Virtual Teams: Selection and Assessment of Team Members
Stephen M. Urquhart
This paper reviews current literature spanning theoretical and practical research of virtual teams. Ultimately, the paper will identify the most likely predictors of success to aid in the selection and assignment of employees and other members to a virtual team. Four key areas of research are covered: the virtual team environment; critical success factors in a virtual team; individual behaviors and success factors; and current practices for vetting and assigning virtual team members. Finally, a research approach is proposed to build on the currently defined success factors, measured in the context of how they would be applied in a virtual team setting.
“Ever-greater virtualization is eating away at organizational structures and replacing them with networks of free agents.”
– Michael Malone, The Virtual Corporation (Ante, 2009)
The concept of virtual teams has existed for more than two decades (Terrie, 1987; Kirkman, Rosen, Gibson, Tesluk and McPherson, 1995; Coyle and Schnaar, 1995), however, the technology to fully optimize the benefits of a team with members in different parts of the world in support of a common set of goals is relatively new and appears to be evolving. It is conceivable that the pace of technology has in some ways outstripped the capability of workers to keep up and adapt in a way where they can make a proactive and substantive contribution to organizational goals. Based on initial research into this area of concern, there appears to be insufficient guidance available to human resource (HR) practitioners and business managers in determining which employees are a good fit for a virtual team, what predictors can be used to accurately determine suitability, and how to effectively evaluate candidates for virtual assignments in advance to avoid failures and degraded productivity.
This paper will evaluate the current literature discussing theoretical and practical research of organizational practices in determining predictors of success when assigning employees and other members to a virtual team. The literature review spans four key areas of research that frame the discussion and proposed approach for future research: the virtual team environment; critical success factors in a virtual team; individual behaviors and other factors contributing to team efficacy; and current practices in assessment for vetting and assigning virtual team members. Based on the evaluation of current practices, a research approach is proposed that will build on the currently defined success factors, and measure them in the context of how they would be applied in a virtual team setting.
There has been significant research into the technical underpinnings of the virtual team environment, principally focused on the design and schematic work on the necessary information technology (IT) infrastructure needed to connect far-flung team members using electronic communication tools and resources (Badrinarayanan and Arnett, 2008; Henttonen and Blomqvist, 2005). Additionally, the capabilities and requirements of an individual to effectively manage such a virtual team are fairly well defined, at least based on what is known today about boundary-spanning teamwork and communications (Cascio, 2000; Hertel, Geister and Konradt, 2005; Gibson and Cohen, 2003; Thomas and Bostrom, 2010). Largely missing from the research are meaningful instruments and vetting tools to determine which team members can perform in the virtual team environment. Without such predictors in place, the assignment of team members is largely a trial-and-error exercise, leading to dysfunctional teams that underperform and may be counterproductive to the goals of the parent organization (Thomas and Bostrom, 2010).
This is further reinforced in an MIT Sloan study on virtual teams, working in partnership with global software developer SAP to evaluate 80 teams across 28 locations, including Brazil, China, Germany and the United States. What the authors found is that subject matter expertise and individual availability to participate on the team are often the sole criteria for the selection of individuals for assignment to a virtual team. If a virtual team is going to have any chance of achieving its assigned goals, those responsible for building the team must also take into account the interpersonal and social skills and teamwork orientation of the proposed members, along with their capacity and willingness to work in a “dispersed team” environment (Siebdrat, Hoegl and Ernst, 2009).
What assessment tools and resources can human resources professionals offer to their supported organizations that will accurately predict the likelihood of success of individual contributors prior to assigning them to virtual teams?
Identifying appropriate assessment tools and resources for the selection and assignment of individuals to virtual teams is predicated on a clear understanding of the nuances and conditions of the virtual team itself (Helms and Raiszadeh, 2002). Based on the research, there appears to be a logical clustering that begins with an understanding of the virtual team environment, proceeds to the success factors of a virtual team, then addresses the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) an individual needs to be successful in such a team, and finally provides the assessment and selection tools and criteria currently available.
