The September 17, 2007 Wall Street Journal writes in the section on Managing about the elements of successful virtual teams. The topic of virtual teams is fascinating particularly because we live in an age that is ripe for organizations, at large, to break from their industrial revolution inspired organizational structures.
The WSJ’s Ron Winslow cites IBM as having found the right formula for assembling productive virtual teams.
This formula can be generalized for organizations of all sizes not just IBM. What are the challenges facing virtual teams? How can these challenges be conquered through combinations of discipline and technology? As Ron Winslow points out, challenges include:
- Cultural barriers
- Trust barriers
- Work Distribution
- Language Barriers
- Productivity Tracking
Technologies help conquer these problems:
- Video Conferencing
- Presence management with ubiquitous messaging
- Collaboration tools (i.e. Sharepoint/Wikis)
- Continuous progress tracking (i.e. Cruise Control)
- (Update August 2010) Telepresence robot
Discipline techniques to overcome challenges:
- Using in-person meetings, when possible, to build trust
- Setting common understanding and ground rules at project start
Some thoughts regarding these technology and discipline solutions:
Because of shifting timezones, virtual teams can schedule around 24 hour work schedules. To fully take advantage of this, it’s important that the hand-off between team members going offline and those coming online is seamless and efficient. Continuous progress tracking tools can enhance this handoff by ensuring team members coming online are not reacting to stale information.
Presence management is tricky. Virtual team members will probably need to configure presence management in such a way so communication between all team members has minimal impact on their personal life. However, the reality with shifting timezones is that for all team members coming online, there are team members going offline and into their personal lives. Virtual teams can use presence management to configure the overlapping time windows where team members in multiple timezones are all available.
Video Conferencing helps increase team intimacy. With better intimacy, teams will have more trust which will hopefully result in more open communication.
Collaboration tools represent the distributed canvas where virtual teams apply and implement their ideas. Coupled with version tracking, which draws traceability between changes, the effectiveness of these tools can directly affect the productivity of the team.
Setting ground rules and common understanding at project start is easier then ensuring they are respected through the course of the project lifecycle. Technology must be able to enforce the desired ground rules, and open communication with all team members can ensure common understanding.
What challenges have you experienced with virtual teams? How have you solved these challenges? What are some of the future challenges that will impact virtual teams?