The N.O. L.I.M.I.T.S. approach to virtual team projects

Abstract

The Internet and the practice of outsourcing work have been the main ingredients for the use of virtual distributed teams. No longer can a project team always be co-located in order to improve the expedition of a project! After years of experience with virtual groups and teams, Dr. Walker demonstrates a range of positive techniques and tools to keep a virtual team on track, on schedule, and on budget. The techniques shown will range from the use of enterprise-wide impact tools to subtle interpersonal strategies that a project manager can use to ensure a successful virtual and/or distributed team project.

Introduction

There are few differences in outcomes when one compares virtual project teams with co-located project teams. Both have to go through the same project management life cycle in order to create a product or service that will determine the success of the project’s product from the customer’s viewpoint.

There are additional traits shared by the two types of project teams during the project life cycle. Regardless of the venue, the role of the project manager remains the same: he or she has to play multiple roles while moving the project forward and these four main roles are: leader, manager, facilitator, and mentor/coach (Lee, 2009, p 457).

Clearly, there are differences in being able to execute a project through a virtual team compared with a one-site or co-located team. The main difference is the intensity of organizing the project plan, reaching out to the project team members, and understanding their environment, using information and communication technologies (ICTs), and leading a virtual team with members who are located around a city, state, country, or the globe.

This paper will explain the differences between virtual and co-located projects. It will explore the tools and techniques needed to produce a successful virtual team project. Much of the success relies on the leadership abilities of the project manager. In order to define this leadership role, this paper proposes the acronym of N.O. L.I.M.I.T.S., which is an approach that consists of the following knowledge areas:

  • Nurturing of the project team
  • Out of sight, out of mind syndrome
  • Leadership strengths
  • Interests of team members
  • Mind reading
  • Individualized attention and recognition of team members
  • Tools and techniques
  • Subject matter experts (SMEs)

Background

Since the 1990s, the Internet has played an increasingly larger role in the formation and execution of virtual projects (Evaristo, 1999, p 275). A virtual team has been defined as a group that communicates electronically, is not at the same location, and can be situated across a city, state, region, country, or the world (Reed & Knight, 2009, p 1).

The use of virtual teams has become a mainstream practice in the business world because of the use of standard communication devices such as telephones, cell phones, and information and communication technologies (ICTs) (Evaristo, 1999, p 275) such as smart phones, as well as Internet information technology and multi-media–based tools. This is a pervasive theme throughout the literature on virtual teams, for example:

“Virtual teams reflect the ever-increasing non-traditional work environments of the 21st century.” (Lee, 2009, p 456)

However, there have been new issues that arise when this type of project team is formed. In many cases, covering vast distances and not having face-to-face contact proves to be problematic when trying to move the project forward.

Are there big differences in the ways virtual teams and co-located teams works on projects? Clearly, the way the information is transmitted between all stakeholders can be an issue; for example, there is the issue of explicit and implicit information. Explicit communication can be described as the specifications of a product spelled out for everyone, whereas implicit communication also conveys how the communication is being transferred through such things as voice intonation, body language, and so forth (Chiocchio, 2007, p 99). Because virtual project teams do not communicate face-to-face, the implicit information is lacking, which dictates a different approach to managing the project team.

Common problems that have come up in the literature reviews have been team communication, how time zones play a role in virtual project development, the necessity (or not) of face-to-face contact, leadership issues, management’s lack of control over a virtual project, cultural differences, and trust (Lee-Kelley & Sankey, 2008, p 236)

Advantages to having a virtual team is that it is less costly than a team that meets face-to-face, virtual teams tend to be more effective with creative tasks, can work on a project across time barriers and space, and can use the best talents from various locations of the organization around the world (Shah & Mehta, 2009, p 58).

Disadvantages to having a virtual team compared with a face-to-face team are the additional time and costs associated with training on computer communication tools, making decisions or solving problems, they are less productive, have a hard time doing simple tasks, take longer to build trust amongst team members, and does not have the implicit conventional communications (Shah & Mehta, 2009, p 59).

In addition, the challenges of virtual teams can be affected by constrained planning and coordination, building trust among the team members, integration of project information, and choosing the appropriate communication technology (Curseu, Schalk, & Wessel, 2008, p 631).

