The reality of virtuality
by Deborah Bigelow, PMP, Contributing Editor
AGIGA INFORMATION GROUP analyst, who knew I was involved in building a virtual organization, interviewed me regarding whether my company could validate the value of and techniques for managing distributed groups. We couldn't provide hard data—just hardcore experience.
Giga's position on managing geographically distributed organizations is that it can be effective but more difficult than managing traditional organizations. Although there is little empirical research, Giga's opinion is that most studies praise the merits of virtual work teams/organizations because they are based on participants’ or media observers’ perceptions, which are not necessarily objective. Giga believes “virtual” teams are here to stay as complements to face-to-face meetings and as reasonable means of providing expertise when travel is impossible.
Managing a virtual team is not more difficult, but it does require a different and new skill set for senior managers. I suggest that virtual teams are more than just “here to stay”: virtual organizations will close global boundaries faster than ever anticipated.
One major drawback of virtual teams and organizations is limited communication. According to Richard Benson-Armer [“Teamwork Across Time and Space,” The McKinsey Quarterly, 22 September 1997]:
[N}on-verbal communication … can account for as much as 60 percent of the message an individual conveys. … Even videoconferencing, the best tool currently available to teams that cannot meet face to face, has limitations.
I always stress communication and team building—both are built on trust. According to O'Hara-Devereaux and Johansen, “Trust is the glue of the global workspace and technology doesn't do much to create relationships” [“Is Anybody Out There? Antecedents of Trust in Global Virtual Teams,” April 1998, Jarvenpaa, Knolland and Leidner, Journal of Management Information Systems]. Communication must be varied in tone and distribution vehicles, and be repeated several times to be effective. Face-to-face contact can never be eliminated; it allows others to feel your sincerity, to produce urgency for their deliverables, and to develop an understanding of context—critical on certain projects that may have a subtle “political” focus. To make virtuality work, a skilled manager must match the communication medium to the type of information being shared.
Another study on virtuality shows that isolation can inhibit a remote worker's performance. “Team leaders are likely to find it more difficult to marshal support from colleagues dotted around the globe who are understandably caught up in their own local problems. As a result, teamwork may never materialize, and expectations may go unmet” [The McKinsey Quarterly, 22 September 1997].
Managing virtual groups requires special skills and knowledge. Knowing what “pitfalls” to avoid and which proactive measures to take is vital.
In Giga's paper [“The Challenges of Managing Geographically Distributed Organizations,” Cecere and Rosenberg, 21 April 1999], the authors provide several recommendations:
Avoid activities that are constrained by the limitations of geographical separation. Projects with volatile, iterative, creative, political, timely, or interpersonal attributes will probably be performed with significantly less effectiveness than if co-located teams were used.
Establish trust first and reinforce. Case studies show that companies that brought workers together before virtual operations started were more productive.
Invest in technology and help-desk support. Several groupware technologies show promise. Other technologies—extra phone lines, fax machines—are often mandatory. Beef up Help-desk support and provide additional tools and techniques to accommodate remote workers.
Minimize worker isolation. Keep remote workers informed of company news and reminded that they are part of a group sharing common goals. A virtual manager needs to be an “amplifier” of important goals.
Create an alignment tool. Use an alignment tool that reflects your goal to help dispersed workers increase their efforts. Ford's “Quality Is Job One” connects workers with company goals.
Hire self-motivated team members. Hiring self-motivated workers is as important as hiring for appropriate technical skills.
THE ADVANCE OF TECHNOLOGY has broken open the area of virtual management. Challenges exist with this new kind of management, but knowing the challenges beforehand prepares you to meet them. ■
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. Comments on this column should be directed to email@example.com.
PM Network January 2000