Information contingencies in the virtual teams of global new product development projects
Päivi Lohikoski, MA
Industrial Engineering and Management, Faculty of Technology, University of Oulu
Jaakko Kujala, D.Sc. (Tech.)
Industrial Engineering and Management, Faculty of Technology, University of Oulu
Harri Haapasalo, D.Sc. (Tech.), M.Sc.
University of Oulu
Leena Ala-Mursula, MD, PhD
Institute of Health Sciences (Occupational Health) University of Oulu
Virtual teams are increasingly common in global businesses, and it is easy to establish a team of experts located across the globe, collaborating by email, tele- and web-conferencing, and other information and communication technology (ICT). However, it is clear that information processing in global companies is vulnerable to misunderstandings. Finding a shared understanding, a common language, and personal contacts across different sites may be challenging in geographically dispersed companies. Therefore, a better understanding of ways to enhance fluent transfer of information in such circumstances is clearly needed. The aim of this research was to study the factors affecting information processing in virtual new product development (NPD) and to study what kinds of competences are needed in order to process information to reduce contingencies, such as equivocality or uncertainty. We conducted a mixed-method case study of a global telecommunication company. The main findings were that a virtual environment increases equivocality in information processing, and the most significant factors in reducing information contingencies are personal virtual collaboration competence and organizational virtual collaboration competence, which both can enhance information processing. In addition to this, best practices and specific managerial implications for organizing a virtual NPD project's communication were defined. Our results may be used to support managerial decisions concerning practices of organizing global teams and when coordinating communication practices in complex global projects.
Keywords: information contingencies; virtual teams; new product development; virtual collaboration competence; project management; personal virtual collaboration competence
Virtual collaboration has increased dramatically in companies in the global NPD business, and it has been suggested that within a few years, more than 1.3 billion people will work in virtual organizations (Johns & Gratton, 2013). As recent research indicates, global competition has intensified, and it has become increasingly important to leverage existing in-house competencies, resources, and capabilities into new product projects quickly. In global companies, often the only way to establish these kinds of projects rapidly is to form a virtual product development team. It is fairly easy to establish a team of experts located across the globe, collaborating by email, video conferencing, and ICT, which is getting better, more affordable, and more widely available (Holztman & Anderberg, 2011; Jong, Schalk, & Curseu, 2007; Cooper, 2001).
Recent research by Faraj, Jarvenpaa, & Majchrzak (2011), Dennis, Meola, & Hall (2013), Zigurs (2003), and Mitchell & Zigurs (2009) also presents that although virtual teams need to define and achieve goals, tasks, and missions similar to those of more traditional teams, the ways these goals are achieved successfully differ from the ways used in traditional teams. According to multiple studies, it is challenging to lead experts in a virtual organization. Delays caused by conflicts can endanger on-time deliveries of projects (Zigurs, 2003; Jarvenpaa, Shaw, & Staples, 2004). Typically, information processing may be hindered by several organizational boundaries, making it vulnerable to misunderstandings. It is also typical that finding a shared understanding, a common language, and personal contacts across different sites may be challenging in geographically dispersed companies (Turkulainen, Kujala, Artto, & Levitt, 2012). Virtual teams must cope with, e.g., cultural differences, diverse backgrounds, and geographical distances, which among other things can lead to misunderstandings, inadequate information flow, and misinterpretations in different habits of exchanging information, for example. However, virtual collaboration competencies that enhance information flow are rarely recognized or measured in organizations (Lohikoski & Haapasalo, 2013). All these factors make it clear that the increasingly prevalent global team communication issues need further investigation.
In this study the characteristics of information processing were examined from the perspective of two characteristics: equivocality and uncertainty. Equivocality means ambiguity and confusion, which results in multiple ways of interpreting and receiving information. Tasks and problems are often unclear and undefined. Uncertainty means the absence of information, and therefore uncertainty can be reduced when the right questions are asked and relevant data are accessible. With respect to the high global mobility of expert employees, our approach to this problem was to distinguish how understanding the levels of both personal and organizational virtual collaboration competences can be used as a tool for overcoming information contingencies. By recognizing the most crucial issues hindering information flow, virtual teams can be managed more efficiently and there will be less time consumed in task- or relationship-based conflicts and there will be more efficient communication across sites and cultures. Accordingly, we formulated the following research questions:
- What are the factors affecting information processing in virtual NPD?
- What kinds of virtual collaboration competences are needed in order to utilize integration mechanisms?
- What kinds of virtual collaboration competences are needed in order to reduce contingencies, such as equivocality or uncertainty?
