Teams and Teamwork have changed
The make-up and nature of teams have changed significantly in recent years. Organisations have become more distributed across geography and across industries. Closer relationships between people inside an organisation and those previously considered outside (customers, suppliers, partners and other stakeholders) have become more important. Organisations have discovered the value of collaborative work and with the advent of new tools and technology, the ability to work more efficiently, effectively and more competitively is a reality. There is a new emphasis on knowledge management – harvesting the learning of the experience of members of the organisation so that it is available to the whole organisation, quickly and easily. Used effectively across a business this knowledge and information flow can add a real competitive advantage to your business and create a better experience for customers.
All these changes in organisations over the last decade have changed how teams are formed and how they operate.
Teams have morphed over time:
- From fixed team membership to flexible and temporary team members
- From all team members drawn from within the organisation to team members that can include people from outside the organisation (customers, suppliers, partners)
- From team members that are dedicated 100% to the team to most people are members of multiple teams
- From team members that are co-located organisationally and geographically to team members are distributed organisationally and geographically
- From teams that have a fixed starting and ending point to teams form and reform continuously
- From teams that are managed by a single manager to teams have multiple reporting relationships with different parts of the organisation at different times
Although the technology that supports these new teams gets most of the attention when we talk about virtual teams, it’s really the changes in the nature of teams – not their use of technology – that creates new challenges for team managers and members. Most “virtual” teams operate in multiple modes including having face-to-face meetings when possible. Managing a virtual team means managing the whole spectrum of communication strategies and project management techniques as well as human and social processes in ways that support the team.
Managers of small and large organisations have known the importance of communication and facilitation for successful team process, but few people have really grappled with the issues of trying to manage teams that are connected by distance in space and time.
While there are some obvious problems and disadvantages of distributed teams, these teams also provide some advantages such as:
- Developing and spreading better practices faster
- Connecting “islands of knowledge” into self-organizing, knowledge sharing networks of professional communities
- Fostering cross-functional and cross-divisional collaboration
- Increasing ability to initiate and contribute to projects across organisational boundaries
Certain things need to happen in order for organisations to make effective use of virtual teams:
- Processes for team management and development have to be designed, defined, piloted, tested, refined
- Team managers have to be trained in new team management strategies
- Team members have to be trained in new ways of working, understand your vision and how they contribute
- The culture of the organisation has to be reshaped to support new structures and processes
- Organisational structures have to be modified to reflect new team dynamics
- Rewards systems have to be updated to reflect new team structures
- New information technology (IT) systems have to be built to support teams
- New management, measurement and control systems have to be designed
New technology requires us to rethink these dynamics because we don’t have the option to use familiar approaches. It gives us an opening to change the way we manage the people and work process in general. The critical part of the question, “How can we manage teams operating at a distance?” is really “How do we effectively support the collaborative work of teams? Managing virtual teams is not about taking our old management techniques and transposing them for delivery using new media. Rather, it’s about expanding our available tools to create new dynamics aligned with the best thinking about supporting collaborative work.
A New Management Mindset
There are some critical aspects of a virtual team manager’s mindset that must shift in order to be effective in the modern workplace:
Different kinds of environments can support high quality interaction. What matters is how you use them.
- Collaboration happens in an ongoing, no-boundaries way.
- Using technology in a people-oriented way is possible, desirable, effective and efficient
- When the communication process breaks down, evaluate our management and interaction strategies, not just the technical tool.
- Learning to manage virtual teams is about understanding more about teams and the collaboration process
Some of the key ideas to keep in mind to make sure a virtual team works effectively include:
- Teamwork is fundamentally social
- Knowledge is integrated in the life of teams and needs to be made explicit
- It’s important to create ways for team members to experience membership
- Knowledge depends on engagement in practice, people gain knowledge from observation and participation
- Engagement is inseparable from empowerment
- “Failure” to perform is often the result of exclusion from the process
Strategies for Supporting Virtual Teams
Virtual teams form and share knowledge on the basis of information pull from individual members, not a centralized push. Knowledge based strategies must not be centred around collecting and disseminating information but rather on creating a mechanism for practitioners to reach out and communicate to other practitioners.
