May 6, 2012

PM0013 [Managing Human Resources in Projects] Set2 Q5

Question 5: Describe in brief the challenges faced in case of Virtual Teamwork.

Because of the complexity and scope of many modern-day tasks, there has been a heightened realization over the past decade of the value of team performance to business, industry, and the military. Furthermore, changes in business practice and advances in telecommunications have led to the increasing prevalence of distributed teams that interact over long distances. It is clear that unprecedented opportunities exist for the development of tools to support team collaboration.

Firms are increasingly adopting electronic communication tools to facilitate collaboration among individuals and groups, both within and beyond organizational boundaries. This trend is driven by the motivation of firms to take advantage of the collaborative potential of such tools as discussion boards, instant messaging, and groupware for facilitating communication and coordination without the limitations of time and place.

In a global community, competitive organizations must navigate complex, chaotic contexts. In fact, modern operational environments are most characterized by increasingly sophisticated challenges encountered when organizations attempt to capitalize on emerging domestic and global opportunities.

For example,, Inc.'s, recent purchase of, China's largest online retailer of books, music, DVDs, and videos, presents a host of challenges to coordinating across time zones. Addressing these challenges requires innovative solutions, which for many organizations increasingly takes the form of team-based systems and cutting-edge technology. The use of teams and technology can, in turn, lead to unprecedented amounts of available information and performance capability.

Challenges of Virtual Teamwork:

As seen in the discussion above, which suggests that organizations are naturally evolving toward distributive structures, the trend toward virtual teamwork will accelerate as operating environments become increasingly fluid. If the spread of virtual teams and distributed performance arrangements is all but inevitable, it is important to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges confronting this ongoing movement. The team literature already provides a variety of examples of knowledge/ skills/attitudes and teamwork processes that may be adversely affected when teams use computer-mediated communication. For example, researchers have noted that distribution is detrimental to decision making, social motivation, cohesiveness, status equalization, and normative behavior. Research also suggests that team development may be more complex in virtual teams.

  • Individual: Social Isolation
Despite the increased availability of communication technologies to support virtual workers, distribution often results in less frequent communication and social isolation. This is consistent with research proposing that the actual distance of team member separation is of secondary concern to the impact of computer mediated communication on team processes. The isolation resulting from separation and decreased interaction is a key factor limiting the adoption of distributed work. This is because many employees derive satisfaction from their interactions with their coworkers, both in the act of socializing and through the social support they receive.

Furthermore, when employees are not co-located, social and task support may break down, causing people to identify less with the organization. Proximity has been linked to informal channels of communication (e.g., the "water cooler") and is vital for disseminating information about organizational norms, socializing new employees, and encouraging collaboration and sharing of information (National Research Council, 1994). To the extent that distributed team members feel socially isolated from their coworkers, supervisors, and subordinates, the quality of both their work and family lives will suffer.

Research suggests that distributed team members experience lower levels of work – family conflict and commute time while concomitantly enjoying higher levels of personal control, job satisfaction, and productivity. Hence, the much coveted goal of simultaneously improving employee satisfaction and productivity seems to be offered via distributed arrangements. Unfortunately, distribution can result in social isolation. One solution already advanced in the current body of research suggests that increasing media richness, and thereby the number of cues available to team members, may be an important mechanism for reducing social isolation. Moreover, increasing media richness may help foster a social presence.

Social presence is the degree to which technology facilitates a personal connection with others. Interactions with high social presence are described as more lively, social, warm, and intimate than those with little social presence. Synchronous communications, such as face-to-face (FTF) meetings and audio- and videoconferences, result in more social presence than asynchronous communications such as electronic mail (e-mail) and voicemail. Synchronous communication facilitates social presence primarily because it enables the spontaneous, back and- forth exchanges associated with normal conversation.

  • Team Opacity:
Teams separated by space – time have additional demands placed on them during distributed interaction. Interaction in distributed environments often leads to artificial and ambiguous experiences, in part based on a shortage of, or change in, the cues available to team members. Fiore and colleagues (2003) coined the term team opacity to describe the debilitating effects of distribution inherent to being virtual team. Team opacity has been discussed as a special form of workload resulting from teams that are not co-located. Team opacity is defined as "the experiences whereby distribution decreases awareness of team member actions and may thus alter their interaction".