Our research builds on Daft & Lengel's (1986) information processing theory and the perceptions of information therein, which have been developed within recent decades into more detailed definitions of knowledge and knowledge transfer, e.g., by Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995) and Choo (1998). We define how certain integration mechanisms are used in information processing in virtual NPD. Secondly, we study the impact of using certain tools in increasing or decreasing equivocality in a virtual team's communication.
We conducted a case study of a global telecommunication company with virtually operating global teams. Methodologically, we combined semi-structured interviews of selected team members and their leaders in Finland and the United States with electronic survey data from team members located in Finland, the United States, India, China, Poland, Great Britain, and Germany. The research process is presented on Figure 1.
Figure 1. Research process.
Communication and Collaboration in Virtual NPD Teams
By definition, virtual teams are organizationally, geographically, or otherwise dispersed collections of individuals who use different forms of ICT to accomplish a specific goal (Zigurs, 2003; Jarvenpaa et al., 2004). Electronic media together with computers enable the creation of new kinds of spaces that are real to the people inhabiting them, but they are not the same as physical locations (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000). It is also common for virtual teams to have a fluid team structure, and interaction is easier and less formal in a virtual environment (Faraj et al., 2011; Lam & Lambermont-Ford, 2010). All teams in modern organizations are virtual to some extent, but a virtual team mainly relies on ICT when communicating, whereas traditional teams mainly use face-to-face communication (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000).
Bedwell, Wildman, Diaz, Granados, Salazar, Kramer, & Salas (2012) present that collaboration consists of reciprocality, shared goals, and participation in joint activities and that it is an evolving process consisting two or more participants joined in shared activities. Collaboration also incorporates coordination, cooperation, and teamwork. Chiocchio (2011) suggests that collaboration basically enhances positive effect of trust and therefore it improves team performance. In addition, task conflicts are reduced. Communication within teams basically refers to team members' patterns of exchanging information. To build strong interpersonal communication and relationships within organizations, a variety of competencies are required. It is generally agreed by Bergiel, Balsmeier, Bergiel, B., & Erich (2013), Holton (2001), Faraj et al. (2011), Malhotra, Majchrzak, & Rosen (2007), Dennis et al. (2013), Snowden and Boone (2007), and Cooper, Edgett, & Kleinschmidt (2004) that written, verbal, oral, and cultural understanding and language skills are needed to ensure efficient communication between parties. The goal for communication is usually to generate action or change, or to enhance shared understanding. It is also notable that the ICT that the company is using needs to be planned carefully (Johns & Gratton 2013).
Teams need information about, e.g., goals, past performance, changes in technologies they are using, and changes in personnel. Information flow might include day-to-day demands of the team, products, or service data. The quality of decision-making is directly connected to the accuracy of the information received from team members (Yeatts & Hyten, 1998). Brown, Huettner, and James-Tanny (2007) suggest that a project needs guidelines for communication; rules are needed on what information is shared; when and how team members are expected to communicate, and how often. It is also essential to determine which tools are appropriate for team interaction. Collaborative work can be arranged in various ways in virtual organizations. Experts can be assigned to work on separate components or several different products, but most teams use a combination of both, depending on the product (Brown et al., 2007). Thus, product development usually is very complex by nature and tremendous amounts of information must be transferred within the product development team (Ulrich & Eppinger, 2000). The most critical factors affecting a virtual NPD team's performance—based on literature—are compiled in Table 1.
Table 1. Factors affecting information processing in virtual NPD according to previous literature.
Overcoming Information Contingencies through Virtual Collaboration Competence
Distanont et al. (2012) discovered that explicit knowledge is considered easy to transfer via email, databases, and documentation over organizational interfaces, but it does not guarantee successful knowledge transfer in all occasions. In literature, explicit knowledge has been described as formal knowledge, e.g., specifications, reports, or codes that are easy to transmit between groups and individuals, as Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) have discovered. Tacit knowledge is personal knowledge, insights, know-how, and a deep understanding of contexts, and it is usually hard to communicate formally to others. Thus, organizations need to convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge to secure a competitive advantage in innovation and new product development (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Only human beings led by tacit knowledge have the capability to generate new knowledge (Choo, 1998). Many studies have shown that the main portion of critical knowledge in knowledgeintensive businesses is in tacit form and cannot be easily expressed in explicit form, which is a challenge for knowledge transfer (Merat & Bo, 2013).
