Virtues of virtual teams: Exploring the vistas
Teaming together is one sure way of achieving results. The current cricket carnival has aptly demonstrated the power of team spirit. Having discussed the value of typical teams sometime ago, today’s attention is on a specific type of teams, namely, Virtual Teams (VTs).
Nature of VTs
I had the privilege of working closely with two researchers who had done extensive studies on VTs. It is high on my research agenda as well, in discovering how VTs can add value to Sri Lanka organisations.
A VT is an arrangement where the members are geographically dispersed but technologically connected. A software development team with members based in Colombo, Bangalore, Boston and London is an example of a VT.
Rapid advancements in technology have enabled organisations to create VTs since the 1990s. Organisations capable of rapidly creating teams of talented people who can respond to the needs of their customer are destined for success in the competitive and complex global economy of today. Many of these teams are globally distributed and made up of individuals from varying cultures.
Unlike a traditional team, a VT works across space, time and organisational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technologies. As Bergiel and others (2008) advocate, this new ‘nomadic’ tribe needs to be guided, and supported in order to ensure expected performance.
Global trends of VTs
As a global trend, forward-thinking organisations have readily embraced the underlying principles of VTs. Such thinking has enabled them to become agile and compete more robustly in the global market place (Jungalwalla, 2000). VTs evolved with the availability of appropriate technology.
To what extent are today’s VTs different from the traditional notion of a team? In addition, what benefits and problems arise as a consequence of the creation of virtual formations? Geography, national culture, language and time are at the crux of developing VTs.
Nevertheless, these elements can also act as barriers to assembling talented global teams unless virtual teaming is utilised. Virtual teaming emerges one of the more important management tools available to companies wishing as to take advantage of the pool of global talent.
For example, as Shiff (2006) reports, a new flagship mouse produced by Logitech is truly an effort of global teaming. The mechanical engineering and design took place in Ireland, electrical engineering in Switzerland, corporate marketing, software engineering and quality assurance at the company’s Fremont California headquarters. Tooling took place in Taiwan and manufacturing occurred in China.
A widely dispersed design team is characteristic of any VT operating in the electronics industry – a shortage of quality local talent drives companies to create these geographically distributed project teams, with member strategically located in regions that begin their days when others’ end.
VTs and multinational enterprises
As Multinational Enterprises (MNEs) expand into new geographical areas, they face increasing time compression in product development and employ more foreign-based subcontracted labour (Stewart, 1994). Virtual teams offer the promise of flexibility, responsiveness, lower costs and the improved resource utilisation. These are all necessary to meet the ever-changing task requirements of companies operating in highly turbulent and dynamic global business environments.
Many of the elements that constitute successful face-to-face teams are also necessary for successful VTs. According to Bergiel and others (2008), the key factors of success include:
nHigh levels of trust
nAppropriate levels of technology
Nevertheless, virtual teams face certain obstacles, which can hinder high-level performance. Such barriers to success include:
nMultiple time zones
nDifferent approaches to conflict resolution
The failure or breakdown of trust, communication, leadership and technology in virtual teams can have severe consequences for MNEs.
Key VT elements
It is interesting what Lipnack and Stamps (2000) stated about key VT elements.
“Human beings have always worked and socialised in face-to-face groups. Now people no longer must be in the same building – never mind on the same continent – to work together.” Such workers belong to virtual teams, which are groups of people working “interdependently with a shared purpose across space, time and organisation boundaries using technology”.
VTs allow people to communicate across borders without leaving the comfort of their office. Until the creation and rapid development of the internet, virtual teams were neither a viable nor cost effective option. Prior to the internet era and the new generation of computers, teams communicated cross-country via conference calls, which posed problems because of different time zones.
As Lipnack and Stamps (2000) further reported, VTs are clearly on the rise, with more than a quarter of a billion people already online globally, dealing with each other.
Based on the research conducted at the Arizona State University, nearly two thirds of organisations in the USA utilise virtual teams to execute business strategies. By the early 2000s, VeriFone, a leading multinational was reported to rely on virtual teams to conduct its everyday operations. Microsoft also uses virtual teams to support major global corporate customer sales and post-sales services.
Success factors for VTs
Like other kinds of teams, a VT is a group of people who interact through interdependent tasks, guided by a common purpose. Interestingly, many of the best practices for traditional teams are similar to those for VTs.
