Vistas of virtual teams

Monday, 23 January 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Teaming together is one sure way of achieving results. With the increased usage of computers for communication, being virtual and yet being a part of a team has become possible. It is all about virtual teams (VTs). Sri Lankan organisations have embarked on forming VTS for a variety of reasons. Today's column will view such vistas of VTs.

Nature of VTs

I had the privilege of working closely with two researchers who have 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 Virtual teams (VTs), since 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.

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.

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.

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:

1.    Drastically 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.

2.    Recruit 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.

3.    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.

4.    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.

5.    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:

1.    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.  

2.     A 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.

3.    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.

4.    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) appears as the most pervasive and successful form of person-to-person groupware.  In addition, computer-based conferencing systems are also popular. These allow a workgroup to exchange views, ideas, or information in a discussion to overcome the barriers created by time and space.  Collaborative writing/programming/drawing also is a related activity of creating documents by a group of collaborative workers. Further, workflow automation systems, workgroup scheduling, workgroup shared text-base systems are some of the other popular methods.  The relevance of all above can be high to Sri Lankan organisations, particularly in the context of increasing awareness on ICT.

Way forward

The rising versatility of VTs is an example of how technology affects human behavior 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. In essence, "high tech - high touch" balance needs to be strengthened with VT arrangements.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a learner, teacher, trainer, researcher, writer and a thinker in the areas of Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour. He can be reached on ajantha@pim.lk.)

COMMENTS