Daft and Lengel (1986) divided organizational information contingencies into uncertainty and equivocality. Basically, all information is processed in an organization to reduce uncertainty and equivocality. Equivocality originates from ambiguity and confusion and leads to exchanging of existing views to define problems and to solve conflicts through shared understanding. Uncertainty leads to acquisition of information and to answering of specific questions. According to the same researchers, employees' willingness to commit to the organization and their extra-role behavior are strongly based on the trustworthiness of the management, which is also what Vanhala and Ahteela (2011); Huotari and Iivonen (2004); and Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman (1995) emphasize. Galbraith (1974) has suggested that the greater the task uncertainty, the greater amount of information needs to be transferred in order to achieve the desired goals.
Jong et al. (2007) discovered that the degree of synchronization is a potential cause of conflicts if rules for response time haven't been negotiated. Another critical issue, according to Zigurs (2003), is the para-verbal and non-verbal aspects of communication. The level of cues that are transmitted in communication can significantly affect the message and information flow. Cues in communication can be, e.g., visual or auditory or both. Based on the theory of virtual organizations and information contingencies presented by Daft and Lengel (1986), we propose that equivocality and uncertainty increase or decrease in virtual team communication, depending on the media used for communicating. In matrix organizations, frequent meetings are common and they offer a possibility to reduce equivocality, but it is also possible to reduce uncertainty simultaneously. The advantage of group meetings is a possibility to have shared understanding and agreement when the meetings are properly and carefully organized, which is also what Pekkinen and Kujala (2013) emphasize. Direct contact through private email messages or phone calls across organizational boundaries facilitates the transfer of subjective information and objective data, but due to geographical dispersion and time differences, it is not always an option (Lohikoski & Haapasalo, 2013). Equivocality can be reduced through shared discussions and understanding. Figure 2 presents typical channels for a virtual team's information processing, modified from Daft and Lengel's (1986) information role of structural characteristics for reducing equivocality and uncertainty. In this model, different integrating mechanisms of information processing are described within a context of tacit and explicit knowledge transfer, which are also the methods that the case company's projects use for sharing information.
Figure 2. Equivocality and uncertainty increase or decrease in virtual team communication, depending on the type of knowledge intended to be transferred or the media used for communicating. (Modified from Daft & Lengel, 1986).
Lohikoski and Haapasalo (2013) discovered that recognition and intentional development of virtual competences can enhance knowledge transfer in virtual organizations. Most delays in NPD are based on communication problems. Therefore, more attention to virtual collaboration competences in overcoming information contingencies is needed. It has been agreed in theory by, e.g., Faraj et al. (2011), Dennis et al. (2013), Zigurs (2003), and Mitchell and Zigurs (2009) that task-technology- structure-fit is needed to ensure efficient team performance. According to Lohikoski and Haapasalo (2013), barriers to transferring knowledge can exist on both the personal and organizational levels. Personal and organizational level barriers to knowledge transfer—based on theory and in practice— are presented in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Personal and organizational level knowledge transfer barriers (Lohikoski & Haapasalo, 2013).
It was also discovered that without recognizing organizational and personal virtual collaboration competences, employees often use their own ways of solving problems and taking action based on their previously built tacit knowledge, experiences, and preferences. In this manner, the expected advantages of new ICT, knowledge transfer agents, and a global environment do not get used to their full potential in all cases. The various ways of managing virtual NPD cause challenges and problems, particularly in issues related to interdepartmental relations and development of trust and tacit knowledge (Lohikoski & Haapasalo, 2013). Hertel, Geister, & Konradt (2005) have studied virtual teams and found task work and teamwork related socio-emotional attributes and attributes that have an effect on team performance in addition to professional and cognitive skills. Telecooperation skills are needed in using new media and groupware technology along with self-efficacy and intercultural skills and dependability.
We propose—based on theory of information processing—that the integrating mechanisms presented in Figure 1 play a central role in virtual NPD in addition to personal (PVCC) and organizational virtual collaboration competences (OVCC). The most efficient mechanisms for reducing equivocality are web- conferences and traditional meetings face-to-face in the same location. However, it is crucial to be able to choose the proper tools for transferring information in different phases of work. A virtual environment in NPD is highly equivocal for various reasons, such as language and cultural differences, differences in verbal and written communication, and different time zones, which create a need to synchronize communication. Therefore, we suggest that recognizing and measuring virtual collaboration competence plays a crucial role in managing experts successfully in virtual NPD. Figure 4 presents the relationship between virtual collaboration competences and integrating mechanisms in information processing.
Figure 4. Relationship between virtual collaboration competences and integrating mechanisms in information processing.
