The widespread use of e-mail, remote access to company computer networks,
and access to the Internet, have contributed to the growth in the number
of people who work together in an online environment, rather than the more
traditional face-to-face contact. The explosion of telecommuting, working
from home, and enterprise globalization implores us to work together effectively
even though we may not be in the same location at the same time (same time/same
place). There is an over-abundance of published material on "teams" and
"teamwork" and many of these materials refer to "groups" and "teams" synonymously.
In this report a distinction is drawn. The "team" has interdependent members
who must work together to complete assigned projects and it is the team
that is the focus of this report. Common sense would indicate to us that
team dynamics are different for teams who are in the same time/same place,
those who have occasional face-to-face interaction, and those with no face-to-face
interaction. "Virtual" is considered to be any interaction that is not
face-to-face. One could argue that any team who has some interaction other
than "same time/same place" is virtual, however, a "virtual team" is considered
to be one who has considerable interaction online. This report reviews
research on two subjects--how virtual teams communicate and share information/manage
knowledge--and draws conclusions on developing effective virtual teams.
Research About Communication in Virtual Teams
A primary topic of research in this area has been on the team members’ need to have face-to-face contact to be effective. Geber’s (1995) research goes at length to describe the empirical evidence that face contact is necessary, providing experiences from such notables as Lotus Development Corporation (now part of IBM), Eastman Kodak, Hewlett-Packard, and Whirlpool. These corporate giants had similar advice (Geber):
The Jarvenpaa, Knoll, Leidner (1996) research paper draws from work by Handy (1995) noting the mandate for trust in the successful virtual team. While not thoroughly researched for this paper, that point seems to be taken for granted. However, one could certainly argue that trust is required on all teams, whether or not they are virtual, if the team is to be effective. The outstanding question is whether face-to-face contact is required to establish that trust. To explore possible answers to that question, we again turn to Jarvenpaa, Knoll, and Leidner (1996) – trust can be established virtually. However, it is a fragile trust that must be reinforced by performance or else it will quickly erode. Further, it is interesting to note that the best performers on virtual teams have traits associated with excellent performers who generally work alone: ". . . individuals who are action-oriented, who are willing to take initiative on their own, and who are goal-driven" (Jarvenpaa, Knoll, Leidner, 1996). These performance traits are similar to those suggested for successful telecommuters (Piskuwich, 1996), which this report also considers broadly to be virtual team members.
Team composition will vary widely due to any number of variables. Trust is impacted most by whether the work culture is one of high context or low context. In the former, members build trust before focusing on the tasks and in the latter, the reverse is true (Odenwald, 1996).
Jarvenpaa and Leidner returned to this subject in March, 1998. That study opens with a quote from Nohria and Eccles 1992 work, "Face-to-Face: Making Network Organizations Work":
A variable receiving little attention in the references is experience with virtual teams. Having worked in virtual environments for six years, the author believes online experience to be a significant factor. It is through experience that team members learn to better articulate some of their personality characteristics and just like learning to get members engaged face-to-face, the effective virtual team leader must develop similar skills in the virtual arena. In considering an extreme, think about how the next generation of employees will view virtual interaction. If they have "grown up" with video games, e-mail, and online chat sessions, we might expect their views on virtual teamwork to differ significantly from ours today (just as our view today may differ from team members in the 1960’s). This may be part of the reason for differences in studies from 1995 and those occurring three years later. The growth in the Internet and online applications has been phenomenal during this timeframe. The age of the subjects in the studies may be another cause of differences.
One final point on virtual communications has to do with response time. The more immediate response to a virtual communication (an e-mail for example), the more trust is built (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998). To draw on two points made earlier in this report, the expectations must be communicated to and determined by the members themselves. It may be that other team demands prevent one from responding immediately to every e-mail. Some members read e-mail on the weekend, others do not. What about during travel or vacations? These are matters for the team to discuss initially and set out their own expectations. If the team is expecting a response within an hour and a member takes a day, trust can be jeopardized.
