Project Management Institute

Can your infrastructure support a virtual organization?


by Deborah Bigelow, PMP, Contributing Editor

IN “IS VIRTUAL THE NEW Reality” [April PM Network], I projected the number of people working virtually in the United States to reach 40 million by the year 2015, and stated that the two critical success factors of a virtual organization are communication and trust. I'd like to expand on communication as a success factor of a virtual environment and provide insight into the requirements of such an infrastructure.

Communication can be difficult in a traditional business environment, so just imagine the potential number of “disconnects” that can occur in a virtual environment. If a company anticipates creating virtual teams in the future, it needs to prepare for the necessary shift in communications and the resulting change in the infrastructure that is created.

Information systems that are easy to learn, use and troubleshoot; that's step one. Step two is a bigger one: trusting your team.

In a virtual environment, there is a need to:

images Establish a unified communication environment

images Streamline the dissemination of corporate information

images Share information on corporate policies

images Maintain a repository for vital corporate information that is easily accessible to virtual employees

images Provide technical support and documentation for all associates

images Establish, standardize, and utilize workflow processes

images Conduct virtual meetings

images Establish and maintain a centralized database

images Provide tools for collaboration among virtual employees

images Share files

images Maintain a corporate calendar.

Given these activities, there are limitations that cannot be ignored. Virtual employees generally do not have access to on-site information systems support. Thus, the IS infrastructure has to be easy to use with a minimal learning curve. Online technical support is critical, as is a system that is easy to maintain and update.


Deborah Bigelow, PMP, is executive vice president of PM Solutions Inc., a project management consulting company. She was executive director of the Project Management Institute from 1992 through 1996. Send any comments on this column to [email protected].

In becoming part of a virtual organization, I needed to identify a solution that would best suit all of our company's infrastructure needs. I researched communication packages including Lotus Notes, MS Exchange, Involv, Hot Office, and StreamNet.

Since the business world is heading toward a web-based environment, I concluded that our company needed to follow that direction and chose a package that was completely web-enabled. This was attractive for several reasons. Not only would an Internet-based solution avoid major capital investment in hardware and administration, it would also allow virtual employees the convenience of accessing and collaborating on projects anytime, anywhere, and from any computer connected to the Internet. StreamNet, a web-based online collaborative knowledge management system that serves as the platform for developing corporate intranets, was ultimately selected. It provided our organization with an organized method of managing knowledge across all sides of a business relationship. It also created significant cost and time efficiencies by eliminating many of the issues surrounding an increasing geographically dispersed workforce. This also is an important consideration for the other critical success factor of virtual organizations: trust. Studies have demonstrated that the more immediate the response to a virtual communication, the more trust is built. In “Is Anybody Out There: Antecedents of Trust in Global Virtual Teams” [1998, Journal of Management Information Systems, 14], Jarvenpaa, Knoll, and Leidner determined that trust could be established virtually. However, it is a fragile trust that must be reinforced by performance or else it quickly erodes.

WHATEVER YOUR PERSONAL communication needs, it is critical to understand the requirements that will change as you shift from a traditional organization to one that is managed virtually. Be prepared for that change now. Investigate your options. Ensure that your infrastructure can support a geographically dispersed workforce. Set the expectations for communications and provide the tools to foster those expectations. images

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