The Virtual Team Environment
Virtual teams are a necessary response to the increasingly complex and diffuse nature of business in a global economy that relies heavily on technology, networks and strategic partnerships (Lurey and Raisinghani, 2001). When correctly structured and implemented, the virtual team is capable of providing the parent organization with flexibility to meet the constantly changing competitive market, at the same time creating boundary-spanning potential into different markets, countries and alliances that may have been inaccessible in the traditional organizational model.
One of the first authors to lay claim to the term “virtual corporation,” (Davidow and Malone, 1992) put a finer point on this emerging theme in The Future Arrived Yesterday, stating: “Every trend in the corporate world – technological, managerial, financial, and cultural – is pushing companies toward ever-greater virtualization, the dismantling of every traditional organizational structure, and their replacement with networks of free agents (Malone, 2009).” According to Malone, employees are increasingly finding themselves in a constant state of change, in which decentralization and flattening of hierarchies is the norm and constant reorganization is fundamentally changing the way we work within a corporation. As free agents, employees take on a greater responsibility to seek out opportunities to apply their skill sets and act as entrepreneurs within their own companies.
Hertel, Geister and Konradt offer the following definition of virtual teams: “Virtual teams consist of two or more persons who collaborate interactively to achieve common goals, while at least one of the team members works at a different location, organization, or at a different time so that communication and coordination is predominantly based on electronic communication media (2005, pg. 3).”
More simply put, a virtual team is “a physically dispersed task group that conducts its business through modern information technology (Kreitner, Kinicki and Cole, 2007). The common denominator in every definition reviewed appears to be the distance between members of the team, and the use of technology to overcome distance in order to achieve assigned goals and objectives.
This definition is further clarified by an increased dependence upon computer mediated communication (CMC) tools, and collaboration on work that is distributed across one or more dimensions (Hertel, Geister and Konradt, 2005). Lurey and Raisinghani identified the following computer-mediated methods of exchanging information among members of the virtual team, in order of frequency of use: e-mail; shared databases and groupware; and video conferencing (2001). While their study is nearly ten years old at the time of this writing, it appears that e-mail continues to rank first in use, at least in frequency. Thomas and Bostrom, using the alternative term “information and communication technology” (ICT), identify e-mail, telephone calls, and audio conferencing as the primary methods of virtual team communication (2010).
It should not be assumed that a virtual team is comprised of the members of a common employer, as increasingly there are cases where such teams are constructed to include outside consultants, other strategic partners and businesses, and individuals with specific skill sets that would otherwise not be available to the team and its parent organization (Cascio, 2000). When managed correctly, these “alliances” have the potential to break down barriers and rapidly collaborate on projects such as new product development, engineering and architectural projects, consulting and others requiring intensive knowledge work (Cascio, 2000).
According to Peterson and Stohr there are seven basic types of virtual teams: networked teams; parallel teams; project teams; production teams; service teams; management teams; and action teams (2003). This research will focus primarily on the virtual project team, which typically works together for a defined period of time, with assigned tasks that are non-routine, expected results that are observable and measurable, and where the team itself has decision-making authority (Tabari and Kaboli, 2004).
“Can teams that don’t spend time physically together be effective?” So begins a McKinsey Quarterly article exploring virtual teams (Benson-Armer and Hsier, 1997, pg. 19). To complete the thought, “The answer is yes – so long as they can find a way to build credibility and trust (19).” As companies were just beginning to embrace e-mail and as globalization was beginning to take hold in 1997, McKinsey evaluated a number of companies that had begun the implementation of virtual organizations and virtual teams in support of specific business objectives, such as Boeing Corporation. In support of Boeing’s 777-series aircraft design and manufacturing project, 230 cross-functional teams were utilized, with up to 40 members on any given team. This global effort involved around 500 suppliers spanning 12 countries, as well as four airline customers. Such is the nature of today’s increasingly complex and networked business model, which necessitates the ability to work across geographical, cultural and in some cases corporate boundaries to achieve business results. To succeed in such a scenario, virtual teams are needed that can effectively communicate, overcome cultural differences, create relationships based on trust, and master the technology needed to keep the project moving (Benson-Armer and Hsier, 1997).
Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith posited four “team basics” in their book, The Wisdom of Teams. These “basics” are cited in the McKinsey article (Benson-Armer and Hsier, 1997): complementary skills, goals, accountability and a common approach to the work. These “basics” are common to all teams, but in the virtual team environment these become more critical and more difficult to manage. Because of the virtual nature of the team, the authors observed that teams struggled to get the resources and support that they needed to get the job done, requiring the teams to be more resourceful.
In establishing a virtual team, once a clear purpose has been set, it is necessary to evaluate factors that can contribute to the success of the team as well as those factors which might derail its progress (Beyerlein, 2008). Using Lewin’s force field analysis, the author presents the following scenario of driving and restraining forces related to virtual teams:
Table 1. Force Field Analysis.
|Driving Forces à||ß Restraining Forces|
|Excitement about the project||Status quo – the inertia of historical context|
|Supportive management style||Limited access to information (clearances)|
|Sufficient time and resources||Technical issues, e.g. computer platforms|
|Alignment to strategic priorities||Conflicting cultural context of individuals|
|Team record of success||Language differences and vocabulary|
|The right mix of people and expertise||Technical skills and background|
|Good informal leadership||Competing priorities and time commitments|
|Clarity of the project and goals||Time zone differences|
Virtual Team Success Factors
In The Handbook of High Performance Virtual Teams, Stavros offers some perspectives on “sensemaking” within the virtual team environment, summarizing with a “five C” model that includes: clarity, connection (and coordination), candor, co-creation and commitment (2008). While originally designed for an academic setting, these principles appear to have relevance for a typical virtual team setting as they draw on lessons learned in a distributed learning environment and in embracing new tools for communication and collaboration in the classroom that are equally applicable in a virtual team environment.
Lurey and Raisinghani offer a number of predictors for success of a virtual team in their study, listed here in rank order based on mean score (with 5.0 being the highest possible score): job characteristics (3.47); executive leadership style (3.17); team members satisfaction (3.14); reward system (3.03); internal team leadership (3.01); tools and technologies (2.95); selection procedures (2.85); team members relations (2.83); and team process (2.71) (2001).
The authors derived the following from their research, based on the analysis of correlated data, and provide the following recommended steps in implementing virtual teams: designing team processes that support the workflow and team interaction; facilitate and encourage effective team relations and communications; develop a reward system that takes into account the dynamics and work product of a team; and ensure that qualified members are selected for the virtual team (Lurey and Raisinghani, 2001).
The following four “cornerstones” are presented as necessary elements in the development and sustainability of a virtual team: direction, competence, opportunity and motivation (Harwood, 2008). This is referred to as the DCOM model, using the abbreviation of the four elemental words, and is further elaborated as follows:
Table 2. Collaboration Effectiveness Through DCOM.
|Cornerstone||Considerations for Virtual Organizations|
|Direction – the why and the how of doing the work||How clear is the direction that collaboration is required as part of the strategy – and is essential to success?|
|Competence – KSAs needed||Do people have the technical and interpersonal skills they need to collaborate effectively across boundaries?|
|Opportunity – enabling team with support and resources, technology, work processes||Do work processes incorporate time zone and other boundary conditions? Is technology leveraged to support collaboration?|
|Motivation – performance based on willingness to do the work||What practices have been put in place to keep people informed, five helpful feedback, and recognize success as a total network?|
There are certain processes and supporting behaviors required for a group to function and perform, among them seeking, sharing and clarifying information; initiating activities; elaborating and summarizing; and moving the group to consensus (Newman, 2005). These hold true for groups and teams that meet face-to-face as well as those convening virtually.