Cue deprivation can increase the workload of team members because they must adjust routine strategies to seek out additional cues. The absence of cues, typically present when teams are co-located, taxes the working memory of team members and prevents much of the scaffolding often used to reduce memory load in co-located teams. Also, the lack of or change in cues affects interaction when teams are relegated to computer-mediated communication because of the loss of nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, nods, and gestures.

Information flow and information format can significantly influence team opacity. Specifically, team opacity can be curtailed in part by increasing the synchrony and richness of available information (e.g., flow, format). These additional cues influence if, how, and when distributed team members enact knowledge/skills/ attitudes, thereby reducing opacity and increasing performance effectiveness. Appropriate communication channels and information formats should be implemented to strengthen the relationship between cognition and team behavior and lessen the workload (i.e., team opacity) of team members.

Individual, Team, and Organizational Factors:
Another important issue for distributed teams is their communication process. Because virtual members are not co-located in space time, they do not receive as many cues as traditional teams. Thus some distributed teams have been found to be less effective than teams that are co-located, due to poorer communication.

Therefore, it is vital that distributed teams have communication mechanisms that are sufficient, appropriate, and evolved enough to convey messages clearly and effectively. The technological tools teams use influence the types of communication in which they can engage.

There are eight aspects of FTF and distributed settings that determine the nature of communication within a team:
(a) co-presence (i.e., team members share the same physical space),
(b) visibility (i.e., team members can see each other),
(c) audibility (i.e., team members can hear each other),
(d) contemporability (i.e., team members receive communication at the approximate time it is sent),
(e) simultaneity (i.e., team members can communicate simultaneously),
(f) sequentially (i.e., team members must communicate in sequence),
(g) reviewability (i.e., team members can review each other's messages, similar to chat rooms), and
(h) revisability (i.e., team members can revise each other's messages).

These eight characteristics of communication can be linked to the types of communication available for co-located and distributed teams. This underscores the point that the extent to which team members can communicate effectively has an influence on how well they perform.

The growth in communication technology has led to greater frequency of communication between coworkers or team members who are geographically and temporally distributed. Early distributed teams were forced to communicate and archive through asynchronous communication applications such as electronic bulletin boards and then e-mail, which provided one-on-one communication. These asynchronous communication devices are valuable tools for distributed teams, especially to leave quick virtual notes.

Today, communication technology has evolved to include synchronous communication applications such as teleconferencing and videoconferencing. Synchronous communication offers more cues and is a closer approximation of FTF communication than asynchronous communication, thereby decreasing many of the negative effects of distribution. Therefore, synchronous communication tools should improve virtual team adaptation and performance.

Trust is a key influence on the overall performance and viability of distributed teams. We can define trust as a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based on positive expectations of the interactions with, or behaviors of, another Trust supports interrelationships, functional interactions, communication, coordination, and cooperation between team members. Without sufficient trust, team members will expend time and energy protecting, checking, and inspecting each other's work as opposed to collaborating in facilitation of process gains.

In addition to mediating cooperation and teamwork, trust also fosters a willingness to disseminate information more freely among team members. Trust has also been found to increase coordinated teamwork behaviors and reduce individual-based goals. Furthermore, recent evidence indicates that although trust may influence interactions in virtual settings, it may also simultaneously be more difficult to foster in these settings. One way to overcome this issue may be in the formation of trust based on expectations in distributed teams. The term swift trust has been coined in reference to the formation of trust that occurs between interdependent individuals whose communication is limited to computer-mediated exchanges and is based on the expectations of the trustworthiness of other team members. Swift trust, also referred to as conditional trust, is based only on the impressions, expectations, and individual reputations of team members. Approaches are available for fostering swift trust, such as clearly defining roles to align expectations, creating accountability systems, and measuring both processes and outcomes.

If these individual, team, and organizational challenges are addressed directly, they can be headed off before they debilitate team members, virtual teams, and multi-team systems and thereby damage the organization. Thus, key stakeholders must be diligent in implementing and maintaining virtual teams by providing them with the tools and resources to be successful In order for team members to flourish in shared leadership systems, as well as become effective leaders within VEs (Virtual Environments), organizations must create and provide the systems, tools, protocols, and training to ensure their success. In essence, organizations should seek to implement a system of systems that allows team members to regulate their own performance. An empowering leadership system helps create distributed minds. The key is to link the minds together, not to superimpose the minds of the leaders on those of the workers.

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