Virtual project management office

 

Introduction

In the late 1990s, the nature of work in organizations was changing because corporate activity was becoming more global, competition from both foreign and domestic sources was increasing, and there was a continuing shift from production to service and knowledge-based work environments. On this context, many organizations realized that virtual collaboration was ideal to enhance face-to-face interactions by corresponding with both internal and external stakeholders in different parts of the world, across time zones, and even in the same office between meetings (American Productivity & Quality Center, 2004).

When organizations merge or form alliances, partnerships, or joint ventures, especially internationally, it is not uncommon for people who have been leading functional areas to find themselves leading or working with virtually managed teams. Very quickly, most virtual team leaders discovered that leading a virtual team requires a special set of skills. Although many traditional leadership principles apply to virtual teams, virtual team leaders experience unique challenges. First, they have to rely on electronic communication technology to send and receive information. As a result, they need to find new ways to communicate and gather information to plan and control their projects. In most instances, the team leader cannot walk down the hall to ask a question, work out an issue over lunch, or call the team together for a meeting in the conference room. If the team is located across time zones, the team leader must be available in all time zones (Duarte & Snyder, 2006). It’s also important to consider that the nature of the workforce has changed recently. Many people are looking for flexibility and mobility. Managing a project frequently involves working with people who have different occupations, knowledge, and culture (Kleim & Ludin, 1998).

For Dinsmore and Cavalieri (2003), a project management office’s (PMO) one basic objective is to guide and support project managers, allowing them to develop their work at the most efficient and effective way possible. For Kendal and Rollins (2003), it must account for an organization what air traffic controllers represent for the pilots of aircraft. In other words, it should guide the projects, the fastest way for a path with minimum risk possible, toward their final destinations. There are several possible configurations for a PMO: structured as a department itself, be represented by a group of people in a department of a company, be represented by an environment in virtual portal, or to operate project teams that are geographically distant (Dinsmore & Cavalieri, 2003).

Establishing a PMO through a networked environment introduces the concept of virtualization, which uses information and communication technology (ICT). The use of virtual teams in organizations is growing hand-in-hand with globalization, the rise of the knowledge worker, the need for innovation, and the increasing use of ICT. Mayer (1998) understood that the business world began to recognize the potential of virtual organization as the only possible way for future corporations to survive. This tendency, coupled with the constant search to apply the best project management practices, from planning through implementation, creates a scenario for a virtual PMO. While the use of virtual teams continues to grow, the understanding of how their many unique characteristics work together lags far behind (Pauleen, 2004). Understanding how to work in or lead a virtual team is now a fundamental requirement for people in many organizations. Many people who began their career leading teams in a face-to-face environment find themselves leading teams virtually, sometimes not seeing team members face-to-face more than once a year. This presents the challenge of translating what worked in an in-person environment to a virtual one (Duarte & Snyder, 2006).

Conventional versus Virtual

Lévy (1996) considered a conventional organization as one where all employees are located in the same physical headquarters, in an hierarchical structure with the same number of departments, and each one takes a job precisely located, with their working hours recorded. On the other hand, a virtual company focuses on remote sites, tending to replace the physical presence for electronic communication (networks) and the use of resources and tools that encourage cooperation.

A team is “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993, p 112 ). In a virtual group, performance evaluation and accountability is only at the individual level, and most interactions are with the manager (Furst, Blackburn, & Rosen, 1999). Thus, client service representatives working at home would qualify as a virtual group, not a virtual team. Similarly, a group of sales representatives working virtually (because they are mostly on the road visiting clients) are part of a virtual group, not a virtual team. In both examples, the group has no, or very few, common objectives, and people work independently and have few interactions. While group objectives may exist (like sales targets for a given territory), a member’s major responsibility is to fulfill his personal objectives, and it is the accumulation of personal results that leads to the fulfillment of the group’s aims (Pauleen, 2004).