As a part of an early research experiment with 18 cross-functional virtual teams at Sabre, Inc., the following three dimensions of “virtuality” were identified and evaluated: time spent together as a time versus time apart; dispersion of team members to multiple locations; and time dedicated to the specific nature of the virtual team project. These dimensions could be further refined to read time, distance, and involvement. To compensate for or span these dimensions, virtual teams need to build trust quickly, create synergy and effective group processes, focus on inclusion and involvement of all team members, seek team members who have the necessary technical and interpersonal skills, and develop effective feedback loops (Kirkman, Rosen, Gibson, Tesluk and McPherson, 1995).
To create predictability and to develop patterns of repeatable behavior, the use of processes and the establishment of protocols very early in the team’s formation improves the likelihood of effective engagement of team members and collaboration among the team. To this end, Hoefling has created a team development process checklist (2008) that outlines considerations for team assignment and factors for success. For example, it is important to have an understanding early on as to the previous experience the team’s members have in similar virtual settings, and to gain insights based on their lessons learned. It can be helpful to understand their career goals and aspirations to check for alignment with the purpose of the team, and to evaluate and assess the inclusiveness and communication capabilities each person brings to the team.
The Hoefling checklist provides an implicit statement of the success factors in the outline of the following planning and interaction elements: stating and clarifying goals; identifying available resources; setting performance standards; establishing roles and responsibilities for all team members; defining decision making process and authority of members; and setting the approach for communications and collaboration (2008).
Breakdowns in team effectiveness tend to occur as a result of poor communication or gaps in understanding that lead to poor performance or disengagement of team members (Gibson and Cohen, 2003; Kerber and Buono 2004). Virtual team leaders need to effectively address the following five hurdles and areas of weakness to ensure that the virtual team can succeed: external constraints; internal constraints; effectiveness of information and communication technology (ICT) resources; intra-organizational trust and relationship issues; and ICT knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) (Thomas and Bostrom, 2010).
Individual Behaviors and Factors
Whether an individual can be successful working in a virtual environment may depend upon their “fit” for that type of structure, and a person-environment (P-E) fit study was conducted by Shin (2004) to evaluate the congruence of any given individual’s attributes, capabilities and work style preferences to those required in the typical structure and setting of a virtual team. The individual attributes tested included: autonomy, flexibility, diversity, trust, computer literacy, time management skills and the ability to work autonomously. Based upon values assigned to each of these attributes for matching against the person-organization, person-group and person-job fit, the P-E fit study was able to yield individual scores in predicted performance, job satisfaction, organizational commitment and turnover intentions (729).
Based on this study, Shin highlighted the following attributes as most closely correlated with success in a virtual team setting: high autonomy, flexibility, valuing diversity, and willingness to trust others. These findings are directly relevant to human resources (HR) practitioners as they can serve as desired attributes in the recruiting process as well as in the training and development efforts of the parent organization seeking to launch high-performing and effective virtual teams (2004, 739).
In order to effectively design assessment instruments to predict the success of prospective virtual team members, it is essential to have a working list of the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that are most closely aligned to the work of a virtual team. These will likely include some or all of the following: proficiency with technology tools; knowledge and practice of etiquette for electronic communication; the ability to build effective relationships and work as a member of a team; communication (in writing and via electronic media such as videoconference) in a virtual setting and across cultures; the ability to work with data; ability to manage projects; and the ability to exercise self-management to include effective time and priority management, initiative and professional development (Management Assistance Program, 2009).
Building on related work in the academic field, Newman (2005) offers an extensive list of the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) of effective virtual team members, including:
Table 3. KSAs of Effective Virtual Team Members.
|Listens effectively||Well organized||Objective|
|Communicates often||Provides feedback||Respects others|
|Shows initiative||Flexible||Positive attitude|
|Trustworthy/ dependable||Dedicated to doing a good job||Self-motivated|
|Willing to do their fair share||Open to the views of others||Provides work in a timely fashion|
|Reads and understands the material||Works well without supervision||Able to compromise / reach consensus|
|Communicates effectively through writing|
Finally, while alluded to earlier in this paper, the need for virtual team members to be self-sufficient and self-managing is quite possibly the linchpin of the virtual team’s ability to function for any significant period of time. Because it is not possible for a team manager to apply traditional methods of control and oversight with a virtual team (Siebdrat, Hoegl and Ernst, 2009), increasingly those management responsibilities are diffuse and fall to the individual team members to deal with situations that inevitably arise and to take initiative to solve problems rather than waiting for management intervention. Consequently, this skill set must be carefully defined and included in any vetting criteria that will be used for the assignment of individuals to a virtual team.