According to Wang and Haggerty (2009), virtual organizations have been criticized for having a limited capacity to transfer rich information and knowledge, but they suggested three competencies for successful virtual work: virtual self-efficacy (future-oriented belief in one's technical abilities to work in virtual settings), virtual media skills (using ICT to its full potential to enhance communication), and virtual social skills (recognizing the difference between communication in a traditional work environment and virtual settings. Anantatmula and Kanungo (2010) stress the point that virtual teams and organizations need highly skilled individuals who participate extensively in conversations, have trustworthy behavior, and collectivist values. Yeatts and Hyten (1998) as well as a variety of other researchers agree that interpersonal relationships between the team and others within the organization are crucial to the team's performance. Based on previous research by Lohikoski and Haapasalo (2013), it can be proposed that personal virtual collaboration competence (PVCC), as described in Figure 2, consists of elements such as proactive behavior, media skills, mastery in using ICT, and teamwork skills, including collectivist values. In addition to that, social skills in a virtual environment are needed, which more specifically means proper language skills, oral and verbal skills, and skills in writing concise and informative email messages and virtual presentations.
At the organizational level there are several factors that have an effect on personal virtual collaboration competence. According to Wang and Haggerty (2009), there are four factors that have an effect on individual performance in virtual projects: early face-to-face meetings and training to help overcome problems in technology; increasing virtual team members' technology skills and general familiarity with lean media; assimilating other employees' backgrounds; and creating interpersonal relationships with team members. All communication processes are influenced by people's routines, which do not operate in isolation. Organizational virtual collaboration competence can be said to relate to integration and joint operation of routines. In this way, the organization is an effective operator that transforms employees' actions into the collective, making it possible to generate more knowledge and skills (Metcalfe & James, 2000). Also, adapting to changes within society and in the business environment becomes easier by developing, planning, and managing information resources and processes efficiently (Choo, 1998). In brief, organizational virtual collaboration competence (OVCC) consists of—as described in Figure 2—the following issues: communication processes and information systems that enable an efficient knowledge work, and knowledge management culture that enhances the benefits of a multicultural environment and information flow within the organization.
Methodology of the Case Study
A case study approach combining literature-based semi-structured interviews and electronically obtained survey data was selected for the research, because a case study can contribute to theory in multiple ways by extending and refining existing theory. Electronic survey data were used to enrich the interview data and to study how the results correspond to the interview data. In management studies, case studies can identify key factors, new competencies, logics, and sources related to dynamic and organizational capabilities. Management studies are fairly loosely structured and they change rapidly. Case studies are needed especially in this field of research, because they can explain relationships in a broader sense by providing a structure for complex situations (Ridder, Hoon, & McCandless, 2009.
The case study organization is a leading global enabler of telecommunications services operating in 150 countries. With its focus on innovation and sustainability, the company provides a comprehensive portfolio of mobile, fixed, and converged network technologies, as well as services including consultancy and systems integration, deployment, maintenance, and managed services. The organization studied is presented in Figure 5. The case organization was selected for the study, because it has multinational and multisite virtual ways of working as an everyday routine. We had also long term research relationships with the case company, in addition to a researcher's prior work experience in the same organization. Yin (2009) emphasizes relevance of the case for research and also trust from the informants to acquire valid and reliable data for research.
Figure 5. Description of the organizational levels of the case company, wherein the informants of the study are positioned on Levels 5 and 6.
The research approach was qualitative, because this approach is very effective when a deeper understanding of actual processes and situations is needed (Maxwell, 2012). The case study's semistructured interview questions were built on Daft and Lengel's (1986) theory of uncertainty and equivocality (with additions from our recent research) and then further classified as personal and organizational virtual collaboration competence themes. The themes for the interviews were based on previous literature—on "factors affecting information processing in virtual NPD"—presented in Table 1 and complemented with tailored items addressing our research questions (given on page 2). In this type of method, the form of the themes discussed is the same for all the interviewees, but the interviewer can state the themes in a different order, if necessary.
The basis of this empirical study was formed from 94 organizational members in six teams. The team members were randomly selected by their program managers based on availability of leaders and team members. R&D projects operating globally were studied for this project in Finnish and American sites. The team members at both sites operate globally and communicate by ICT. The teams have members in several different countries, and their stakeholders are also global virtual teams. Altogether six leaders and six expert teams were interviewed at both sites to obtain reliable data on the phenomena studied. The teams in Finland were interviewed face-to-face with participants also in a teleconference and the teams in America were interviewed in a web-conference meeting room, which is very similar to a face-to-face meeting. Table 3 describes the characteristics of the informants.