All teams must communicate, coordinate, and collaborate to get the task or project done. However, while conventional teams accomplish this mainly through face-to-face interactions, virtual teams predominantly use ICT to communicate, collaborate, share information, and coordinate their efforts (Towsend, DeMarie, & Hendrickson, 1998). It is common knowledge that conventional teams will also use ICT to some extent to get the job done (e.g., to exchange electronic documents or schedule meetings), but predominance is the key word here. Virtual teams perform most of their work through ICT, while conventional teams use technology only as a supporting tool to assist on face-to-face work. The concept of geographic dispersion has been integrated into virtual team definition. For instance, people could share the same facilities but be present at different times, creating the need to communicate through ICT. Due to that, some authors consider geographic dispersion to be a key feature of a virtual team’s configuration but not a defining characteristic (Pauleen, 2004).

In virtual projects, as in conventional ones, teams are responsible for the work that is needed to deliver the desired product or service. A virtual team is also a project-focused group, just like its conventional counterpart. Virtual teams might have a low turnover, or it might change on a regular basis, again much like its conventional counterpart. Members of a virtual team may be from the same organization or from different ones, as the circumstances require. The most important differentiating feature between virtual and conventional teams is that the members of virtual teams are not in a collocated environment. It is entirely possible that virtual team members will never meet, at least not in the traditional sense. Thus, the virtual project and its geographically dispersed team require different processes that are different from conventional projects, in which team members are collocated (Rad & Levin, 2003).

The project manager of a collocated team is clearly the central project control as indicated by a series of physical status symbols visible to those who are in close proximity to the project manager. As such, he or she might become the principal project spokesperson to the project sponsor and to internal and external stakeholders who are in that location. Thus, in a conventional project, the project manager tends also to be the one, and the only one, who provides leadership for the project. However, in a virtual project, leadership is typically shared among team members based on the specific task at hand, location, and each team member’s area of expertise. In a virtual team, the project manager may not be in the same geographic location as the sponsor or the customers. Therefore, liaison with the sponsor or customers might have to be performed by team members who share the same location and who are designated as relationship managers with key stakeholders. The duties of a virtual project manager, in comparison with duties of a collocated project manager, then would include a larger amount of facilitative and administrative functions (Rad & Levin, 2003).

It is a reality of project implementation that all project teams need to exchange ideas and project data. Using the appropriate IT tools, data can be gathered, presented, manipulated, and assessed in real time. Enabling real-time experiences in a dynamic business environment, IT assists the virtual team to overcome some barriers that have been created by time, distance, complexity, and stakeholders’ diversity. If the appropriate technology is engaged, and if communication is carefully planned, IT might even become an instrument by which virtual project team members make personal human connections. Information must be shared and managed across the project and through its life cycle. The geographically dispersed team can use a web-based team room, somewhat akin to the team room of the collocated project team. Thus, a web-based team room will capture pertinent project data that can be used by any project team members. The team room can provide meeting databases and discussion forums that are accessible to everyone. Approvals can be given and decisions can be made in there. Team members can log-in to this easily accessible archive as they start their work each day. Information can be captured and stored in there for all team members; thus the global team can work on the project 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Built-in action databases can allow problems or tasks to be identified, assigned, and communicated to team members. As changes occur in the various components of the project’s performance and environment, automatic notifications can be sent to team members. Such project databases can also serve as historical information for use in future projects (Rad & Levin, 2003).

However, while technology serves as the enabler of the virtual project, the specific nature of technology might become a source of conflict rather than collaboration. Therefore, team members must strive to reach agreement as to the purpose of each available tool and the procedure for using each tool. Otherwise, the lack of common procedures can lead to conflict that would damage work relationships. For example, one team member may feel that e-mail is a tool to be used only for urgent business, while another one may use it only for documentation of information, fully expecting to save urgent messages for telephone communication. The more diverse the team is, the more important it is to clearly define the technologies that must be used. Naturally, the project or the organization must purchase a sufficient number of the entire agreed-upon suite of hardware and software tools for every member of the project team (Rad & Levin, 2003).

Virtual Project Management Office

Virtualization

Successfully transitioning from a PMO to a virtual PMO necessarily entails development and support of an infrastructure for electronic information. The leadership and key persons in the management of virtual teams allocated to their projects are no less important (Mayer, 1998).

