Powell, Piccoli and Ives (2004) in their paper, ‘Virtual Teams: A Review
of Current Literature and Directions for Future Research’, draw a
distinction between ‘teams’ and ‘groups’. It is important to understand
that although sometimes used interchangeably, the term ‘team’ should be
used with the following widely accepted definition (Powell et al. 2004)
to differentiate it from the term ‘group’ in this context: ‘A team is a
collection of individuals who are interdependent in their tasks, who
share responsibility for outcomes, who see themselves and who are seen
by others as an intact social entity embedded in one or more larger
social systems, and who manage their relationship across organizational
boundaries.” (Cohen & Baily, 1997, p. 241).
Motivation Language: Research has shown that a leaders
motivational language and feedback approach directly effects member
creativity and idea generation performance (Fan et al, 2014). It was
found that members ‘receiving non-directional-giving instructions
generate more ideas under the demanding feedback approach and team
members receiving instructions with more empathetic language exhibit
higher creativity performance under the encouraging feedback approach’
(Fan et al, 2014).
Problems with Virtual Team Management: There are five problems in the management of virtual teams (Kaboli et al, 2006):
• We can’t manage, coach, or mentor what we can’t see.
• We’ll never be able to learn the whole technology.
• We’ll never see the people who work for us.
• The complexity of the technology used by virtual teams is greatly exaggerated.
• Good Virtual team managers and leaders are well travelled and probably know at least three different languages.
The problems above are certainly not exhaustive but highlight major
issues concerning the management of virtual teams (Kaboli et al, 2006). A
potentially bigger issue in the management of virtual teams is culture.
Company cultures may overlay national cultures and national cultures
may be individualistic or collectivist in nature (Kaboli et al, 2006).
Understanding and consideration of cultural differences should be a high
priority for the management of virtual teams.
There are multiple types of virtual teams. Some resources outline as
little as six and as many as eight. Duarte and Snyder in their book,
‘Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools and Techniques that succeed;
3rd Edition’ (2006), outline seven types of virtual teams that are
outlined below. There is also an eighth type of team not observed by
Duarte and Snyder, ‘Offshore ISD Teams’, which has also been included.
Network Teams: Geographically dispersed teams who collaborate to achieve a common goal or purpose (Kaboli et al, 2006; Boundless).
Parallel teams: A Virtual Parallel Team is generally
formed to review and make recommendations about worldwide processes and
systems, taking into account global perspectives (Kaboli et al, 2006).
They are usually formed by multinational organisations (Management study
Project or Product Development Teams: Subject matter
experts are brought together from geographically dispersed locations
(Management study guide) to conduct projects for users or customers for
defined periods of time (Kaboli et al, 2006).
Functional Teams: Functional teams are formed when
members from one type of work or function collaborate to perform regular
or ongoing work (Kaboli et al, 2006; Management Study Guide).
Service Teams: They provide round-the-clock support or
service for customers or organisations. This is achieved through the use
of geographically dispersed locations across the globe to take
advantage of a “follow the sun” strategy (Kaboli et al, 2006).
Management Teams: These work collaboratively on a day-to-day basis when an organisation is dispersed over multiple locations.
Offshore ISD Teams: An offshore team is used to
outsource or subcontract a portion of work. This is typically software
development in a low-cost geographical location and in conjunction with
on-shore teams (Management Study Guide; Boundless).
Action Teams: Ad-hoc teams are assembled in (typically)
emergency situations with very short lead times to provide immediate
response to a situation (Kaboli et al, 2006; Management Study Guide).
Saunders (2000) outlines four general categories of variables in the
Life Cycle Model of virtual teams which can be used to understand and
evaluate how virtual teams work. These categories are as follows:
Inputs, Socio-emotional processes, task processes and outputs (Powell et
(Image: Powell et al, 2004)
Design: The design of the virtual team and the
structuring of its interactions, particularly early on in the team’s
life, have been found to impact the development of a shared language and
shared understanding by team members Socio-emotional processes (Powell
et al, 2004). Research has shown that face-to-face interaction between
members early on when building a virtual team can help cohesion and form
the basis for better performance (Powell et al, 2004). When
face-to-face meetings are not feasible, a shared language and shared
mental models may be built by relying on a common database providing all
information pertinent to the team assignment (Powell et al, 2004;
Suchan & Hayzak, 2001).
Culture: Cultural differences in Global Virtual Teams
can have a huge impact on the cohesion and performance of a team.
Understanding and co-ordination are required to manage potential
conflict that may arise. The negative effect of cultural differences may
be mitigated by an effort to actively understand and accept the
differences (Powell et al, 2004; Robey et al., 2000; Sarker & Sahay,
Technical: This refers to the technical expertise or
the ability of the team member to use the technology and cope with
technical problems. One of the greatest challenges to setting up a
virtual team is the incorporation of technophobic personnel (Townsend et
Training: Early and uniform training of personnel can
directly affect cohesiveness (Powell, et al, 2004). Conflict can arise
when team members have differing levels of understanding of the
technology or differing opinions about the technology that should be
used (Powell, et al, 2004).
Communication & Co-ordination: There are many
challenges facing effective co-ordination and communication in Global
Virtual Teams. The temporal and spatial differences between geographical
locations and time zones and the management and co-ordination of these
differences can have a huge impact on team engagement and performance.
The degree to which communication is either synchronous or asynchronous
and the amount of conversations undergone at any one time may also give
rise to confusion, information overload and misunderstanding.
Synchronous interaction is an orderly process wherein verbal and
non-verbal cues regulate the flow, facilitate turn taking, provide
feedback and covey subtle meaning in communication (Monotoya-weiss et
al, 2001); for example face-to-face communication or video chat.