Table 2. Characteristics of the informants.
The themes of the interviews were divided into categories based on organizational and personal virtual collaboration competence and information processing, which were also used in processing the research data. Each interview was recorded. The team interviews took from 50 minutes to 2 hours and 15 minutes, and the leader interviews took from 35 minutes to one hour, depending on the informants. The recordings were transcribed within two weeks after the interviews, and the researcher had the details clearly in mind when analyzing the data. In addition, an electronic survey was designed to enrich and complement the interview data by evaluating more detailed information about issues affecting virtual collaboration. The questionnaire was sent to 94 employees, with a 56% response rate. Electronic survey data were calculated in Excel sheets and the results are presented as it was considered relevant to this study. The content was analyzed based on the theoretical framework of this study to answer the research questions. Figure 6 shows the central themes which form the basis for the electronic survey, interviews, and analysis.
Figure 6. The central themes of an interview based on the theory of information processing and virtual collaboration competence.
Case Study: Factors Affecting Information Processing in Virtual NPD
Collaboration in Multicultural Global NPD
The leaders in this case company saw that cultural knowledge is a cornerstone when communicating with global teams, because there aren't any reliable tools or metrics that could describe possible problems accurately and in time during the course of the project. In addition to this, the skills in the company language, creativity, and originality of the team members should be taken into account when sharing tasks, evaluating results, and giving feedback. It was considered important for the leaders to be able to get the information straight and in time from the employees, but this is not always easy when operating across different sites, time zones, and cultures. Based on the interviews, the American and Finnish designers and leaders had long-term experience working together, and therefore they all felt they could talk freely about work-related issues, and even problems, without language or cultural barriers. As one of the leaders described:
Ten years ago cultural differences would have been a big deal. I've been working here for 10–15 years now and I've gotten to understand other cultures. It could be a big issue if someone was to join a virtual team. In the US it is "go, go, and go," and folks in Finland like to "plan and re-plan and then get started." We've always tried to balance that, to do things in order. We like to expect things from them and they like to expect things from us and we've come kind of past that lately. So it's not an issue anymore. -Leader A, USA
There were Finnish employees who had worked in the United States and Americans who had worked previously in Finland, and those employees could act as knowledge transfer agents between the different sites, knowing useful contacts at the Finnish sites. They could also help with language barriers between the different sites by translating complex emails to their American colleagues. All the leaders considered it an asset to have a local knowledge transfer agent at another site. Program managers were also considered to be knowledge transfer agents across sites. Employees found it easier to ask for advice from a person they had met before or whom they knew from previous projects. However, the informants found it difficult to ask for advice from another site without the manager's assistance.
The American site was the most multicultural, consisting of altogether 26 different nationalities. All the informants mentioned that in the United States nationality or cultural issues were not considered as having a big impact on the team's performance. One of the teams that were interviewed in the US had members in Finland, Poland, China, India, Dallas, and Germany. According to the American teams, team performance is based more on corporate cultures or co-operation among different kinds of personalities than on national cultures. However, cultural knowledge was still considered significant by all of the informants. Especially, all the leaders emphasized the significance of acknowledging cultural background when giving feedback. Some employees need the feedback privately and in a very sensitive manner, whereas others can talk about anything in public. Also sharing and assigning tasks has to be done very differently across different sites. As a leader in Finland described, communication with employees in China, Poland, Germany, and the United States needs to be understood correctly:
All the messages need to be calibrated. If someone gives a report or says something in a certain way, you always have to know what he/she really means, because with some cultures the truth doesn't always come up at meetings. The truth comes up usually after the meetings when asking about it in a certain way privately. -Leader C, Finland
The leaders considered cultural variety a richness and they appreciated it, but only if special cultural characteristics are well known. Only then can cultural differences be seen as a richness and a resource. Geographical dispersion and time differences were described as a major challenge. It is very difficult to find common meeting times between China and America, and meetings usually take place in the middle of the night or very early in the morning. Therefore, some virtual team members find it easy not to participate in all the meetings and therefore they often miss relevant information. The same employees often work in several different projects and therefore, according to the interviews, prioritizing is often done at the expense of a virtual project. In the electronic survey, it was notable that most of the informants considered a multicultural team consisting of different personalities a richness; 47% agreed with this statement and 38% partly agreed, which means only 15% more or less disagreed with this statement. The informants' personal responsibility and role in influencing information flow between people and teams was fairly low; only 8% agreed with the statement "I have a significant influence on information flow between people and teams." Forty-nine percent partly disagreed and 13% disagreed with this statement (Appendix 1).