Vargas (2004) highlighted the cost reduction in regards to control of distributed projects, the increase of speed in regards to decision making, improved management, and accumulation of knowledge and ability to work on more complex environments as some of the benefits of virtualization. A VPMO can be loosely characterized as a collaborative effort toward a specific goal or accomplishment that is based on collective yet remote performance. VPMO enables people to work together, yet they remain apart. These work configurations share a need for management tools that enable communication and coordination at a distance (Goncalves, 2007).

By definition, a VPMO is a system by which virtual teams collaborate for a finite period of time to achieve a specific goal. Rather than just being a mere curiosity, it offers many advantages over conventional project management approaches (Goncalves, 2007):

▪ Permit attracting the best workers, independently of their location;

▪ No need to relocate existing workers;

▪ Flexibility;

▪ Reduction in travel time and expenses;

▪ Suitable for environments requiring cooperation between distinct organizations;

▪ Shift toward service work;

▪ Global workdays (24 hours rather than 8); and

▪ Changes in workers’ expectations.

Managing a VPMO is like trying to manage and lead with your hands tied behind your back while you are wearing a paper bag over your head. You can’t see, hear, or speak face-to-face with those whom you are supposed to be managing and leading. And you are not close enough to lend them a hand. This is difficult work. While VPMO can have unprecedent benefits that come from coordinating richly diverse experience and abilities, it also poses a tremendous management challenge (Goncalves, 2007).

One of the main things you should do before you even attempt to develop a VPMO is to sell the concept to upper management. This is an important step with a conventional PMO, and it is even more important with a virtual PMO. Although a PMO is a stabilizing force in project management, a VPMO, because of its pervasive and somewhat ubiquitous nature, is under pressure to provide quick results while still maintaining a long-term vision (Goncalves, 2007).

Best Practices

Many organizations that are trying to organize a VPMO and to implement the necessary improvements to achieve successful project management continue to struggle. The VPMO should have a proactive plan, both short- and long-term, for helping the organizations fulfill its strategic business goals while simultaneously improving project management (Goncalves, 2007).

Virtual Team Members Need Attention

Process and procedures are worthless if your team isn’t actively working to live up to them. Make sure that the processes chosen have “teeth” and are being adhered to by your team. Whenever necessary, reinforce, remove, or reconsider your team’s norms to make sure that they are up-to-date, relevant, and that they have the team’s full commitment (Malone, 2004).

Successful virtual team leaders understand the fundamental principles of team output, accountability, and the team members’ need for direction and feedback and do not let time and space alter these precepts. The team leader, whether virtual or in-house, is accountable for the team’s output and team member performance. Upper management, customers, and peers all hold the virtual team leader accountable for the performance of the team. Even when the team’s task calls for a high level of team member autonomy, the leader is still accountable for the final output of the team and for team member performance (Duarte & Snyder, 2006). Virtual leaders need to work with team members to develop a shared understanding of the level of detail the leader needs to know before and after a decision is made. A team leader should never assume that team members will “figure out what to do” without clear direction (Duarte & Snyder, 2006).

Although team member autonomy, empowerment, and participation are important concepts in making a virtual team successful, there is a task that needs to be completed. An effective virtual team leader is the team’s leader, performance manager and coach. At the team level, the leader is accountable for completing the task within certain technical requirements.

Using Technology to Mediate Communication and Collaboration over Time, Distance, and Organizations

In an environment where everyone is physically present, being “out of the loop” is something that most people can easily overcome. Individuals can get caught up “through the grapevine,” around the water cooler, or in other less-direct ways. In a virtual environment, not having all the information is a bit more difficult to remedy, since there is no “water cooler” or other social means of informally sharing information. Make sure all your virtual team members have all the information they need (Malone, 2004).

