntoya-Weiss, Massey and Song, 2001). Through advanced communication technologies, global teams are developing the ability to "work together apart" (Grenier and Meters, 1992), completing assigned projects while rarely, if ever, meeting face-to-face. Even as more organizations in literally every industry turn to virtual teams for a variety of purposes and functions, there are questions about the effectiveness of such teams, the role that team leaders should play, and the types of interventions that managers can use to launch and sustain these teams. This article examines these questions through an in-depth field study of a global virtual team, generating recommendations for effectively leading teams in a virtual world.
Virtual teams allow organizations to bring together critical contributors who might not otherwise be able to work together due to time, travel, and cost restrictions. In addition, virtual teams can enhance the available pool of resources by including people from outside the sponsoring organization, such as supply chain affiliates, members of partner organizations, or external consultants. Virtual teams also allow organizations to hire and retain the best people, who may be unable or unwilling to relocate, and to adapt and realign the team when project requirements change or team members are lost. Just as important, virtual teams facilitate the implementation of corporate-wide initiatives in global organizations and are especially valuable for companies in which these initiatives must adapt to local cultures.
While many challenges associated with virtual teams are similar to those of collocated teams, the difficulties are complicated by time and distance (Bell and Kozlowski, 2002; Cascio, 2000; Henry and Hartzler, 1998). Team leaders typically find that achieving alignment and commitment to the team's purpose are far more challenging for virtual teams, especially those that cannot meet face-to-face at the outset. Moreover, in the absence of face-to-face communication and interaction, virtual team members may have less understanding of each other, potentially contributing to misunderstandings and conflict.
To overcome these challenges, virtual teams rely heavily on communication and information technologies, such as company intranets, team conference calls, e-mail, video conferencing, and various groupware applications to tap into the intelligence expertise of team members. While the expansion of electronic communication technologies has facilitated a rapid increase in the use of such e-teams (Kostner, 2001), most virtual teams still rely heavily on travel and face-to-face interactions to create cohesiveness. Especially during team formation, for example, most prescriptions focus on the importance of personal contact and socializing to build trust and aid success (Creighton and Adams, 1998; Furst, Reeves, Rosen and Blackburn, 2004). In fact, many virtual teams are only moderately, rather than completely, virtual, as they intersperse traditional person-to-person interaction with technology-based communication to initiate and complete their tasks (Kirkman, Rosen, Gibson, Tesluk and McPherson, 2002; Maznevski and Chudoba, 2000).
* Virtual Team Leadership
Ultimately, the challenge for leaders of virtual teams is to create a level of collaboration and productivity that rivals the experience of the best collocated teams, and to accomplish these outcomes against the backdrop of the rapid changes facing nearly every business today. Leaders of truly virtual teams must be able to facilitate team cohesiveness by taking full advantage of existing and emerging collaborative technologies. Yet, since it has been suggested that less than 5% of teams that do get together ever reach optimal performance (Benson-Armer and Hsieh, 1997), the pressure is ever greater for truly virtual teams and their leaders to develop compensating mechanisms.
A Case Study of Virtual Collaboration
This article is based on a study of the launch and facilitation of a virtual team in the corporate training and development function at a company referred to as ComCorp. While many virtual teams are created to resolve a particular problem or fulfill a specific task, disbanding once the job is completed (Bell and Kozlowski, 2002), this particular team was envisioned as a long-term, permanent part of the corporate structure. Team members were expected to fulfill multiple roles, problem-solving and implementing solutions with colleagues, some of whom they had never met in person.
* The context and challenge
At the time of the study, ComCorp was roughly a $3 billion company with approximately 8,000 employees worldwide, including a new president and CEO. Founded in the late 1970s, the company was a pioneer in the computer networking industry. Along with many other large high-technology companies at the beginning of the 21st century, ComCorp was challenged by the turmoil associated with deregulation of the telecommunications industry, the dot-com boom and bust, and reduced capital spending for computers and computer networking equipment that followed the extensive Y2K preparations by companies around the world. As a result, ComCorp's revenue was declining, putting pressure on the company to restructure and downsize.