Having said this, however, if an organization has been executing only traditional one-site projects, movement to a virtual project does not have to be as overwhelming as it sounds. One suggestion is to approach this transition by utilizing common practices already in place, modify ones that fit the new virtual environment, and develop unique practices that can only exist in the virtual environment (Rad, 2002, p 3).

Edwards and Wilson suggest that the pre-planning of a project consist of the following actions:

  1. Produce personal profiles
  2. Develop virtual socializing skills
  3. Agree on a code of conduct protocol
  4. Agree on a communication protocol
  5. Produce a meetings protocol
  6. Generate a project implementation plan
  7. Plan for training and competency
  8. Produce a reporting and recording protocol
  9. Design a central knowledge base
  10. Agree on a system for performance measurement
  11. Set up a strategy for team evaluation
  12. Develop recognition and reward policies and systems (Edwards & Wilson, 2004, p 151)

As Rad has suggested, the list above has many commonalities with one-site and co-located teams; however, items 1 and 2 are more specific to the virtual project team environment. These first two actions involve more specifics of the team member’s background and the communication protocol than would be solicited in a conventional project. These socialization actions are at the heart of understanding the challenges and opportunities of a virtual team project.

Nurturing

Some lessons learned can be gleaned from the history on the subject of successfully nurturing team members. For example, in the post-revolutionary era of the 18th-century United States, there were many land speculators in the new union. Most failed to make a profit or be successful in this endeavor and some ended up in prison for their debts. However, William Cooper, the father of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper and the founder of Cooperstown, New York, was successful in his land speculation endeavors.

“Unlike other speculative landlords, Cooper made available all of his best land at once and sold it at modest prices with long-term credit and as free holds, not as tenancies, in order to get the settlers to work as hard as they could on land they owned outright. At the same time, he realized that he could not be an absentee landlord. He knew he needed to live among his settlers, to patronize and encourage them, and work to develop saleable products and their access to markets.” (Wood, 2009, p 119)

This example from history shows that engagement with members of the community is important for success. The same can be said about a project manager and his or her ability to engage virtual team members.

Again, though, the difference of a virtual team is in the interaction of the project manager and the team members. The lack of face-to-face contact makes interpersonal relationships, building trust, and team cohesiveness more problematic (Curseu, Schalk, & Wessel, 2008, p 634).

There are three boundaries that teams need to work through for successful project outcomes: (1) interpersonal interactions and developing relational capital; (2) working practices and routines; and, (3) knowledge diversity (Ratcheva, 2009, p 207). Because a virtual team is spread across time and space, there must be tools and techniques to build relational capital. There has to be knowledge of the work practices and cultures in the distant locations, as well as acknowledgment of and a plan to harness the knowledge diversity inherent in virtual teams. These boundaries may necessitate going beyond the immediate project and affecting the culture of the whole organization. Upper management and leaders of the organization will need to understand the challenges and opportunities of a virtual environment and support it accordingly.

“Many organizations are realizing that effective management of projects in their organizations requires the development of practitioners beyond project managers and team members, extending to the development of practice throughout all levels of their organizations, from team members to members of the board.” (Crawford, Morris, Thomas, & Winter, 2006, p 724)

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Motivating a team requires a team charter, defining and clarifying team processes, developing a positive environment built on unique team members’ needs with incentives, fostering trust, teamwork, and open communication (Peterson, 2007, p 66). However, unlike a co-located team, there is the phenomenon of an “on-off switch,” which is indigenous to virtual teams. For example, with one deft click of a mouse button, the whole virtual world can be ignored. This could be defined as an “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome that is symptomatic of a virtual team environment.

In order to address this syndrome, the project manager needs to build the team around a code of conduct. This aligns with project managers who have earned the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification and need to know the PMP code of conduct in order to pass the exam and abide by it to maintain their credential. Having the team (and not just the project manager) build the team code of conduct adds to the engagement and buy-in from the team members (Lee, 2009, p 459).