A team leader must be able to match the appropriate technology to the team’s task, the current stage of the project, the characteristics of the team, and the level of technological sophistication of the team members. Effective virtual team leaders have a number of technology-based strategies for communication and collaboration. Tasks that are ambiguous often require a communication and collaboration technology that is media-rich and provides a wide bandwidth that mimics the give-and-take of normal conversation. For example, using audio conferences and e-mail to design a complex technical system may not be as effective as using a combination of video, audio, whiteboard, data conferencing, and face-to-face interaction (Duarte & Snyder, 2006).

Make sure your team members know how to use the communication and collaboration tools well and provide feedback that could be helpful in sharpening team members’ skills in the use of these tools. Once an e-mail, fax, telephone call, or other form of communication is received from a team member, make sure your team understands what constitutes a “reasonable” time response. Periodically (more often in the beginning), monitor the effectiveness of your group’s communication so that everyone develops good habits of communication within the team (Malone, 2004).

In many large and complex organizations that operate on a global basis, there are sometimes wide discrepancies between employees’ levels of technological sophistication. People who work in information systems or engineering functions may be very comfortable working with groupware, whiteboards, and e-mail as their primary means of communication. People in other functions, however, may not have much experience in using these technologies. Team leaders who are “first out of the gate” with new technology might meet more resistance than they expect. Discrepancies can also exist between a team and its external partner organizations. The virtual team leader needs to select a set of technologies that matches the skill levels of all team members or provide training and backup resources in the technologies selected. The team leader also needs to address hardware and software compatibility issues and ensure that all team members’ systems work well. If necessary, the team leader should provide technical support at each team member’s location.

Pay special attention to cultural and language differences

People who are not used to working on a virtual environment often overrate the need to speak several languages or to understand different cultures in order to be effective in a cross-cultural environment. Conversely, team leaders often underrate these attributes, believing that the language of the headquarters country is what is widely accepted. In fact, what is required more than linguistic knowledge or international experience is sensitivity to other cultures and an attempt to learn how to communicate on more than a “menu” level with team members.

Managing across cultures entails understanding more than the obvious differences in backgrounds and languages. The challenge for the virtual team leader is to understand the differences among team members and to leverage them to create an advantage. Team leader competence goes beyond knowledge of surface similarities and differences; the leader must proactively create techniques for working or interaction that do not elevate one cultural bias over another.

A virtual environment is ideal for blending diverse backgrounds and abilities. By having a rich mix of skills, talents, orientations, and cultures, your team should be able to see problems and opportunities from multiple perspectives and thereby obtain high-quality results. Such a blending will also require strong skills in listening, problem solving, and collaboration, which will also be beneficial to your team’s work (Malone, 2004).

Helping Team Members with Current Assignments and Career Progression

Some virtual team leaders think that if they cannot see a team member, they cannot assist in the person’s career development. However, the virtual environment does not change the fact that the leader is still a primary force in planning for the team members’ next assignments and career progressions. Because it is easy for virtual team members to feel isolated and unnoticed, it is even more important for the virtual team leader to actively assist them with their career planning and development. If members of virtual teams feel that they have been shortchanged in this important area, their motivation to work on such teams will diminish rapidly.

A common complaint about many teams is that when they get together, all they do is complain about what is, rather than creatively consider what could be. Do not allow your team to fall into this trap. As team members develop the discipline of action orientation, their problem-solving skills will improve and the effectiveness of the results will sky rocket (Malone, 2004).

Feedback is the fuel of virtual teams. Encourage virtual teammates to provide feedback on and assessments of projects, milestones in the completion of projects, and other key activities that relate to your team’s success (Malone, 2004).

The team leader needs to be diligent about being cognizant of the team members’ accomplishments, goals, and objectives by actively seeking this information. The virtual team leader is in a position to help team members obtain good assignments after a project has been completed. They can serve as advocates for team members with their managers, stakeholders, and other virtual team leaders. Team members’ reassignments should be planned in advance in order to minimize downtime and to optimize the use of newly acquired expertise. Virtual team leaders who show concern for the welfare of their team members after the end of their projects provide a valuable service to the organization and gain reputations as good people to work for (Malone, 2004).