The training and development (T&D) team at ComCorp had been a loosely affiliated worldwide group of 16 experienced professionals who reported to various Human Resources directors, each supporting a different part of ComCorp's business. Except for a group reporting to the corporate T&D director, the top priorities for these training and development professionals reflected the needs of their respective business units and regions rather than those of the corporation as a whole. As part of a major organizational restructuring, five members of the T&D team left ComCorp (including the corporate director), and the remaining people were centralized under a new director, who was promoted from within the group. The new team consisted of 11 people (including the new director) located in California (3), Illinois (2), Massachusetts (2), England (2), Ireland (1), and Australia (1), all of whom now reported to the new T&D director as part of the HR organization.
* The challenge of building a virtual team
ComCorp's T&D team covered 17 time zones and, without a budget for travel, the team relied on a variety of communication technologies including e-mail, voicemail, telephone, fax, and voice-and video--conferencing. The team also used a Web-based groupware application on the company's intranet that allowed asynchronous conversation threads as well as posting of documents, links, and surveys. The task facing ComCorp's T&D team was to design training and development solutions that matched the needs of the restructured corporation as a whole, while appropriately adjusting the implementation of those solutions according to business unit and cultural differences in a global organization.
It was clear from the outset that this complex task would require joint diagnosis, problem solving, open-ended discussion and decision-making, and collaboration among all members of the team. Therefore, the two most critical issues facing the new leader of the T&D team were to (1) quickly establish the credibility of the team at the executive level, and (2) select strategies and tactics for fulfilling its mandate and building credibility throughout the organization with the full involvement and commitment of the team.
* Defining a compelling challenge
Instead of focusing on "becoming a team," high performing teams--whether virtual or more conventional-focus on achieving key performance objectives that require teamwork (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993; O'Brien and Buono, 1996). Given the special challenges of virtual teams, especially those doing complex and interdependent work, a compelling challenge that energizes the team to overcome the difficulties of spatial distance and technological mediation is essential to performance. For ComCorp's T&D team, the compelling challenge was to rebuild the credibility of the team at a time when the business contribution of every department in the company was being closely examined with the intent of reducing costs. From the outset, the leader of the T&D team realized that it was necessary to communicate clearly to all members that the team must find ways to add significant value to ComCorp's business performance and must become known throughout the company for those contributions.
* Creating involvement
The changes and complexities facing the T&D team required rich, synchronous communication, yet the distance and time differences between members radically reduced the opportunities for this type of interaction. In response, the T&D team agreed to meet once a week for 90-minutes on a voice-conference call to identify and review its purpose and key result areas, modify objectives, understand breaking issues, examine possibilities, make decisions, and assign actions. This required participation by some team members during standard work hours (e.g., 1:00 p.m.), for others during their evening (e.g., 9:00 p.m.) and for others during the early morning of the next day (e.g., 6:00 a.m.).
As a way of moving quickly while maximizing participation, the leader guided team conversations by creating straw proposals, distributing them in advance to team members, listening to feedback during the weekly conference calls, and then synthesizing and incorporating the feedback into written documents accessible to all team members. Other forms of communication--synchronous (e.g., telephone calls between individual team members and face-to-face conversations among those people who were collocated) and asynchronous (e.g., e-mail and voice--mail messages)--complemented and fed information into team meetings.
Due to the unique features of virtual teams, achieving collaboration requires a disciplined approach to early team development interventions, especially during the "norming" stage (Furst et al., 2004). The written documents described in the previous paragraph included: (1) a description of the external business context and the company's internal environment; (2) a clear statement of the team's purpose, objectives, and projects, aligned with the objectives of the Human Resources organization and those of ComCorp overall; (3) a description of the major responsibilities of existing and new roles within the department (e.g., the director, operations manager, marketing manager, account managers, and project managers); and (4) a description of team operating procedures, including the high-level objectives of meetings and other forms of communication such as e-mail and online discussions, performance management procedures, and team working agreements. All elements of the team document were developed collaboratively during the weekly team conference calls and were continuously updated by team members as circumstances changed and the team learned what was most effective.
* Managing performance
Observers propose that virtual team leaders need to be more aggressive than leaders of conventional teams in (1) creating structures and routines that substitute for more traditional performance management and team development functions, and (2) distributing these leadership functions to the team (see Bell and Kozlowski, 2002). Given the dispersed nature of ComCorp's T&D team, it was impossible to closely manage the work of each team member. Moreover, it was clear that such micromanagement would be counterproductive given the experience levels of team members and the need to customize corporate training and development interventions in light of local business unit and cultural differences.
