Versatility of Virtual Teams: Relevance to Sri Lanka

Monday, 21 March 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We explored the virtues of virtual teams (VTs) last week. We identified a VT as is an arrangement where the members are geographically dispersed but technologically connected. How can Sri Lanka use VTs for its economic growth? Having discussed the nature of VTs with associated elements and success factors, let’s continue the discovery process.

Competing factors for VTs

There are “soft” behavioural factors as well as “hard” structural factors needed to ensure the smooth functioning of VTs. Lee-Kelley and others (2004) from School of Management, University of Surrey, proposed such competing factors as shown in figure 1.

As figure 1 clearly illustrates, trust and commitment is an absolute must to ensure self-disciplined VT members work in harmony. They need to have a high level of self-motivation and clarity on their roles. Such VT members need to be recognised for their contribution.

Hard aspects mentioned in the figure are self-explanatory, that act like enables for VT success. Cultural practices vary from one country to another can affect soft and hard aspects in different countries in different regions. A very individualistic society like US and a reasonably collectivistic society like Sri Lanka may have different levels of competing between soft and hard aspects.

Merits of VTS

There are several merits associated with a VT arrangement. As Bergiel and others (2008) highlight, such merits can be discussed as follows:

nDrastically reduce travel time and cost

The significant expenses associated with accommodation, travel and various daily allowances may be reduced and even eliminated as virtual teams communicate via technology. The reduction in face-to-face meeting time also reduces the level of disruption to every day office life. For example, the director of on-demand workplace solutions for IBM estimates a $50 million saving in travel and downtime costs through the use of virtual teams.  

This aspect offers promising insights to Sri Lanka, for organisations to consider a VT as a cost-effective arrangement.

nRecruit talented employees

VTs allow all organisations to recruit the most talented employees in the field. As Joinson (2002) observed, current workforce, particularly in the west are increasingly unwilling to move because it is a stressful and costly undertaking. Therefore, if a company wants the talents of a ‘‘top marketing guru who is comfortable settled in a posh area in California’’, a virtual team may be the solution.

VTs create a pool of talent that would be unavailable to a company if the management insisted on conducting business through face-to-face meetings only. In addition, as a virtual employee can easily serve on multiple teams, geographic location is no longer a criterion for team membership. Flexibility of this type allows a company to maximise its human resources by allowing team members with particular skills to serve on several teams concurrently.

Getting people in the North and East connected to projects in Colombo, is possible through an effective VT arrangement.

  • Enhance creativity and originality among team members

VTs are diverse and consist of members who are different (heterogeneous). These teams are much more powerful and effective structures compared to traditional team structures influenced by time and place. Diversity helps engender creativity and originality among VT members.

This has already been the case with Sri Lankan software programmers who work in a VT arrangement with their counterparts in Asia, America and Europe.

  • Create equal opportunities in the workplace

In a virtual work environment, physical disadvantaged employees gain easier access to the virtual workplace than to a physical office. This ease of access helps organisations reasonably accommodate the particular needs of a range of disadvantaged employees.

This has been the case already with some of the leading Sri Lankan organisations. It can be logically extended to form more VTs so that, a disabled (rather, differently-abled) military officer can work on a project by getting connected though technology.

  • Discourage age and race discrimination

VTs contribute to this quest because the performance management of employees is primarily based on their productivity as opposed to other attributes. Conducting business online creates an environment that promotes equality and equity among employees.

Demerits of VTs

In contrast to the above merits, there are several demerits too. Bergiel and others (2008) have identified them as follows:

  • Lack of expertise in technological applications related to VTs

VTs may actually experience a kind of generation gap.  As observed by Lipnack and Stamps (2000), the under 30s are ‘‘more likely to be more computer-facile than their more senior leaders, who may not even have the simple skill of rapidly pointing and clicking (and perhaps even typing)’’. In contrast, the younger generation of employees uses computers and allied technologies as a way of life.

This can be a key challenge for Sri Lankan organisations. I have personally seen how post-graduate students who are more capable of “thinking and typing” rather than “thinking and writing” struggle at conventional exams where they have to “write” essay-type answers.

On the other hand, we see how several public sector banks had taken their ageing employees through comprehensive computer training in making them ICT-savvy. It shows that getting used to changing technology is possible and doable.  

 nA general lack of knowledge about VT expectations

As a relatively new structure, many employees engaged in virtual teams will certainly require some level of training in the area. Snyder (2003) suggests that many ‘‘organisations create VTs with almost no understanding of the unique implications of that decision’’. Even computer-savvy employees may not possess sufficient prerequisite knowledge to meet the performance demands within a VT.