Chances are there are a number of areas of team performance that are worth spotlighting. Goals are being achieved; individuals are accomplishing results in record-breaking time; quality is high; customers are expressing satisfaction about the work that is being done. All of these things have a way of generating energy within the team—as long as they are well-publicized. Make sure they are (Malone, 2004).

Another frequently mentioned problem with virtual teams is the transition period required for new members to get up to speed on the project and the technology used. A virtual team leader needs to have competence in training and coaching new team members. The quality and timeliness of the orientation new members receive can affect the team’s overall productivity. The inadequate or untimely orientation of a single member can result in wasteful downtime for the entire team. Good team leaders develop novel ways to orient members, such as using a “partner system” for the first few weeks of participation (Malone, 2004).

Building Trust

One of the biggest mistakes a virtual team leader can make is to underestimate the power of trust. Trust is one of the foundations for performance in a virtual setting. If you do not find ways to build trust and understand how technology affects it, people will feel as if they are always in a very precarious state. The fact that virtual team members might be outside what we consider to be the normal radius of trust, the immediate work group, makes the task of developing and maintaining trust even more critical for performance (Duarte & Snyder, 2006).

One definition of trust is “a belief in the competence of another.” As you build your virtual team, extend trust to those who have demonstrated that they are trustworthy—the individuals who perform their work on time and within the standards of quality established by the team (Malone, 2004).

Direct exposure to people provides you with the history and context necessary to understand their motivations, and therefore, to make judgments about their trustworthiness. You are able to evaluate people’s nonverbal communication and observe their interactions with other team members. Part of the way in which we judge trustworthiness is through our perceptions, over time, of the other person’s reliability and consistency. On a virtual team, team members may never have the opportunity for face-to-face contact or to use other traditional sources of information that form the basis for developing trust. In a virtual team, creating trust requires a more conscious and planned effort on the part of the team leader. It is particularly difficult in virtual teams to develop interpersonal relationships—where people are able to get to know each other and, on the basis of that knowledge, develop a greater level of comfort and confidence in each other (Malone, 2004).

Networking Also Matters in a Virtual Environment

Even though the use of technology is omnipresent in virtual teamwork and there is an increased emphasis on outcomes over effort, team leaders should never forget that work is accomplished through people. Networking, keeping people informed, and soliciting input from team members and others stakeholders, will always be an integral part of a team leader’s job. Because virtual teams are more dispersed than conventional teams, team leaders may find themselves spending even more time networking across boundaries (Duarte & Snyder, 2006).

Involving each member in the team’s work and maintaining regular communication with all members keep everyone connected. Make sure the entire team participates in team celebrations reinforces the “teamness” of their work. Some organizations celebrate via teleconference, but standard conference calls are also useful. Symbolic toasts are another means by which teams can celebrate major milestones (Malone, 2004).

Activities are focused on establishing links across boundaries and networking. Networks include team members, managers from local and remote functional areas, customers, and people outside the organization, such as partners, customers, vendors, and suppliers. A large portion of the team leader’s time needs to be spent finding ways to create shared perceptions among outsiders about the project and its goals. The network has to be broad and strong enough to withstand competing priorities and changing requirements, to obtain needed resources, and to instill a sense of trust in the team and its work (Duarte & Snyder, 2006).

Do Not Use Rigid Controls and Plans within Virtual Teams

Virtual teams exist in adaptive, changing environments. These environments can turn chaotic and can menace or destroy a team’s progress. Team leaders should lead in an adaptive way, helping team members understand the uncertainty and non-routine nature of their work. Managing a virtual team with rigid controls and plans will destroy the team’s ability to experience breakthrough performance. Balancing structure with adaptability is a constant tension that virtual team leaders face.

Conflict is sometimes easy to spot, while at other times it goes unnoticed. Develop keen radar for the presence of conflict in your virtual team. It might emerge around ideas (which idea is right, best, most appropriate, etc.), or it might develop around personalities (who likes whom, who doesn’t like whom). Whatever the source, conflict is a major barrier to team effectiveness. If there are signs of significant conflict (i.e., conflict that is hindering the team’s achievement of its goals), it needs to be dealt with directly and forth-rightly. Occasionally, it might be useful to bring in a third party to assist in conflict management. The presence of another individual who is not in the middle of the conflict is often useful in gaining perspective about the conflict and what should be done with it (Malone, 2004).