ComCorp's T&D team leader established a performance management routine that included: (1) weekly team conference calls; (2) one-on-one telephone meetings between the leader and each team member (every two weeks); (3) evaluation of project objectives against work activity, client satisfaction, and business results; (4) quarterly reports of departmental business accomplishments to the executives in Human Resources; (5) an annual performance appraisal that included an extensive self-assessment by each team member; and (6) a personal development plan written by each employee with input from the team leader.
* Demonstrating commitment
While the challenges and strategies just discussed form the context for developing the team, a decisive factor for the team leader's success is ultimately his or her attitude toward the team and its members rather than any specific skills or methods (Mindell, 1993). The feelings with which theory, techniques, and information are applied are often more important to human relationships than the effectiveness with which they are applied. The T&D director attempted to demonstrate commitment to the members of the team by: (1) adding significant value to ComCorp's business, which bolstered the team's credibility; (2) creating the conditions for T&D to be effective in a fast changing environment (establishing a clear identity, maximizing information flow, and ensuring the development of strong relationships among team members); and (3) supporting the success of each T&D team member through coaching, feedback, tangible rewards, and personal development. The director also made a public request to be held accountable for these performance objectives.
* Team success and illustrative outcomes
One of the challenges of assessing the effectiveness of a virtual team, especially over the long term, is that team performance is difficult to separate from the ongoing challenges of managing in a turbulent business environment, especially one characterized by complex, globally dispersed operations and high levels of change inside and outside the organization. In essence, ComCorp's virtual training and development team was challenged to build its capabilities and fulfill its objectives against a backdrop of continuous organizational change (see Kerber, 2001).
There were, however, several indicators of team success, especially in light of the team's mandate and objectives. During the T&D team's first year, for example, the team successfully implemented three major corporate-level projects, including a suite of organizational change programs, a redesign of the firm's performance management system, and a series of programs designed to close gaps in ComCorp's business management capability (given to over 2,200 management participants worldwide). Following the system redesign and subsequent training initiated and carried out by the virtual team, over 98% of ComCorp's employees received written performance feedback during the implementation of the new system, a significant increase over previous years.
In addition to the success of these projects, conversations with ComCorp's Human Resources executives indicated that the credibility of the T&D team with HR and the new CEO grew steadily during the year and a half covered by the case study. Tangible evidence included the fact that, over this period, the CEO and his executive team sponsored all the major corporate T&D projects, resourced their implementation, and regularly reviewed results with the T&D team.
Finally, team members themselves also reported good feelings about the virtual experience and the performance of the team. One member, who reflected the sentiment of the team, noted: "Our team leader did an excellent job of leading while respecting the wealth of expertise and experience in the team. We did not feel stifled, yet it was still clear who had the ultimate responsibility ... We really worked well as a team, particularly when [the team leader] had us continually focus on our major priorities and strategies."
Dynamics in a Global Virtual Team
As summarized in Figure 1, our observations of ComCorp's virtual T&D team indicate a tension among forces that pull apart and those that draw together a global virtual team. As with any case study, of course, the extent to which our observations and results can be generalized depends on comparative assessments of other virtual teams as we continue to build a theory of virtual team leadership and performance (see Malhotra, Majchrzak, Carmen and Lott, 2001). Based on other studies of virtual teams (e.g., cf. Bell and Kozlowski, 2002; Duarte and Snyder, 1999; Maznevski and Chudoba, 2000; Moyntoya-Weiss, et al, 2001; Saunders, Van Slyke and Vogel, 2004) and our experience applying Figure 1 in corporate team development programs working with intact virtual teams, it appears that the centrifugal and centripetal forces identified in the model are broadly applicable to a wide range of virtual teams. Future research should focus on comparative assessments of the dynamics across different virtual teams to determine whether other integrating (centripetal) and disintegrating (centrifugal) forces are present, their relative power in different situations, and the extent to which this framework fully captures virtual team dynamics.
* Implications for virtual team leaders
Several powerful centrifugal forces pull apart a global virtual team. Pressure to pursue local priorities is perhaps the most powerful one encouraging team members to subordinate corporate objectives to the more immediate needs of colleagues in the same business unit and physical location. Casual, face-to-face contact with local colleagues encourages the pursuit of local priorities rather team objectives. This focus is further reinforced by cultural differences that justify attention to local priorities and also by time differences that reduce the opportunities for the team leader and members to discuss team goals. In a virtual environment, these centrifugal forces tend not to diminish over the life of the team.
