Thursday, August 24, 2006

Nature of Virtual Teams

In my earlier article I had written about Managing Virtual Project Teams. Few people asked me a question - "What is a virtual team?" , " How do you define a virtual team?". This set me off to write about the nature of virtual team and what are the characteristics of a virtual team.

Virtual team is a recent phenomenon. The mega factor which led to raise of virtual teams is globalization. Globalization meant that companies must coordinate their global activities in order to compete effectively. For example, Accenture developed a globally integrated marketing communication strategy to orchestrate the name change from Anderson Consulting to Accenture. ( Read "Globally Integrated Marketing Communications" )

The need to compete & collaborate globally led to the creation of virtual teams. But with the advent of low cost telecommunication technology, and discount air fares has enabled widespread use of virtual teams in almost all organizations. Companies - both large & small, even startups have virtual teams. ( Read "Global R&D Network ")

In addition, shortage of talent has forced companies distribute their resources globally, and also collaborate with other agencies, companies, individual contractors, consultants etc. This has created a new version of virtual team - which spans across the globe, across cultures, and across multiple organizations. This loosely knit team is also very dynamic in terms of its team members, and even its objectives. ( Read "Virtual Scale - Alliances for Leverage ")

As a result, Virtual teams can be found everywhere. Organizations have learnt to master collaborative work in a dynamic work environment. The new virtual team can be characterized by:

  1. Dynamic Team Membership

    The team members - both in terms of numbers & members are constantly changing. Members move into a team & move out of a team based on the business requirements. Members rarely remain in the same team from the start to finish. In a virtual team, a member is expected to his/her bit of the work for that project/task - and once the task is accomplished, they move on to another team & perform another task.

    Even the team leadership will change hands in the process. A complex project requires different type of leadership skills at different stages of the project. This implies that even team leadership will have to be dynamic.

    All this implies that the team is always in a continuos state of formation. The old theory of team forming, norming, storming, performing, and disbanding do not hold good anymore. Today in a dynamic virtual team - all the stages of team formation (forming, norming, storming, performing, and disbanding) happen simultaneously.

  2. Team members can include people from outside the organization

    Today’s virtual team consists of members from other organizations as well. For example in my earlier company, we had to collaborate with multiple vendors, partners in order to deliver to the client. So the team consisted of members from multiple organizations and from multiple countries.

    In one of the projects, we had members from US, India, Israel, & Taiwan & members were from six different organizations.Today there is an IT project being implemented at BT. For this project, Accenture, Tech Mahindra, Converges, TCS, Siemens, and HP are involved. Members of this team are dispersed in UK, USA, Spain, Germany, and India.

  3. Members of the team are also members of other teams

    In an era of ultra specialization, members of the team need not dedicate all their time on one project. This means that their time will be divided among multiple projects. For example, a DBA ( Database Analyst) would work 1 day a week for team-1, 2 days a week in team-2, 1 day a week for team-3 etc.

    This implies that members of the team will have multiple reporting relationships with different parts of the organizations at the same time. Typically there will be multiple project managers, his line manager, and other managers to whom a person would report to.
  4. Teams are at the center of the organization.

    Organizations have transformed the way they work. Projects have a definitive goals & objectives, which makes it easier to manage. As a result, work in any organization has been divided into series of projects - even routine manufacturing has been split up into projects. This implies that the old pyramid of organizational hierarchy is slowly coming apart. Instead of the earlier hierarchy based command-and-control based management style is being replaced by "collaborate-and-cooperate" management style.

  5. Soft-skills is the key for success of a virtual team

    For a virtual team to succeed, team members should have excellent soft-skills. In a virtual team, members are ever changing, the reporting structures is unclear, members may even be from other organizations, members may have different culture (both work culture & organizational culture), and members may not even have enough time to build a rapport.

    To collaborate in such a dynamic work environment, team members need to have excellent soft-skills: communication skills, persuasion skills, negotiation skills, cross-cultural sensitivity and work etiquette. Technical skills alone are not enough for the team to succeed.

There are several types of virtual teams too.

  1. Executive teams

    Executive teams are made up of managers who are on the team because of their position in the organization. These teams are usually semi-permanent teams with responsibility for specific divisions or functions in the organization. Executive teams do not work on any specific project - instead they will be involved in multiple projects.

  2. Project teams

    Project teams are created for a task. Members of the team are selected based on their role and expertise in relation to that task. Membership of such teams will be dynamic based on the roles the members are expected to play. Once their role is over, members move on to other project teams.

  3. Support Teams

    Members of support teams work on common tasks and support other teams in the organization. The team members are based on skill sets and members are interchangeable i.e., if one is absent on one day, the other can take up his/her tasks. Members in such teams usually have identical skill sets and are in the same professional field. These teams do not have any specific end targets - instead their role is on a continuous ongoing basis. For example, IT support teams, On-call customer support teams, nurses in a hospital, etc.

Closing Thoughts

Virtual teams are everywhere today. Managers of small and large organizations have learnt the importance virtual teams, but most are still grappling with the issues of team facilitation and issues of trying to manage teams that are disconnected by distance, cultures, and time.

Increasing use of modern communications systems (Internet, Intranets, telephone, video conference, groupware , etc) has helped to manage these virtual teams. But the real success of a virtual team depends on soft skills: Communication, negotiation, cross-cultural sensitivity, persuasion, and work etiquette.

PS: This article is all about defining a virtual team. In the coming series of articles, I will talk about various soft skills needed to succeed in a virtual team.

Also See:

  1. Globally Integrated Marketing Communications
  2. Global R&D Network
  3. Virtual Scale - Alliances for Leverage
  4. Managing Virtual Project Teams
  5. Global Product Development Teams
  6. Global Dimension of Project Management
  7. E-Dimensions of Project Management
  8. Role of Leadership in Teambuilding
  9. Managing Outsourced Projects

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