Assessment and Vetting
For a virtual team to be effective, it must first satisfy the same principles, or “basics” as identified by Katzenbach and Smith, as those of face-to-face teams: complementary skills, goals, accountability and a common approach to the work. In addition, the virtual team must be able to take on additional functions of self-sufficiency and performance across time and space, including: production and task performance; team member support; and maintenance of group well-being (Järvenpää and Leidner 1998).
Based on extensive research of the available assessment tools and resources that are available, the following four tools are presented as potential starting points for accurately predicting the success of a team member being considered for assignment to a virtual team: the Virtual Team Competency Inventory (VTCI) (Hertel, G., Konradt and Voss, 2006); the Organizational Precursors Assessment tool (Willett, 2000); the Virtual Team Operations survey (Steege, 2003); and an adaptation of the Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSAs) of Effective Virtual Team Members list discussed earlier in this paper (Newman, 2005).
In the Sabre, Inc. study, some of the best practices that emerged in the selection process included the use of relevant behavioral interviewing questions, coupled with simulations of the work environment to evaluate individual work styles and tendencies; and the use of interview and screening panels comprised of employees with actual experience on a virtual team. Their purpose was to elicit responses from potential team members that would show whether the candidates had the necessary balance of technical and interpersonal skills to succeed on a virtual team (Kirkman, Rosen, Gibson, Tesluk and McPherson, 1995).
The figure below provides a theoretical framework for the Virtual Team Competency Index (Hertel, Konradt and Voss, 2006), which is based on an analysis of the following 11 individual attributes (referred to by the authors as “subscales”): loyalty, integrity, conscientiousness, cooperativeness, communication skills, learning motivation, creativity, independence, persistence, interpersonal trust, and intercultural knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). These attributes are analyzed in the context of the task work, teamwork and tele-cooperation KSA groupings. In their study, Hertel, Konradt and Voss were able to validate ten of the 11 subscales based on their correlation with team member performance and motivation, with the one exception being intercultural KSAs due to insufficient experience in this area among the tested population.
Figure 1. Virtual Team Competency Inventory (VTCI).
An effective assessment tool should take into account the purpose of the virtual team; the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that will be required to perform and achieve the defined team goals; and a way to measure individual personality type, traits, preferences and characteristics (including cultural nuance) which could positively or negatively impact the overall composition, interactions and success of the team (Bing, 2004). Coincidentally, Dr. Bing is the founder and chairman of ITAP International, which offers another instrument called the “Global Team Process Questionnaire (GTPQ)” which was considered for this project but ruled out as it provides measurement of the global team in place, without any observed predictive capability for vetting potential candidates for a virtual team.
The purpose of this research is to identify, through testing and longitudinal evaluation of results, an assessment tool that can accurately predict the success of an individual in a virtual team environment, given the purpose of the team and the technical knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that are necessary to contribute to the team’s goals.
In order to evaluate assessment tools and resources that HR should make available to accurately predict the likelihood of success of individual contributors prior to assigning them to virtual teams, some success factors are necessary with which to gauge the efficacy and predictive capability of the given instruments. For the purpose of this study, the following five criteria will be used to evaluate whether a successful outcome was realized, and to establish its linkage to the selection of team members at the onset of the project: the ultimate results of the team’s work; retention of team members (Shin, 2004); individual satisfaction of team members (Shin, 2004; Newman, 2005); stakeholder satisfaction with the team’s contribution and/or results (Newman, 2005); and an analysis of the criteria used to validate the initial assignment of team members.