What is notable in the results is that the company doesn't seem to have company guidelines for working in virtual teams or these guidelines are not available to everybody. There was a lot of variety in opinions when the informants were asked about virtual work training and guidelines. The statement "Team members are familiar with the company guidelines on working in a virtual environment' was disagreed with or partly disagreed with by over half of the informants, and the statement "I have been introduced to the company guidelines on working in virtual teams" was also disagreed with or partly disagreed with by half of the informants. Only 15% were familiar with the company guidelines on working within virtual projects.
Integration Mechanisms and Collaboration through ICT
The company's ICT tools were considered useful—only one team mentioned connectivity problems and availability problems, but in general the tools were considered adequate. However, there was variety in the opinions: 28% considered the company's ICT tools supportive and made their work easier, but 25% partly disagreed and 2% disagreed with this statement in the electronic questionnaire. There are also company-level social collaboration platforms and knowledge sharing databases, but according to all the informants it is not clear who is using them or why employees should use them. There seemed to be a lot of variety in what databases or platforms are used, also the availability of virtual meeting rooms and conference rooms wasn't good enough. What comes to email messaging, the employees in the United States seemed to be more comfortable using email than the employees in Finland, where email messaging was considered time consuming and the main cause of information overload. It is common at both sites to use email even when working at the same site. Email and meetings were mentioned as the main channel for sharing knowledge. Email was considered easy to send and mass email especially was found easy and efficient. However, here also opinions were divided and email was also considered a major cause of conflicts due to misunderstandings and misinterpretations when reading, e.g., about complex technical issues or when interpreting humor the wrong way.
It was notable that the statement "We share knowledge efficiently in this company' was partly disagreed with by over half of the informants and only 7% agreed with this statement. It seems like more attention to and clarification of information and knowledge sharing practices are needed. Most of the employees considered their communication skills and ICT skills good according to the survey. Nobody disagreed with the statements: "I have good communication skills in a virtual environment' or "My ICT (Information and Communication Technology) skills are sufficient for working in virtual teams." It was notable that 72% agreed with the last statement and 47% agreed with the first one. Appendix 2 describes the results of the knowledge sharing practices in the virtual environment in more detail.
It is the company's responsibility to offer technologies that support higher achievement. The structure of the meetings also needs to be clear and defined in advance. Based on the interviews, the meetings sometimes lack structure and they could be run more efficiently. All the informants mentioned that they can influence meeting agendas as long as they have all the necessary facts. Meeting agendas are compiled before the meetings, but it is also possible to raise new topics at the meetings. Half of the informants mentioned meeting minute templates that are used in the company. Based on the electronic survey, the efficiency of virtual meetings could be better. Only 17% considered virtual meetings efficient and useful; however, 51% partly agreed with this statement. What is significant is that 72% considered their virtual communication skills sufficient for working in virtual projects. What was remarkable was that a virtual meeting room that enables face-to-face-like contact isn't systematically used among the informants. There is lack of availability of these rooms, but the informants also haven't adopted using virtual meeting rooms as an official method of communication. According to the informants, the effectiveness of task-related communication is strong in a virtual environment. The leaders especially found it easier to share tasks through email or in virtual meetings than face-to-face. According to the team interviews, it is sometimes difficult at virtual meetings when you can't see the facial expressions of the others, but it was also mentioned as beneficial that dislike isn't revealed in a virtual discussion.
There seemed to be a lot of variety in what databases or platforms are used. Also the availability of virtual meeting rooms and conference rooms wasn't good enough. In some rooms ad hoc meetings aren't possible due to long reservation times. Tools are usually used based on project managers' past experiences and what has been used before. Half of the informants mentioned a communication plan that is made at the beginning of the project, but it seems like communication tools and practices aren't systematically planned and utilized.
The findings point out that the most significant challenges that influence information contingencies in the case company are related to selection of ICT tools for transmitting rich information, which is associated with virtual collaboration competence issues. The most significant factors increasing equivocality and uncertainty are presented in Table 4 below and virtual collaboration competences are discussed in the following section in more detail.
Table 4. Summary of the case company's information contingencies.
