!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Managing Virtual Teams

Monday, July 13, 2009

Managing Virtual Teams

In the surprisingly fluffy Summer 2009 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review — they seem to have been sucked into the camp that swears by abridgement and abbreviation (the curse of Twitter) — an article I found appealingly substantive addresses the question of how to manage virtual teams.

Authors Frank Siebdrat (Boston Consulting Group, Munich), Martin Hoegl (pdf) (Otto Beisheim School of Management1), and Holger Ernst (Otto Beisheim School of Management) start by discussing the benefits and liabilities of using teams in which members are geographically dispersed.

As summarized in their first exhibit, the benefits (somewhat edited) are:
  • Heterogeneous knowledge resources

  • Utilization of cost advantages

  • Access to diverse skills and experience

  • Knowledge about diverse markets

  • Ability to have people working more or less around the clock because they are in different time zones
The liabilities (somewhat edited) are:
  • Language differences

  • Cultural differences

  • Difficulties in establishing common ground

  • Fewer face-to-face interactions

  • Greater difficulty in achieving good teamwork
The key finding Siebdrat, Hoegl, and Ernst (SHE) report, from their research into the workings of twenty-eight software development teams in Brazil, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, and the US, is that the balance of benefits vs. liabilities tends to favor dispersed teams under certain important conditions.

These conditions are that a team's task-related ("hard") and socio-emotional ("soft") processes be well-managed. SHE report:
  • "[T]hose processes that are directly task-related are the most critical for the performance of dispersed teams. Specifically, virtual teams that had processes that increased the levels of mutual support, member effort, work coordination, balance of member contributions and task-related communications consistently outperformed other teams with lower levels. ... Moreover, dispersed teams that had high levels of task-related processes were notably able to outperform colocated teams with similar levels of those same processes despite the physical separation of their members."

    On the other hand, "dispersion carries significant risks: Those teams with poor task-related processes suffered heavily with increased dispersion."

  • With respect to socio-emotional processes, "organizations must ... ensure that team members commit to the overall group goals, identify with the team and actively support a team spirit." The quality of these processes, in and of themselves, does not differentiate performance of dispersed and colocated teams. However, SHE suggest that building robust socio-emotional processes supports achieving high quality of task-related processes. For example, with good team cohesion, it is probably the case that knowledge is transferred more completely, and conflicts within a team are more readily resolved.
SHE describe five dos and don'ts of managing dispersed teams:
  • Don't underestimate the significance of small distances. E.g., team members located on different floors of the same building actually tend to be less effective and efficient than teams whose members are on the same floor and than teams more widely dispersed. Only teams with members on different continents perform worse on average.

  • Emphasize teamwork skills. This means recruiting people who are inclined to play well with others, and providing training to help team members strengthen their teamwork skills.

  • Promote self-leadership across the team. This is necessary because of the difficulty a designated leader is likely to have in intervening effectively when members of a dispersed team are experiencing conflict or other difficulty. "For a virtual team to succeed, members generally need to be aware of the difficulties of dispersed collaboration and find effective ways to overcome those obstacles on their own." Training can help.

  • Provide for face-to-face meetings. For instance, a project kickoff meeting in which team members are all assembled in one place can make a real difference in how quickly they begin to function effectively.

  • Foster a global culture, a mindset "in which people see themselves as part of an international network. ... [M]anagers and team members need to recognize and frame their company as such, communicating the international nature of the organization's operations and markets."

    SHE cite practices of companies like Nestlé, General Electric, IBM and SAP, such as sending staff on assignments in foreign countries. SHE also suggest providing inter-cultural training. The intended outcome of such measures is "development of diversity-friendly attitudes and the ability to work in different contexts, which in turn help employees cope with the challenges of distance when working on virtual teams."
I'll close by noting that this research, while quite interesting and suggestive, needs replication in order for an organization to draw on its findings and recommendations with full confidence.

1 WHU stands for "Wissenschaftliche Hochschule für Unternehmensführung” — Scholarly/Scientific University for Business Management.


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