Research About Information Sharing in Virtual Teams
In many if not most organizations, there is a cultural bias against information sharing. Ash (1997) talks about information silos in every company; Myers & McLean (1997) note that individual performance evaluations don’t generally consider information sharing, that many managers lack the commitment, and that staff see too few role models to emulate. Companies like Chevron are now realizing that the development and sharing of best practices (information about activities which led to knowledge that was applied to a given situation) leads to a dramatic, positive impact on the bottom line. So much so that the Chevron chairman now refers to knowledge sharing as "the single most important employee activity" at this $36 billion company (Allee, 1997).
The author has experienced situations where a company has committed to the concepts of knowledge management, but has become bogged down in one of the first steps, information sharing. Much has been written about acquiring, organizing, and storing information. This report is more concerned about the sharing of the information—"the heart of collaboration" (Citera et al, 1995). Successful design teams have been observed to spend more time exchanging information than coordinating activities (Citera et al). But merely exchanging information is not sufficient. Davenport (1996) reminds us that the best knowledge management system is of little benefit if it is not used. In fact, that is where many organizations get caught—buried by the "info-glut." Citera et al suggests that we have to educate team members about the relevance and meaning of the information we are sharing.
So what does all this mean and what action is called for? We have accepted the fact that knowledge management can lead to more efficient teams and organizations and that there are organizational and administrative barriers to one of the early steps—sharing information. This report suggests the place to start is within the context of what is useful to the individual team member. There is a direct relationship to our first subject—communications and trust—in that the sharing of information can contribute greatly to the building of trust. The simple act of sharing information can demonstrate to other team members that you understand what is relevant, that you have summarized the information and advised others of its relevance, and that you had enough commitment to the team and its individual members to do so. These are all actions that build trust!
The mystery to date has been how to turn the implicit or tacit knowledge into the explicit. It is widely held that there is significant value in the implicit that never gets documented (Gundry & Metes, 1996). The online, virtual environment actually gives the organization a tremendous opportunity to capture much of this exchange between members because it is written down (e-mail, bulletin boards, chat rooms, discussion forums, etc.). The author experienced creating value from e-mail dialog in a project performed for an agency of the federal government. Roughly 95% of the interaction was by e-mail and from that exchange, a "design book" was created to guide the next team on the design and implementation of a similar project.
Overcoming the disincentives or lack of incentives to share information should be addressed early on in the process. While difficult, the author recommends the performance evaluation system be modified to include information sharing. By doing so, the organization can act in a manner that is consistent with what it says. It can be done and in fact was done at The World Bank (Valor, 1997) and at KPMG Peat Marwick (Alavi, 1997). Once a culture of information sharing has taken hold, the organization needs to implement other technology solutions to facilitate the acquisition, storage, and retrieval of information. While not the scope of this report, a good place to learn a foundation is a Boch and Applegate (1995) article Harvard Business Review that addresses technologies in several dimensions: different time/different place, same time/different place, same place/different time, and same time/same place.
While knowledge management is enjoying considerable attention today, there is another viewpoint, at least as to information sharing. The opposing view—actually a rather serious concern—is that the proliferation of the Internet and other technologies is contributing to a sharing of information without regard for knowledge. The concern is that the information is presumed to be "knowledge" without a critical review and in fact, we are creating a significant knowledge gap: ". . . the escape into virtuality has evaded knowledge, which has been replaced with non-enlightenment information" (Breen, 1997). This is an interesting perspective and would appear to be more useful in some environments than others, such as national security, or life and death situations. In the typical organization workplace, there should be recognition of the grounding of the information and when building a virtual knowledge management strategy, it may be prudent to develop a quality control mechanism to check sources.
There is every indication that the workplace will continue to rely on teams whose members are not in the same time/same place. There are many varieties of these virtual teams, such as global (members in different countries), national (members in different states), state (members in different cities), local (members in the same city), and onsite (members co-located). The primary difference in the operations of these five varieties in the accessibility to face-to-face and telephone ("real-time") contact. Confusion or misunderstandings in the onsite team can be resolved differently than on the global team. Even the virtual communications may differ—just how long it takes e-mail messages to travel from one member to another—although the current state of the Internet has rendered these differences insignificant for the most part.