There are studies that prove that engagement and motivation can be successfully accomplished by the project manager and this can be achieved through goal setting, task structures, and reward systems (Lee, 2009, p 457), in addition to adding regular and structured project status meetings and team member performance reviews (Lee-Kelley, 2006, p 242).

In addition, particular attention should be paid to those team members who are new to serving on a virtual team. The project manager needs to actively build a sense of community for these individuals through team building activities that accentuate the team member’s professionalism and being proactive during the project’s life cycle. (Lee-Kelley, 2006, p 242)

All of the literature points to the project manager being vigilant in better understanding the backgrounds of the team members in order to leverage their strengths and assist them when there are weaknesses in their skill sets.

Leadership

The project manager in a virtual project team environment needs to lead effectively, build “early wins” into the project plan, be self-aware, and empower team members in order to have successful outcomes. Effective leadership overrides the constraints of no face-to-face communication and virtual information processing (Curseu, Schalk, & Wessel, 2008, p 636). Early positive reinforcement of a team’s ability to perform can translate into positive outcomes for the project (Schenkel & Garrison, 2009, p 538). By emphasizing some “early wins” in the virtual project, the project manager will foster a collaborative and interactive entrepreneurial atmosphere among the project team’s members (Schenkel & Garrison, 2009, p 534).

The leadership style of the project manager is more important to consider in a virtual project than in a traditional project (Nauman, Mansur Khan, & Ehsan, 2009, p 3). A project manager with a charismatic personality can have a positive impact on the project team’s productivity as well as be a subject matter expert (SME) (Wang, Chou, & Jiang, 2005, p 174). Also, a project manager who is ethical and demonstrates effective leadership skills correlates with a higher quality of goal setting, task interdependence, and ultimately, the project deliverable (Lee, 2009, p 457).

In addition, the project manager’s self-perception can also be an issue. For example, when dealing with multiple cultures across a project, one study found that 85% of the project managers fell into the category of being “ethnocentric,” which is the belief that their culture is superior to others. Also, another stumbling block was that 75% of those project managers did not believe they were leaders (Mäkilouko, 2004, p 391).

Empowering virtual team members may be a substitute for the advantage of having face-to-face meetings (Nauman, Mansur Khan, & Ehsan, 2009, p 5). Delegating leadership helps with covering work while the project manager is absent or indisposed, it recognizes the abilities of team members to do the work, helps to avoid ego-bruising of team members, and may help team members mentor others who need confidence and competence building.

Empowerment also leads to improvements in team flexibility and satisfaction (Zhang, Tremaine, Egan, Milewski, O‘Sullivan, & Fjermestad, 2008, p 53). If possible, building a history of trust between members of virtual teams is another way of ensuring virtual project success (Schenkel & Garrison, 2009, p 534).

Interests

Building community and understanding team members’ interests assist in project success. Looking again at William Cooper’s way of building community, we see that “Cooper’s idea of development was to tap into each settler’s own interest in improving himself and make that self-interest redound to the community’s interest and his own.” (Wood, 2009, p 119)

Running a virtual project adds new dimensions to a project manager’s skill set. The project manager needs to expand his or her use of communication technologies and be able to work with team members from different cultures (the professional as well as the regional culture) and languages (Crawford, Morris, Thomas, & Winter, 2006, p 726).

One way of understanding a team member’s interest is through face-to-face meetings. This may seem counterintuitive when it comes to virtual team projects, but an occasional face-to-face meeting between the project manager and team members can help to understanding the team members’ personal lives, interests, and may help with creating virtual activities to keep the team members engaged (Lee, 2009, p 461).

Much of understanding team members’ interests is related to culture and the issues that can arise from multicultural projects. Understanding the culture of a distant project’s team can be instrumental in the failure or success of a project. For example, “In one case, a company disbanded all multicultural teams and replaced them with single nationality teams as a way to solve multicultural project team problems.” (Mäkilouko, 2004, p 388)

Mind Reading

The project manager needs to be able to put himself or herself in his or her team members’ shoes. This means that the project manager needs to understand the team members’ work environment, as well as understand what information needs to be supplied up front for the virtual project to move forward. The question that has to be answered is, “What would I need to start and continue work on this project?” This means that the project manager has to make sure that the documents and artifacts of the project are ready and available at the start of the project. There has to be virtual software that can assist in sharing and versioning project plan documents, such as project charters, team contracts, and so forth.