  • The virtual structure may not fit the operational environment

VTs may not be an appropriate tool for every company or organisation.  Joinson (2002) suggests that industries such as manufacturing may not be conducive to the use of virtual teams. He indicates that ‘‘any type of work that’s very sequential or integrated can pose problems for VTs’’. The obvious reality of the above is very clear with regard to a factory setting. You need people to work physically.

On the other hand, service sector can carve out projects that can be handled by people located in different places with a reliable technological connection. It is not a remote possibility in Sri Lanka as well.

  • Psychological unsuitability to  work entirely in a virtual space

VTs are not always seen as ideal for many employees. According to Joinson (2002), some people ‘‘who are stimulated by interaction with other people or who need external structure to stay on track may be unsuccessful in a virtual environment’’. These employees thus require extensive training and support if they are to be engaged, even partially, as a member of a virtual team.

This aspect has a particular relevance to Sri Lanka where employees tend to be more emotionally bonded to a physical workplace, with colleagues around. The necessity of having a VT should be clearly emphasised with cost and talent reasons.

Technology as the connector for VTs

As we discussed, technology plays a key connector role for any VT. Stough and others (2000) provide us the following list of essential “groupware”, the ICT term for collaborator software.

  • Electronic-mail (e-mail)

This is the most pervasive and successful form of person-to-person groupware. Anyone who has an e-mail address can send electronic mail to anyone with an e-mail address on any computer in the world connected to a computer network. E-mail capability has also become an essential element in many commercial groupware products.

  • Computer-based conferencing systems

These allow a workgroup to exchange views, ideas, or information in a discussion to overcome the barriers created by time and space. Many types of computer-based conferencing systems exist today including computer conferencing (e-mail meeting), desktop conferencing, teleconferencing, video conferencing, and multimedia conferencing.

  • Collaborative writing/programming/drawing

This is an activity of creating documents by a group of collaborative workers. Collaborative writing systems permit each member of workgroups to create and edit his or her sections of any document type including text, graphics, spreadsheets, and so on.

All of these groupware systems for facilitating communication enhance the innovative use of teams. Imagine how tools such as e-mail, computer-based conferencing, and collaborative writing systems can increase both the performance efficiency and effectiveness of team-based strategic planning, virtual teams, and the traditional group decision techniques.

  • Workflow automation systems

Technology such as e-mail with the attachment function can be used to facilitate smooth flow of paperwork in many offices. Workflow automation applications include any type of office transaction activity that has to be examined, processed, and approved by several persons in an organisation. For example, approving travel expense accounts is a transaction that can be processed by the work flow automation system to streamline the procedure and shorten the processing time required for the document.

  • Workgroup scheduling (workgroup calendaring) systems

These simplify the scheduling of daily, weekly, and long-range activities of workgroups. Using a shared database and scheduling programmes, an organisation can minimise personal schedule conflicts among workgroup members.

  • Workgroup shared text-base systems

These provide an efficient way of retrieving the non-structured text data from organisational memory. Organisational memory (or shared text-base) is a collection of text data from e-mail, electronic bulletin board, or group conferencing systems. When the memory stores the text data collected from a group activity, it is often called group memory. It is an important corporate resource that can be used in problem solving, customer support and others.

The relevance of all above can be high to Sri Lankan organisations, particularly in the context of increasing awareness on ICT.

Small is Beautiful: A Sri Lankan VT in Action

VTs can be found in a variety of service sector organisations. ICT sector appears to be leading the way by having a significant number of VTs. Both large firms players as well as small players resort to it as a sensei working arrangement. Let’s consider a “small and beautiful” case of a VT.

I received an interesting email after my last week’s column on VTs from a young entrepreneur in the field of ICT.  Janesh K. Kodikara, is the founder of Pragmatic Test Labs. He says at the outset, that they believe in Sir Arthur Clarke’s advice: “Do not commute; Communicate”. Janeshes’ entity operates from an office in the first floor of his house located in Kadawatha.

He employs several testers who come to office just three days a week. Their testing project work is mostly developed by a Sri Lankan who is located at Kelaniya. The developer, who has never been to the USA, directly works for clients in US. Status updates, meeting scheduling and other tasks are done through using popular programmes such as Skype, Microsoft SharedView and Google Docs.

As Janith says, “we don’t have any server for hosting our software, but use cost effective cloud solutions.” They can work from anywhere in the world with their laptops and a speedy internet connection.

Way forward

The rising versatility of VTs is an example of how technology affects human behaviour in organisations. It has already gathering momentum in Sri Lanka. In order to achieve “humane results”, such arrangements need to be strengthened with supportive HR practices. Carefully selecting VT members and continuously supporting them are vital tasks for HR professionals.

We will discuss the support role of HR for making VTs more effective in the next column.

(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.)