The general characteristics of the virtual team environment to be evaluated in this research will be as follows: within the virtual project team setting, a collaborative effort that can be classified as “knowledge work,” in support of a multinational or global organization with team members in at least two different countries and representing at least two different functional areas of the supported business.
To determine an assessment tool with a greater likelihood of predicting individual success and resultant virtual team effectiveness, an initial pilot study is likely the most appropriate starting point. Four anticipated virtual project teams will be selected within the same parent organization, and for each of the teams on of the four tools will be assigned for use in the selection and vetting of potential team members.
Figure 2. Overview of Research Methodology and Timing of Questionnaires.
In the table above, there are three points at which the questionnaire would be administered to key stakeholders in the virtual team process: prior to each team’s official start on their respective projects; at the early stage of performance; and upon conclusion of the team’s assigned role, whether based on their ultimate success in achievement of goals or in their dissolution based on other factors. Team One will use the Organizational Precursors Assessment (OPA) to determine candidate “fit” (Shin, 2004) for the team. Team Two will use the Virtual Team Operations (VTO) tool. Team Three will use the Virtual Team Competency Inventory (VTCI) tool. Finally, Team Four will use the Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSAs) of Virtual Team Members evaluation criteria.
At the onset, each team member will complete a questionnaire that gauges their level of individual satisfaction with the team they have been assigned. Once each team reaches its performing stage, the team members will once again complete a satisfaction questionnaire. In addition, the team leader will complete a similar questionnaire that also queries their observations on team efficacy, cooperation and interaction between the team members. Finally, once each of the teams has completed the assigned tasks or is otherwise determined to have reached a point where the team is no longer required, individual members will complete a more comprehensive questionnaire that evaluates their individual level of satisfaction, commitment to the organization, and a subjective assessment of the contributions of the other team members. The team leader will complete a similar questionnaire, as will the virtual team’s principle customer or recipient of the final work product. Success will be based on a qualitative analysis of the survey results yielding a score in each of the following areas: results of the team’s work; team member satisfaction; team member commitment to the organization; and stakeholder satisfaction with the final work product or team results.
Based on the results of each series of questionnaires, it should be possible to identify common elements of success and failure in the team performance that can be attributed to individual strengths and weaknesses. It will be necessary to evaluate these individual effects in the context of what could reasonably be determined at the onset, during the selection phase, and draw correlations between areas of strength that made observable positive impacts on the team’s performance as well as those areas of weakness that inhibited the team’s performance.
Now that virtual teams have become more or less standard components of modern business practices, it is important that human resources practitioners put forward the most effective tools and resources available to help their supported organizations realize the benefits and competitive advantages of virtual teams while minimizing the potentially negative impacts of teams bound together by technology. For more than two decades, much research has been carried out and much more has been written on the creation, implementation and management of virtual teams. However, remarkably little research exists to aid in the selection, training and development of team members prior to their assignment to a virtual team. As a result, technology is being introduced to speed up and streamline virtual team processes that are not fully optimized, leading in some cases to increased efficiency in the short term but more frequently causing frustration, misunderstandings, team dysfunction and other human side effects, in part because the capability of technology is not calibrated to the readiness of the team members.
This proposed research will help human resources and business managers make better decisions about whom to assign to a virtual team, and will provide specific areas of emphasis for training and development in technical, interpersonal and communication skills. As businesses move to an increasingly virtual and technology-based structure, these skills and selection criteria will be essential, not only as a way to compete in the global market, but also as a means to preserve talent, intellectual capital and competitive advantage in the knowledge economy.
Human resources has an opportunity to take a leadership role in this area, and the relevance of HR in the future may depend upon how aptly the function can adapt and apply itself to the dynamic virtual team environment. We can reasonably assume that technology will not slow down to wait for HR to catch up, so this becomes a challenge akin to mounting a horse that is in full gallop, reining it in and harnessing its capability without being trampled or thrown clear. Such are the challenges of the twenty-first century knowledge economy, and HR professionals will have to be up to the task. For many, this work structure is already the norm, and for others this change is lurking just around the corner.
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