A checklist (Exhibit 1) that is specific to virtual teams is always helpful in ensuring that start-up procedures are covered. Edwards and Wilson suggest the following checklist to assist the project manager in managing a virtual project.

Project Start-Up Checklist (Edwards & Wilson, 2004, p 145)

Exhibit 1: Project Start-Up Checklist (Edwards & Wilson, 2004, p 145)

In essence, the project manager has to make sure that “mind reading” also includes an ability to be able to adapt to changing conditions during the project’s execution. As Ratcheva states:

“Distributed teams, therefore, require design structure and relationships that are as agile as their markets are dynamic. Unlike co-located teams operating in a stable organizational environment that largely depend on learning-before-doing (knowledge stocks) geographically distributed teams must also integrate new and emergent knowledge in real time (learning while-doing).” (Ratcheva, 2009, p 208)

Individualized Recognition and Attention

Research has shown that a project manager who obtains training and/or professional development and hones his or her communication abilities will build trust and team member satisfaction within a virtual environment (Henderson, 2008, p 50).

Because this type of recognition usually is transmitted via e-mail (the most common and used tool in virtual settings), the following recommendations apply:

  • Know your audience
  • Use proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation
  • Consult specific e-mail etiquette instructions when electronically communicating under certain circumstances
  • Always be courteous
  • Keep in mind the importance of face-to-face communication (Agnew & Hill, 2009, p 4)

Tools

There are many tools available in the marketplace to support a virtual team project; they are categorized into the two broad areas of collaboration and knowledge management (Anantatmula, 2008, p 37) and may also be categorized by generation.

“E-mails and conference calls are generally known as first-generation technologies, while online discussion boards, PowerPoint presentations, video tools, and online meeting tools are secondgeneration technologies. Third-generation technology refers typically to web-enabled shared workspaces via the Intranet or Internet.” (Lee-Kelley & Sankey, 2008, p 53)

Virtually co-locating a team may involve such tools as a dedicated team website that can have instant messaging, asynchronous discussion areas, video conferencing, knowledge repository features, as well as team and subject matter expert contact information (Anantatmula, 2008, p 41).

Within the collaboration tools are groupware computer software suites, and within these tools are:

  • Internet/Intranet connectivity
  • Discussion forums/message boards
  • E-mail
  • Video conferencing (Anantatmula, 2008, p 43)

The Internet/Intranet connectivity feature gives the project manager the ability to work virtually around the globe or in-house. In other words, one could test out virtual tools within a single-site project setting before attempting to run a global project.

“Further, benefits of information technology (IT) and knowledge management (KM) are encouraging even co-located project team members to use technology for collaboration and communication.” (Anantatmula, 2008, p 44)

Discussion and message boards can help remote team members keep up on immediate problems and issues within the project. A team discussion board (TDB) can be helpful in running a project because of its transparency to the user. The TDB is easy to use, all team members are kept “in the loop,” it can foster collectivism, and it is easy to implement on a company’s server (Chiocchio, 2007, p 99).

High-performing teams exchange more messages via a TDB than low-performing teams. Also, the project manager could monitor the discussion boards to see if there are problems with the project before they get out of control (Chiocchio, 2007, p 100). E-mail is the most common and used tool within any virtual team project. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to using this tool.

Advantages

E-mail’s principal competitor is the telephone, and there are many reasons why e-mail is a more effective communication tool than the telephone. According to Lesikar, Flatley, and Rentz (2008), the advantages of e-mail include:

  • E-mail eliminates “telephone tag.”
  • E-mail saves busy people time.
  • E-mail can speed up decision making.
  • E-mail is cost effective.
  • E-mail provides written records.

Disadvantages

Although e-mail provides many advantages, there are disadvantages as well:

  • E-mail is not as private as it may seem (Hughes, Stolley, & Driscoll, 2007).