While advanced information and communication technologies are crucial to overcoming these centrifugal forces, technology is largely an enabler that allows the leader and the team to create counteracting, centripetal forces that bring the team together. First, to build a high performing virtual team, members need a compelling business challenge that is personally relevant and energizes them to overcome the difficulties associated with spatial distance, technological mediation, and a lack of direct interpersonal interaction. Second, a compelling challenge becomes more energizing when each team member is charged with determining how to achieve it. Therefore, it is critical that all virtual team members jointly define the team's identity, goals, and processes.
Third, virtual global team leaders need to pay close attention to performance management, not by seeking tight management control, but rather by defining a clear context within which team members are free to make important decisions by taking into consideration local business unit and cultural needs. Performance management in virtual teams is facilitated when team leaders are able to (1) create a clear team identity, (2) maximize information flow, (3) develop strong interpersonal relationships among team members, and (4) utilize online team discussions and document archives. Fourth, the complex and challenging tasks faced by a virtual team require critical attention to team communication. While a lack of clarity around goals, tasks and procedures can hinder any team, ambiguity is heightened in virtual teams. A primary activity of virtual team leaders is to establish, develop, and sustain lavish information flow among all team members, despite their geographic distance and virtual presence.
Finally, the effort needed by a team leader to build and maintain cohesiveness and trust in a virtual team may be greater than that required for collocated teams. This may place an additional burden on the virtual team leader's commitment to and accountability for the team and its outcomes. Demonstrating a high level of personal commitment, which is among the most challenging and highly leveraged methods for achieving virtual collaboration, sends a clear message to team members about the leader's trustworthiness and sincerity.
Based on the ComCorp experience, encouraging the formation of strong interpersonal relationships was among the most challenging objectives because of the lack of informal social contact among team members. Some techniques that were useful for building strong virtual relationships among team members included the exchange of photographs via the Internet (during its formation stage and as a way of updating personal events in peoples' lives), regular team interaction via conference calls that included introductory "ice-breaker" exercises (e.g., describing your most embarrassing experience), time for informal conversation and socializing during conference calls, individual and team recognition for achievements, and the accessibility of the leader (see also Joinson, 2002). Team members responded favorably to these interactions, particularly the exchange of photographs and personal information, as they worked on an electronic version of "high touch." More such activities were requested by team members.
Conclusions: Leading Global Virtual Teams The distributed nature of global virtual teams creates unique challenges for their leaders. A number of disintegrating forces continually pull teams apart, including time zone differences, local pressures, cultural differences, and a general lack of face-to-face contact and interaction. Virtual team leaders must overcome these forces on an ongoing basis. Advanced communication technology--including Web conferencing, instant messaging, and online collaboration tools --facilitates the leader's ability to intensify the integrating forces that enhance virtual team effectiveness. What is communicated and how it is communicated via this technology, however, remain the most critical factors.
Based on the present case study, it appears that virtual collaboration is encouraged and ultimately emerges when a team and its leader do the following:
* Work together on an important business challenge that team members find personally compelling;
* Jointly define and commit to the team's identity, goals and processes;
* Implement a focused performance management process that is embedded in team routines;
* Create lavish information flow by using familiar as well as new communication technologies to overcome distance and time; and
* Tie these efforts together through the personal commitment and dedication of the team leader.
As illustrated by the ComCorp virtual team experience, team leaders can create simultaneous loose-tight controls, embracing a dynamic process that involves the entire team and also defining a context for the team (identity, information, relationships) that encourages independent decision-making within clear boundaries. While there are formidable barriers and problems to overcome, our experience suggests that managers can successfully harness the talents and capabilities of their virtual teams, facilitating the ability of their organization to achieve its business objectives, and matching, perhaps even exceeding, the effectiveness of collocated teams.
ARTICLE 4) NOT AVAILABLE IN FULL TEXT, BUT IS USEFUL: Virtual team interaction: assessment, consequences, and management. R.E. Potter, R.A. Cooke, P.A. Balthazard. Team Performance Management July 1, 2000 v6 i7 p131(7)