Based on the research by Katzenbach and Smith (2001), “team performance, be it virtual or not, is primarily about discipline – leader, peer and self-imposed”. Moreover, trust, communication, leadership, goal setting and technology all emerge as factors vital to the formation of a successful VT.
This is the glue that bonds a team together. Lawley (2006) describes the story of Orange, the mobile communications branch of France Telecom, is a fast-moving business in a dynamic, unpredictable and competitive market.
At Orange, for example, low levels of trust among the VT members were identified as hindering product development and reducing the capacity of the company to meet its goals. Trust is often the result of team members knowing that all people in a team can be counted on to complete their assigned tasks. This is of special importance in VTs because of the lack of personal face-to-face interaction.
Accordingly to Joinson (2002), team members also benefit from the “personal touch” – being able to associate a face with a name, even if it is only a picture or a video image, is a positive step.
In the case of VT, there are more barriers of communication than in a traditional team. Individuals from different national cultures vary in terms of their communication styles and group behaviours. This can include the motivation to seek and disclose personal information whilst developing friendship. Anderson and others (2007) suggest that the “effective use of communication, especially during the early stages of the team’s development, plays an equally important role in gaining and maintaining trust”.
VT members must learn to excel as active communicators. The success of the team depends on the ability of team members to exchange information in face of the challenge of time and place. It is a case of not only what but how as well.
This is something that we know well. It can make or break teams. Same is true for VTs. Conflict resolution also requires significant leadership expertise. As Snyder (2003) observes, one of the responsibility of the team leader is “to be hyper vigilant, to keep these [conflicts] from spiralling out of control”.
Effective team leaders can also demonstrate the capability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Also, team leaders must remember to recognise the contributions of individuals. If a team leader recognises a person’s contribution to the team goals, that person will generally respond appropriately to that recognition. However, recognition does not need to be in the form of a salary increase or a promotion; it can be as inexpensive as a genuine “thank you”.
Malhotra and others (2007) share the sentiments of one of the VT leaders: “I must be a diplomat to help teams overcome cultural differences, an ambassador to keep sponsors around the world updated on the team’s progress, a psychologist to provide a variety of rewards to a diverse an often isolated group of team members, an executive, a coach, a role model all at the same time.”
Clarity on goals
The goals of a VT effectively become a unifying force, which incorporates the organisation’s strategy, the objectives of the various team members and the needs of team members. Therefore, it is vital for all team members to participate in the goal-setting phase of a project.
VT members should actively engage in constructive dialogue to ensure that clarity exists at all levels within the team concerning performance measures. Goals should be referred to frequently by team leaders to encourage VTs to stay on course. Losing sight of team goals opens up the possibility for undisciplined behaviours.
Use of technology
Technology is simply described as a tool that requires human input. No matter how sophisticated a technology might be, the success of failure depends on how it matches the user requirements. A team leader must be certain that VT members possess the appropriate skills, hardware, software and the requisite computer knowledge necessary to actively participate in the team’s activities.
Some of the technology tools available are synchronous in nature, requiring people to be available at the same time, independent of geography. For example, the telephone, teleconferencing, video conferencing, chat rooms and other tools including voice-mail, email, faxes and computer-mediated conferencing (CMC) are all technologies employed in this context.
As Bergiel and others (2008) comment, CMC is an important development in computer-related technological applications in VTs. This is because, they allow people who are not located in the same place to structure and engage in a real-time dialogue about a project or task.
Software designed specifically for virtual teams, termed “groupware,” is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Groupware creates a centralised conduit for all group-related communications, effectively minimising missed messages and wasted time. The work of VTs can also be enhanced by use of a designated web site. This acts as a convenient space to store and distribute graphic materials, schedules, flowcharts, reference materials and much more.
What are the advantages and disadvantages associated with VTs? Are they suitable for Sri Lankan organisations to expand their horizons? Are three more promises and pitfalls? Our next column will address these aspects in detail.
(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a Senior Faculty Member and a Management Consultant attached to the Postgraduate Institute of Management, University of Sri Jayewardenepura. He also serves as an adjunct faculty in International Human Resource Management at the Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, USA. He has over two decades of both private and public sector working experience in diverse environments including Unilever and Nestlé. He has engaged in consultancies in more than 10 countries. He is a Commonwealth AMDISA Doctoral Fellow and Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow. He holds a Ph.D. and an MBA from the Postgraduate Institute of Management, University of Sri Jayewardenepura and a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Moratuwa. He is also a member of the Chartered Management Institute, UK.)