Effective Communication and Information Sharing in Virtual Teams
 
Regis University
WWW482M Teams: Theory and Practice
 
Kevin L. McMahan
August, 1998
 
Contact the author at kmc@bizresources.com
 
Download a PDF file
 
 
 
 
Introduction

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.
 
 
 

Effective Communication and Information Sharing in Virtual Teams
Table of Contents
 
Research About Communication in Virtual Teams
Research About Information Sharing in Virtual Teams
Implications
Limitations
Suggestions for Further Research
References
 
 
Effective Communication and Information Sharing in Virtual Teams
"Collaboration is a process through which parties
who see different aspects of a problem
can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions
that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible."
(J. Gray, "Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems")
This kind of collaboration requires effective communication and information sharing among the members of the virtual team. This paper will take a closer look at both of those subjects.

Research About Communication in Virtual Teams

". . . one of the thorniest problems . . . how to get all those individuals working together compatibly and productively, even though face-to-face contact was limited . . ." (Geber, 1995) From the outset, Geber (1995) reports that addressing the human factors is a key factor in ensuring success. "Human factors" is about people and Geber is saying that relationships and teams that address the people side of the equation at the beginning and continuously through the team’s life are more likely to enjoy success. This would seem to be even more true on longer-term projects or where the team members believe they may be assembling again for a future project.

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):

What Geber’s (1995) research surfaced was the issue of "trust" among virtual team members. The article does not explicitly refer to trust but that is the issue at the heart of the Geber’s investigation. The conclusion was that some face-to-face contact was necessary to establish trust (presumed to be a necessary requirement for effective teamwork). The trust issue was addressed head-on by Jarvenpaa, Knoll, and Leidner more than a year later. They were examining "global teams" (meaning teams where members are located in different countries) but the global dimension does not appear to change the impact or necessity of trust. In fact, ". . . the higher the level of trust for a team, the greater the cohesiveness, satisfaction, and perceived effectiveness" (Jarvenpaa, Knoll, & Leidner, 1996).

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":

". . . you cannot build network organizations on electronic networks alone . . .
If so, . . . we will probably need an entirely new sociology of organizations."
They then proceed to show empirical evidence that indicates we should start building that "new sociology of organizations" now. Not only can the network organization (in our case, the virtual team) be built on electronic networks, it can be effectively maintained (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998). They also successfully challenge the prior notions that virtual communication eliminates ". . . the type of communication cues that people would use to convey trust, warmth, attentiveness, and other interpersonal dimensions" (Jarvenpaa & Leidner). The research supports Meyerson, Weick, and Kramer’s 1996 development of "swift trust" which "de-emphasizes the interpersonal dimensions and is based initially on broad categorical social structures and later on action" (Jarvenpaa & Leidner). In other words, it is the professional reputation and integrity of the team members that warrants trusting each other right from the outset. This is a swift trust, but by definition is temporary and it must be reinforced. "Action strengthens trust in a self-fulfilling fashion" and in fact the research showed more action on the most effective virtual teams (Jarvenpaa & Leidner).

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

"Whether human knowledge can be utilized or not largely depends on the degree of orderliness of the information . . . Information science is the science about knowledge ordering with the goal of making information more accessible" (Liu, 130). Much is being written on knowledge management in organizations and teams, including virtual teams. These writings seldom focus on operationalizing a knowledge management strategy; instead selling the virtues of the concept and defining its characteristics. While this author acknowledges that "information" differs from "knowledge," there is common ground between the two in the areas of gathering data and in making it useful. "Knowledge management tools don’t really manage knowledge, but help capture, organize, store and transmit source material from which an individual may acquire knowledge" (Gundry & Metes, 1996). This report focuses on sharing information in a useful manner that logically seems to be a necessary prerequisite to effective knowledge management.

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.

Implications

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:

  1. Engage the team in setting expectations about behavior and performance. Record the team’s decisions and commitments to each other.
  2. Clearly define member responsibilities (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998).
  3. Use rigorous project management disciplines to ensure clarity (Geber, 1995).
  4. Consider servant leadership exposure and training for potential team leaders.
  5. Determine, as a team, how conflict will be addressed and resolved.
  6. "Proactive behavior, empathetic task communication, positive tone, rotating leadership, task goal clarity, role division, time management, and frequent interaction with acknowledged and detailed responses to prior messages [e-mail]" (Jarvenpaa, Knoll, & Leidner, 1996).
  7. Strive for a good faith effort in complying with the team norms and commitments, be honest in team negotiations, and don’t take advantage of others or of the situation (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998).
  8. Encourage social communication that accompanies task completion at the outset and be enthusiastic in e-mail dialog; look for predictable, substantial, and timely responses to members (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998).
  9. Provide more formal communication than in traditional same time/same place teams (Geber, 1995).
  10. Keep communications in a shared database for use in new member orientation (Geber, 1995).
  11. Focus knowledge management attention on the tacit as well as the explicit knowledge. Document the tacit and embed the process into the organizational structure (Gundry & Metes, 1996; Alavi, 1997; Ash, 1997).
  12. Record and share the "context" when sharing information, preferably with a view toward future audiences (Gundry & Metes, 1996).
  13. Match desired activities with performance evaluation factors; reward the desired performance (Myers & McLean, 1997; Geber, 1995).
  14. Build information sharing (knowledge management initiatives) into the organization’s strategic plan (Allee, 1997).
  15. For a team crosscutting an organization’s departmental boundaries, develop an information system to help translate terms in the subject disciplines (Citera et al, 1995).
  16. Encourage and provide feedback on all team activities; listen to it!
  17. Design and integrate tools that fit the team environment; don’t force the team to adapt its behavior to the "latest" software.
Limitations

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.

Suggestions for Further Research

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.

References

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