We now have empirical support that virtual teams create trust from the outset and build on that foundation based on the actions of the team members. It seems as though our virtual teams might have the additional advantage of forming opinions of others based on performance, rather than appearance. Interestingly, there are many similarities in creating an environment for effective communications and for effective information sharing. Technologies and systems aside, suggestions include:
The referenced research was not necessarily directed at the virtual team as described in this report. In some cases the context was a global team and in others the reference was to groups rather than teams. This report took those limitations into account and relied on those portions that seemed most relevant to the virtual team as described herein.
Virtual teams can benefit from further study in just about every area considering they are a relatively new dimension to the organization. There are two distinct areas that would advance matters addressed in this report, those being orienting team members with differing computer skills and implementing a specific knowledge management strategy in a virtual team. With the former, the author has observed how familiarity with working in an online environment is beneficial to the team start-up process. To the extent team membership includes people who are less familiar or may have had no exposure to computers, an initial orientation and training must occur, and it should be focused not only on hardware and software but on developing an online "personality." The knowledge management strategy in the virtual team should take into account whether other individuals or teams will leverage the knowledge or it remains of value only to this team and how that might impact systems design.
Alavi, M. (1997, July 11). KPMG Peat Marwick U.S.: One Giant Brain. Harvard Business Review.
Allee, V. (1997, April). Chevron Maps Key Processes and Transfers Best Practices. Knowledge, Inc. Retrieved June 4, 1998 from http://webcom.com/quantera/Chevron.html
Ash, J. (1997, August). State of KM Practice Among Early Adopters. Knowledge, Inc. Retrieved June 5, 1998 from http://aviary.share.net/delphi/ash/KMtext.html
Bock, G., & Applegate, L. (1995, September 13). Technology for Teams. Harvard Business Review.
Breen, M. (1997, December). Information Does Not Equal Knowledge: Theorizing the Political Economy of Virtuality. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 3. Retrieved June 7, 1998 from http://www.ascusc.org/jcmc/vol3/issue3/breen.html
Citera, M., McNeese, M., Brown, C., Selvaraj, J., Zaff, B., & Whitaker, R. (1995). Fitting Information Systems to Collaborating Design Teams. Journal of the American Society of Information Systems, 46, 551-559.
Davenport, T. (1996, April). Teltech: The Business of Knowledge Management. Retrieved June 7, 1998 from http://www.bus.utexas.edu/kman/telcase.htm
Geber, B. (1995, April). Virtual Teams. Training, 32, 36-40.
Gundry, J., & Metes, G. (1996, December). Team Knowledge Management: A Computer-Mediated Approach. Retrieved June 5, 1998 from http://www.knowab.co.uk/wbwteam.html
Handy, C. (1995). Trust and the Virtual Organization. Harvard Business Review, 73, 40-50.
Jarvenpaa, S., Knoll, K., & Leidner, D. (1998). Is Anybody Out There?: The Development and Implications of Trust in Global Virtual Teams. Journal of Management Information Systems, 14, 29-64.
Jarvenpaa, S., & Leidner, D. (1998). Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication and Organization Science: A Joint Issue, 3. Retrieved July 27, 1998 from http://www.ascusc.org/jcmc/vol3/issue4/jarvenpaa.html
Liu, Z. (1996, November). Dissipative Structure Theory, Synergetics, and Their Implications for the Management of Information Systems. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 47, 129-135.
Myers, J., & McLean, J. (1997, July). Knowledge management for citizens’ advice in the 21st century: an innovative IS strategy. Retrieved June 7, 1998 from http://www.ifi.uio.no/iris20/proceedings/11.htm
Odenwald, S. (1996, February). Global Work Teams. Training & Development, 54-57.
Piskuwich, G. (1996, February). Making Telecommuting Work. Training & Development, 50, 20-27.
Valor, J. (1997, October 20). Information at The World Bank: In Search of a Technology Solution. Harvard Business Review.