  • E-mail does not communicate the sender’s emotion and tone.
  • E-mail may be ignored or deleted by the recipient (Lesikar, Flatley, & Rentz, 2008) (Agnew & Hill, 2009, p 2)

Video conferencing supplies some of the implicit information like face-to-face communication; however, there are still constraints because of the two-dimensional nature and the selection of what is visible to the viewer.

Within the knowledge management computer software are:

  • Knowledge/document repositories
  • Databases
  • Decision systems (Anantatmula, 2008, p 41)

The knowledge/document repositories give the team the ability to collaborate on project documents. The databases assist in capturing information for scope verification and lessons learned. The decision systems can add some commonality to how processes should be executed.

The success or failure of a virtual project is not necessarily dependent on the type of software being used but the effective use of it. For example:

“The success of a project clearly depends on the type of communication channels established. For the project to be successful, it is necessary that the communication structures between the project team and the client be established early and implemented.” (Talha, Maqsood, & Durrani, 2006, p 86)

A by-product of using these systems to store and recall information from the organization and past projects is the improved results on current projects (Anantatmula, 2008, p 44). Developing these IT tools to support organizational projects should not be done in isolation (Anantatmula, 2008, p 44). This aligns with much of the project management discipline in that much of the project plan creation should be “socialized” in order to obtain project success.

Subject Matter Experts

Using subject matter experts (SMEs) can help fill gaps in the project manager’s and team’s knowledge and skill sets. They can be accessible through a listing or yellow pages on a groupware website (Anantatmula, 2008, p 44). On the other hand, the SME doesn’t always have to be a listing on a website.

“As noted by one participant, ‘When it gets tricky and the time is running out, I usually find a colleague outside the project to bounce ideas with . . . if nothing else, this gives me confidence that I am on the right track’.” (Ratcheva, 2009, p 212)

In addition, a framework can be helpful in organizing any project, whether it is in one location or virtual. One group approached the problem by creating a framework in which each major milestone was handled by an established center of excellence (COE) team and used the features of MS Project to show views of completion to project stakeholders via a master-project, sub-projects plan (Ghosh & Varghese, 2004, p 705).

Anecdotal Experiences

Experiences with virtual teams add to a knowledge base of “lessons learned.” As a college professor, whose main venue is online teaching, there are “best practices” that can be applied to all virtual team environments and they are:

Telephone Conferences:

  • Have protocols and guidelines
  • Have a host/leader for the conference
  • Keep on topic
  • Participant should identify herself or himself every time he or she speaks
  • Have social time before the actual phone conference call (cuts down on chatting)
  • Publish conference call controls (mute, un-mute, etc.)

Group Website:

  • Have a reason to visit the site
  • Have all work artifacts on the site
  • Have all work submissions on the site
  • Provide incentives to visit the site

Video Conferencing:

  • Use quality equipment
  • Have a moderator
  • Train participants on how to use the system
  • Show your whole body, if possible
  • Have protocols and guidelines

E-mail:

  • Read the whole message
  • Respond within 24 hours
  • Use a word processor, if necessary
  • Be thorough and courteous
  • Do not respond immediately to angry e-mails
  • Always respond
  • Be direct
  • Get in the last word so the receiver knows he/she is being heard

Remember that no matter which medium you are using, it is being recorded. This electronic trail may be helpful in compiling “lessons learned” and keeping the project on task and on time. Also, if team members are unfamiliar with the tool, make sure training is offered. The main objective is to be attentive and engaged in the conversation.

Conclusion

Project managers need to be aware of the differences between running a traditional one-site project compared with a virtual project. Instead of completely depending on traditional one-site experiences, project managers should at least receive training on how to work with people issues in a virtual environment (Nauman, Mansur Khan, & Ehsan, 2009, p 9). This is still a relatively new field of study, however, so innovation and organization will serve the project manager and team well. Even so, an immense amount of change and adaptation is necessary to make this team format work. It has been shown that the critical success factors to virtual teams are information/knowledge sharing, participatory culture, acceptance of change, and training (Vakola & Wilson, 2004, p 116). As Thomas & Mengal have said, “Thus, they need to learn and practice how to lead the changes into an unknown future by surfing on the edge of chaos.” (Thomas & Mengel, 2008, p 3131)

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© Dr. Loran W. Walker
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI NA Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, D.C.

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