Virtual Collaboration Competences
The findings of this study are based on empirical data from a multinational and globally operating company. This study concludes that information flow in virtual teams is based on relationships between team members. Also according to various researchers, e.g., Bergiel et al. (2013), Johns and Gratton (2013), Holton (2001), Badrinarayanan and Arnett (2008), Gressgard (2011), Gatlin-Watts, Carson, Horton, Maxwell, & Maltby (2007), and Faraj et al. (2011), cultural background needs to be considered when forming virtual teams. According to Malhotra et al. (2007), Dennis et al. (2013), Li (2010), Snowden and Boone (2007), Maude (2011), and Kankanhalli et al. (2007), diversity should be appreciated and seen as an asset of the company. Leaders considered cultural variety a richness and they appreciated it, but only if special cultural characteristics are well known. A precondition for managing global teams is that knowledge about cultural characteristics is needed before cultural differences can be seen as a richness and a resource. There are also research results which point out that cultural differences aren't as significant in a virtual environment as in traditional teams operating face-to-face (Gressgard, 2011; Wang & Haggerty, 2009; Badrinarayanan & Arnett, 2008). It is typical, according to Faraj et al. (2011) and Lam and Lambermont-Ford (2010) that in virtual organizations, structure is a fluid object and interaction is easier and less formal in a virtual context and that a virtual environment can reduce cultural effects. However, this statement needs further studies within global ICT companies.
Basically, knowledge sharing in virtual projects depends on the quality of informal and formal conversations between employees, and it is the organizational culture that decides how and with whom these conversations take place (Paghaleh et al. 2011). Organizational knowledge sharing improves if personal networks are respected and organizations take part in improving them. In such cases, cross-cultural knowledge sharing can be improved. According to Gatlin-Watts et al. (2007), Holton (2001), Wang and Haggerty (2009), Faraj et al. (2011), and Malhotra et al. (2007), team building and relationship building are needed especially at the beginning of the project to enhance knowledge sharing among team members. After team building or meeting face-to-face at the beginning, it is significantly easier for all of the informants to share information through ICT. The importance of face-to-face meetings has also been addressed widely in research; e.g., Holton (2001), Wang and Haggerty (2008), Dennis et al. (2013), and Zigurs (2003) have emphasized the significance of face-to-face communication when transferring tacit knowledge and when starting a virtual project. As several team members described, after meeting in person you can remember what a person looks like in certain situations and how a person's tone of voice can be interpreted later in teleconferences or web-conferences, for example. The significance of face-to-face contact—at least at the beginning of the project—was strongly addressed by all the informants in order to reduce conflicts in the project's phases.
According to Kankanhalli et al. (2007), possible conflicts in virtual teams are broadly categorized into two main types: relationship- and task-based conflicts. Relationship-based conflicts involve issues like mutual dislike and personality clashes among team members. Some conflicts can severely hinder a team's performance, but others can actually help a team perform better. Especially task-related conflicts seem to be more common and more severe in virtual organizations than in traditional teams. Task-related conflicts are usually based on functional differences caused by different backgrounds, assumptions, and understanding based on their previous training and experience. Where possible cultural diversity could be minimized by appropriate selection of virtual team members, also functional diversity can be enhanced in high-complexity tasks to promote discussion about work tasks and proper training. Task-related conflicts need to be resolved integratively or distributively in order to improve performance. In addition, virtual team members could participate in making conflict resolution strategies in advance to enhance commitment to shared communication standards and values. Brown et al. (2007) state that conflicts that are left unaddressed too long can adversely affect team relations and ultimately affect the success or failure of the entire project. The most significant issues in the integrating mechanisms in the case company which affect equivocality are problems related to web- conferencing, email messaging, and teleconferencing. Also the company strategy of having their own KPIs for each site hinders information flow between sites and adds competition between teams. Factors that mainly increase equivocality in these mechanisms are described in Figure 7.
Figure 7. Description of the most significant issues affecting equivocality in the case company.
According to Wang and Haggerty (2009) and Johns and Gratton (2013), knowledge transfer agents are employees with wide social networks and skills in building contact networks across sites and different cultures. Knowledge transfer agents are a valuable resource for a virtual project, and they should be recognized and utilized fully in organizations. Their networks usually benefit the whole organization. Huijser (2006) and Nahavandi (2006) emphasize paying attention to cultural backgrounds when leading people. Cultural background is expressed through communication, but it is also expressed in how people share and deal with information. Trust and open communication are essential in leading virtual teams. By defining processes and roles and communicating clearly what is expected, one can establish both predictability and openness (Anantatmula, 2008). Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) have also emphasized the ability to see the difference between explicit and tacit knowledge, because organizations need to convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge in order to secure a competitive advantage.