The goal is to find ways that support the transformation of individuals’ personal knowledge into organisational knowledge. That goal requires designing environments where all the individuals feel comfortable (and have incentives) to share what they know. It’s important that this activity not feel like a burdensome “overhead” task, which is why doing it in the process of what feels like informal conversation works well.
In order to have productive conversations among members of virtual teams, you need to create some kind of common cognitive ground for the group. Even teams from the same organisation can have a hard time developing conversations deep enough to be significant without some kind of specific context as a beginning frame. Contexts can be created by guest speakers, training courses, requests for input to a specific project/question or special events.
Managers of virtual teams can support their teams by:
- Recognising them and their importance
- Encouraging members to explore questions that matter including questions about how they are working together
- Supporting the creation of some kind of shared space (the feeling that there is an infrastructure where people are working together)
- Facilitating the coordination of the technology, work processes, and the formal organisation
- Recognising reflection as action and as legitimate work (getting the infrastructure of the organisation to support the learning process)
- Supporting activities which make the informal network visible
Technology for Virtual Teams
Different communication technologies can be used to support different purposes and participants.
New technologies are being launched every day to enhance the way we work. Collaboration tools such as Microsoft Lync integrated with an organisations’ intranet, Outlook and SharePoint together with Salesforce.com not only have transformed the way they work and collaborate but have saved huge amounts on travel and hotel bills!
Too often, technology is introduced to organisations as a solution looking for a problem.
- Try to introduce collaboration tool as a strategy to re-engineer your organisation
- Expect to open the box and roll it out – it’s not always plug and play
- Start by choosing a particular type of technology and then trying to find a problem where you can use it
- Just put SharePoint or CRM into the organisation and expect users to learn it on their own
- Mandate the use of technology and punish people who don’t cooperate
- Try to use software tools to change the politics of your organisation
- Start by changing the culture, and then use the technology to support the change
- Change the reward system and measure people on their teamwork and sharing of information
- Encourage bottom-up, grassroots efforts
- Make sure the software fits your processes
- Start collaboration with face-to-face meetings when possible
- Use role modelling for spreading the use of technology
Virtual Teams as Building Blocks for Organisational Learning
One of the primary reasons leaders set up virtual teams is to facilitate change in their organisation. The driver for real organisational change is organisational learning. Today’s organisation interested in tomorrow’s success will run on its ability to create and use knowledge, its ability to learn.
The emphasis on learning has two powerful implications for the design of communications environments to support organisational teams that can have a significant impact on the organisation:
Dialogues, not just databases
Until recently, organisations relied on large amounts of explicit knowledge available to them through huge databases. Quantifiable facts, formulas, and procedures were, and still are, available to anyone in most organisations. In contrast, today’s “knowledge” or learning organisations create environments where experiential knowledge is shared through dialogue and interaction. Communication technologies are needed which support this interaction.
Learning and change are facilitated rather than managed
For a business or a non-profit institution to become a learning organisation, a different environment needs to be created. This environment should stimulate and nurture the complex network of interpersonal relationships and interactions that are a part of an effective management communications and decision-making process. People must be allowed to make choices about whom they need to communicate with without regard to traditional organisational boundaries, distance and time. A collaboration infrastructure provides the advantage and flexibility of forming and reforming groups and teams as requirements develop and change. This entire process must be facilitated rather than controlled by providing easy ways for team members to be introduced to each other.
Virtual teams are fast becoming more the rule than the exception in organisations. It’s time to stop thinking of them as a special case and start developing strategies for dealing with the new challenges they create. Virtual teams need the same things all teams need – a clear vision and mission, an explicit statement of roles and responsibilities, communications options which serve its different needs, opportunities to learn and change direction as well as clear measurement.