Asynchronous interaction takes place outside real time (University of
Wisconsin, 2011). In this environment, such as communication by email,
the use of verbal and non-verbal cues is hindered, the gap between
communications can be long and feedback delayed (McGrath, 1991). There
is also a tendency for multiple conversations to be active
simultaneously, leading to information overload which can reduce the
synergy of team members if there are no links between responses
(Monatoya-weiss et al, 2001).
The challenge for Virtual Teams is to manage and co-ordinate the
differences that occur from the use of asynchronous communication. TIP
theory suggests that there are three typically-used temporal
communication mechanisms to better co-ordinate communication; scheduling
(deadlines), synchronisation (aligning the pace and effort among
members) and allocation of resources (specifying the time to be spent on
specific tasks) (McGrath, 1991). The facilitation of these mechanisms
directly affects team cohesion and performance.
Further (and more recent) research on the effect of geographical divide,
spatial and temporal differences evaluates the suitability of
synchronous and asynchronous communication. They found that both
synchronous and asynchronous communication mechanisms were both
beneficial when teams were separated with high spatial but low temporal
differences (Cummings, 2011). Asynchronous communication is less
effective when there is a high temporal difference as it cannot overcome
the temporal boundaries that effect co-ordination when pairs of members
in different countries had no overlap in the working day (Cummings,
Technology: ICT (Information and Communication Technology) is used to co-ordinate communication between Global Virtual Teams.
Research argues for both positive and negative effects of ICT in
globally dispersed or Virtual Teams. Gibbs (2006), for example, argues
that ‘electronic dependence is negatively related to team motivation’.
He states that the use of non-verbal cues that convey interpersonal
affections are lost in computer mediated communication (Gibbs, 2006)
which may have a negative impact on innovation by a difficulty in
interpreting knowledge in messages (Gibbs, 2006). On the other hand,
being able to pool knowledge from multiple geographical locations as
well as the capability of working round the clock in service teams may
be a distinct advantage.
The Task-technology-structure fit research has hypothesized that the
choice of technology depends on individual preferences, individual
experience with the technology and its ease of use, the need for
documentation, and the urgency of the task (Hollingshead et al., 1993;
Robey et al., 2000).
Recent research suggests that the key to effective ICT and co-ordination
between globally dispersed teams is tailoring the ICT to specific
situational awareness needs. Situational awareness is defined as ‘a
mechanism for implicit co-ordination’ (Malhotra & Majchrzak, 2014)
and can be split into two forms: ‘Presence awareness’ and ‘task
knowledge awareness’. Their research suggests that targeting ICT to
either of these awareness types for specific team tasks results in
positive associations with technology. They found that for teams
executing non-routine tasks, ICT targeted at ‘task knowledge awareness’
was most beneficial and in teams where members cross a large number of
knowledge boundaries , targeting ICT at knowledge awareness was most
beneficial. For full details of this research see; Malhotra, A.,
& Majchrzak, A. (2014). Enhancing performance of geographically
distributed teams through targeted use of information and communication
technologies. Human Relations, 67(4), 389-411.
Relationship Building: Lack of social interaction and
the loss of face-to-face synergies present challenges to Virtual Teams
(Ebrahim et al, 2009). This inhibits relationship building. Face-to-face
interaction early on in team development can help form relationships
quicker. Face-to-face communication among virtual team members early on
in the project has been found to foster the ability to form closer
interpersonal relationships between members (Maznevski & Chudoba,
2001; Robey et al, 2000; Powell et al, 2004). The sharing of social
information has been shown to build better relationships between members
(Powell et al, 2004). However, members of virtual teams tend to be more
task-focused (Powell et al, 2004). This tendency may hinder the social
communication and affect the ability to build better relationships. The
importance and techniques for developing social interaction are captured
in this short video:
Culture: Leidner et al (2001) present three main cultural challenges facing Virtual Teams:
- Communication may be distorted through cultural misunderstandings/biases (Solomon, 1995)
- Unrealistic Cultural Expectations (Solomon, 1995)
- Potential for multiple cultures requires greater communication skills (Townsend et al, 1998)
Efforts for effective communication and collective understanding of team
members’ cultural differences should be paramount. Gestures or norms in
one culture may be misconstrued by another. The lack of face-to-face
interaction and largely asynchronous communication can also further
facilitate misunderstanding as it hinders both verbal and non-verbal
cues present in face-to-face communication (McGrath, 1991).
Trust: The development of trust in Virtual Teams is
crucial to team success (Powell et al, 2004). Virtual Teams often do not
have enough time to develop trust in the traditional way of building
over time. Trust is developed in Virtual Teams using the Swift model
which works on the basis that team members assume others are trustworthy
and begin as if trust were already in place (Powell et al, 2004). A
Virtual Team may also experience issues of trust from the system itself
regarding privacy and monitoring actions of the system. To counter this
(Townsend et al, 1998).
Performance: Academic research has sort to compare
traditional team performance with Virtual Team performance. Powell et
al. (2004) argue that early research shows no detected difference in
team performance and that there is also no significant difference when
examining decision quality.
They also present a summary of what contributes to Virtual Team success:
- Strategy/goal setting
- Developing shared language
- Team building
- Team cohesiveness
- Co-ordination and commitment of the teams
- The appropriate task-technology fit
They also highlight that competitive and collaborative conflict
behaviours have negative impact on Virtual Team success. (Powell et al,
on the satisfaction of Virtual Teams has provided mixed results. It
shows some members being more satisfied than those of traditional teams
and vice versa (Powell et al, 2004). Social exchanges effect the levels
of satisfaction in virtual teams, they can effect levels of trust,
cooperation, information sharing and co-ordination which may provide
enhanced levels of member satisfaction and team productivity (Cogliser
et al, 2013).
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Global Teams - Virtual Teams