Based on previous research by Lumsden and Lumsden (2004), Zigurs (2003), Kankanhalli et al. (2007), Han and Harms (2012), and Lohikoski and Haapasalo (2013), guidelines and training for working in a virtual organization are crucial to the virtual team's performance. Also, experience in working in virtual projects provides knowledge and tools for viewing new situations and events. Experience can also help an expert deal with the complexity of a multicultural environment and technically complex issues (Davenport & Prusak, 2005).
Based on the interviews, the meetings sometimes lack structure and they could be run more efficiently. Geographical dispersion and time differences have been addressed widely as a major challenge in virtual organizations in theoryI In the case company, this was also described as a major challenge. It was also remarkable that communication tools and practices aren't systematically planned and utilized. Table 5 presents the case-company-specific information contingencies and managerial implications that are suggested for enhancing information flow between different sites.
Table 5. Integrating mechanisms, company level information contingencies, and managerial implications.
Based on the interviews, the best practices for a virtual project are mainly related to OVCC, which is crucial to virtual team performance and also has an effect on PVCC. Best practices are described in Figure 8.
Figure 8. Best practices for a virtual project as suggested by members of the virtual teams and their leaders.
Cultural background and competence in the official company language need to be considered and measured when forming and leading virtual teams. Conflicts can cause severe problems for project schedules, especially when trying to solve them across time differences through email messages. In this manner the advantages of new ICT, knowledge transfer agents, and a global environment aren't used to their full potential. Based on leaders' opinions, cultural knowledge is a cornerstone when sharing tasks, giving feedback, and interpreting the results of global teams. There aren't any fully reliable tools or metrics that could point out possible problems accurately and early enough. Therefore, leaders need to be able to get information straight from the employees through email messages or at virtual meetings. A leader has to know how to get accurate information from each individual efficiently, and therefore advanced knowledge and experience in operating with different cultures is needed. After that cultural differences can be seen as a richness and a resource, and therefore equivocality brought about by a virtual environment could be reduced.
In summary, based on the interviews, the most important factors affecting a global team's performance are face-to-face meetings—at least at the beginning of the project—to reduce information contingencies. Also the knowledge management culture is significant. Alignment of the project's goals and the company's guidelines for working in a virtual environment should be familiar to all team members and employees. The significance of knowledge transfer agents should be appreciated and their performance measured and rewarded, as they play a significant role in transmitting information and building trust between different sites.
Based on the results, employees are not systematically trained for working in virtual teams and therefore equivocality caused by a virtual environment is increased. PVCC can enhance virtual project work, but most crucial is organizational virtual collaboration competence, which also enables and enhances PVCC. Especially virtual collaboration tools and the role of internal and external social media within global companies are still often unused, and the reasons behind that need further studies. Also the structure and efficiency of virtual meetings need further studies. Basically, it would be beneficial to evaluate the core issues in organizational virtual collaboration competence: communication processes, information systems, and knowledge management culture. In addition, PVCC could be worth recognizing, measuring, and rewarding, as PVCC can significantly enhance information processing in global NPD teams. It has to be noted that a limited amount of informants and analysis of only one company does not allow generalization to all organizations at this point, and therefore more information and studies about virtual collaboration competences at the organizational and individual levels in different levels and various types of organizations are needed.
A semi-structured interview method was considered to be a suitable method for studying communication and managing of experts in global projects, because it was also possible to investigate issues that are more intangible in nature. It is also significant that the informants had relatively long work experience in virtual projects, which provides perspective and adds value especially when analyzing and drawing generalizations from the qualitative interview data. Conducting the research ethically was a serious concern. Research ethics in this case mean respecting privacy and confidentiality and being transparent when using the research data. Ethical practices are based on respect, trust, and an approach to an organization that seeks to build rather than demolish relationships between people. In order for research to be beneficial to the community, the tension between respecting confidentiality and publication of data needs to be carefully managed and considered (Rowley 2004). Confidentiality was considered when writing this article and when communicating the results to the case company. The researcher has the responsibility of securing the actual permission and interests of all those involved in the study.
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1. Evaluations of Collaboration in Virtual NPD Teams of the survey participants.
2. Results on knowledge sharing practices and virtual collaboration through ICT in the case company
Päivi Lohikoski received her MA degree from the University of Oulu, Finland, in Information Studies. She has worked as a university lecturer since 2005. She is specialized in planning and teaching elearning projects. In addition, she has work experience in the ICT industry in communication and product documentation functions in research and development. Currently, she is a doctoral student in Industrial Engineering and Management at the Faculty of Technology at the University of Oulu. Her research interests are in knowledge management, virtual organizations, and communications.
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