Final Words

Project managers everywhere are thinking VPMO. They may not call it that; they may make the virtual component a subset of a PMO. As stated by Goncalves (2007),

You need to have a pure VPMO structure so that you don’t find yourself on the fence between tasks that can be executed in a conventional way and others that require a virtual process, including the technology, cultural, and technical aspects. In order to run a project virtually, you must think virtual. If you need to keep flipping from virtual to conventional, you will end up with a lot of inefficiencies. (p 88)

Because of their particular configurations, virtual PMOs and global virtual teams present significant challenges for all members of a team, especially a project leader (Pauleen, 2004). Team leaders must be mindful of cultural differences, communication, language barriers, and discrepancies in technological proficiency among team members and how these make a difference in team effectiveness. Strategies must then be chosen accordingly. In today’s business environment, organizations must adapt quickly or die. Gaining competitive advantage in a global environment means continually reshaping the organization to maximize strengths, address threats, and increase speed. The use of virtual teams has become a common way of doing this. The formation of virtual teams allows organizations to draw talent quickly from different functions, locations, and organizations. Organizations that will succeed in today’s business environment have found new ways of working across boundaries through systems, processes, technology, and people. They will make technology a valued partner in developing and delivering competitive solutions.

The fact is that leading a virtual team is not like leading a conventional team. People who lead and work on virtual teams need to have special skills, including an understanding of human dynamics and performance without the benefit of normal social cues, knowledge of how to manage across functional areas and national cultures, skill in managing their careers and others without the benefit of face-to-face interaction, and the ability to use leverage and electronic communication technology as their primary means of communicating and collaborating (Duarte & Snyder, 2006).

The business justification for virtual teams is strong. They increase speed and agility and leverage expertise and vertical integration between organizations to make resources readily available. Virtual teams also lessen the disruption of people’s lives because the people do not have to travel to meet. Team members can broaden their careers and perspectives by working across organizations and cultures and on a variety of projects and tasks (Duarte & Snyder, 2006).

American Productivity and Quality Center. (2004). Virtual collaboration: Enabling project teams and communities. Houston, TX: American Productivity and Quality Center.

Duarte, D. L., & Snyder, N. T. (2006). Mastering virtual teams: Strategies, tools, and techniques that succeed, (3rd ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Dinsmore, P. C., & Cavalieri, A. (2003). How can I be a project management professional? Rio de Janeiro: Qualitymark.

Furst, S.,Blackburn, R., & Rosen, B. (1999). Virtual team effectiveness: A proposed research agenda. Information Systems Journal, 9, 249–269.

Goncalves, M. (2007). Implementing the virtual project management office—proven strategies for success. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Katzenback, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (1993). The discipline of teams. Harvard Business Review, 111–120.

Kendall, G. J., & Rollins, S. C. (2003). Advanced portfólio management and the PMO: Multiplying ROI at warp speed. Ft. Lauderdale, FL: J. Ross Publishing.

Levy, P. (1996). What’s virtual? São Paulo: Ed. 34.

Mayer, Margery (1998). The virtual edge: embracing technology for distributed project team success. Newtown, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute Inc.

Pauleen, D. (2004). Virtual teams: Projects, protocols, and processes. Auckland, New Zealand: IGI Publishing.

Rad, Parviz F. and Levin, Ginger (2003). Achieving Project Management Success Using Virtual Teams. Boca Raton, Florida. J. Ross Publishing, Inc.

Townsend, A. M., DeMarie, S. M., & Hendrickson, A. R. (1998). Virtual teams: Technology and the workplace of the future. Academy of Management Executive, 12(3), 17–29.

Vargas, R. V. (2004). Virtual project management office: Breaking geographic barriers within projects. Retrieved November 22, 2004 from http://www.aec.com.br/vpmo.

©2008, Eduardo Barbosa Gomes Guimarães & Elizeu Fonsêca Bôto
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA

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