Virtual project teaming to bridge the distance
a case study
Dr. Connie L. Delisle, Ph.D., M.Sc, B.A, B.A (Ed), University of Calgary, Athabasca University
Dr. Janice Thomas, Ph.D., M.B.A, B.Sc., University of Calgary, Athabasca University
Kam Jugdev, Ph.D. Student, PMP, M.Eng, M.H.S.A., B.Sc, B.Sc, University of Calgary
Pamela Buckle, Ph.D. Student, M.B.A, B.A, University of Calgary
The literature reports that information technology has radically changed the face of business (Hartman & Guss 1996; Burke 1999; O'Connell 1996;Yeack & Sayles 1996; Barnatt 1995; Kocian & Scheer 1997; Sorensen 1999). However, no consensus exists concerning whether success looks different in this virtual business environment. Scholarly work aimed at understanding virtual organizations, teams and projects mostly presents practical advice to virtual project teams on the basis of their experience in traditional project teams.
This paper defines a virtual project team as a group of task driven members behaving as temporary teams, whose members may be separated by geographic or temporal space. They most often use a combination of face-to-face interaction and information technology to communicate (Hartman & Guss 1996). This research seeks to provide some insights into the functioning of virtual project teams. The insights come form a review of the research on virtual teams, our experience in participating in a virtual team over the last two years, and the results of some process and trait testing we conducted.
Researching the Virtual Experience
Research and theories about the virtual domain mostly focus on the macro or organizational level. A virtual environment creates a paradox in a sense because organizations may form as teams, or teams may form as organizations. Thus, case studies at the team level provide a rich view of the functioning of membership within a virtual project team as a microcosm of a networked organization. The virtual team represents the next step in what appears to be a repeating cycle whereby ancient and modern management traditions collide, and the nuances of tribalism confront the pressure of centralization and globalism (Gillmor 1999). For the purpose of this paper, a tribe consists of a cross-generational community of many significant shared social experiences and purposes (Worley 1998). Native Americans characteristically connected peoplehood with tribalism because the capacity for shared experience and purpose distinguishes a mere people from a population (Worley 1998).
Chen (1997) challenges our understanding further by suggesting that a virtual tribe's field of awareness extends beyond each individual member's social context to create a larger shared society, similar to how natural organisms interact. Chen refers to this an extended field of awareness that creates a unique potential for reversal of the action- reaction pairing. That is, the release or birth of ideas and the measured impact of reactions occur before any real physical change may be overtly seen. In a practical example, virtual project teams may finish the project before the contract arrives!
Virtual organizations arrange work to be carried out by project teams on the basis of availability of qualified personnel (Ott & Nastansky 1997). However, members’ formal job descriptions in practice may have very little to do with how the work actually gets accomplished or by whom. Ott and Nastansky (1997) note that virtual organization's self-design in such ways to allow the workers to shape their environment in whatever form they find feasible for carrying out the tasks most beneficially. For example, virtual project teams quickly form, their roles shift, and they deploy resources according to who can handle tasks at that time in the project life cycle.
Experiencing the Virtual
The fluid nature of virtual organizations and teams makes it difficult to prescribe how to build, deploy, and manage them. Researchers have very different ideas about the design and their behavior and structure. Thus, the case study of a real-life virtual project team provided a way to test common assumptions and theories. The virtual team of researchers still is participating in a major research initiative under serious resources constraints and schedule limitations. The case study involved the authors of this paper participating in a series of self- and team-assessments. The core team of three people formed in January 1999 and the fourth core member joined in January 2000. At any one time between four and eight members comprised the larger team. This paper presents the results of the State (behavioral) and Trait (personality) assessment with commentary from the core team. These inventories and observations serve to highlight the traits and behaviors that contribute to this highly creative and successful virtual project team. Recommendations from these experiences may help others working in the virtual world.
Exhibit 1. Personality Traits Scores
The virtual project team under study participated in a self-assessment of their individual personality traits. The Personal Style Inventory (PSI) developed in 1980 by Hogan and Champagne claims to provide a clearer picture of the shape of the personality in the dimensions it measures. The PSI identified what kinds of tasks and situations seemed most and least comfortable for each member. The PSI measures the dimensions “perceiving” and “judging” as well as the differences in the tendency to exercise one's perception and judgment. Perception measures include Sensing – Intuition (S-N) and Judging measures include Thinking – Feeling (T-F). The total for each pair equals 40 points. In addition, a person may either be oriented toward Extroversion – Introversion (E-I). Scoring high on E shows a preference for the outer world for stimulation, whereas the reverse seems true for high I scorers. Extroverts seek the company of others at work whilst introverts prefer the company of their own thoughts (see Exhibit 1).
The preferred method of experiencing the world may be either Sensing or Intuition (N). High scores on the N dimension suggest that certain people rely on the “sixth-sense” of intuition that helps them make leaps in imagination that enable them to solve difficult problems. High scores on the S dimension suggest that people rely on their five senses, and constantly look for meanings and relationships within the realm of common sense. The preferred way of interpreting one's own perceptions may be trough Thinking or Feeling. High scores on the T dimension refer to people who decide by logic and concrete facts. Feelers (high F scores) make their judgments on the basis of empathy, personal values and strong gut level convictions.
Finally, preferred mental processes may either by Judging or Perceiving. High J dimension refers to people who concentrate on facts and make quick decisions. High P dimension refers to people who consider all sides of an issue and are flexible and adaptable. The results of the PSI show a marked similarity between members of the virtual project team (Exhibit 1). Member A and C exhibit a high score on both aspects of the same scale. Member A showed an equal balance between the Judging and Perceiving dimension. Member C exhibited an equal balance between the Thinking and Feeling dimension. Member C acts as the formal team lead on contract documents and in the majority of correspondence although, in practice, each team member takes the lead on different project tasks.
Member D offered that the team's “personality styles appear as a group to have the most balance on the intuition-sensing end.” She attributed the team's success in the virtual environment to its tendency to be introverted and ability to handle “lots of solo space to think and structure what we each need to do.” Member B provided a somewhat different interpretation of the scoring. She stated that although “we have three introverts, you'd never know it from our interactions. Feeling comfortable, trusting and sharing with each other brings out the E in us.” She also commented that the other team members provide nice foils to her low score on the Intuition dimension. Finally, she observed that the team all scored higher on Thinking and Judging. The high Thinking scores are perhaps to be expected, given that this team evolved to conceptualize and execute academic research, and given each of the members’ involvement in doctoral or post-doctoral level scholarly study. The high Judging scores were likely an important contributor to taking action without worrying if it was the right decision.
However, Member C commented on the overall team scores suggesting a relatively balanced team with slight leanings toward introversion (23 -17) sensing (22-18), thinking (25-15) and judging (26 -15). The only area the team is potentially and consistently weak in terms of the personality traits is that all the members tend to a judging style. Member A concurs that this weakness in the perceiving trait may have impacted the groups operations in that members did not pick up on the subtle perceptions concerning the reasons for late delivery of work. Although not a major issue, this potential blind spot may be worth keeping in mind as the team moves forward.
Often, physical presence of team members can be a key motivator in following through on project tasks, but virtual teams cannot rely on this motivating factor. Instead, members of this team likely drew from their high personal judging capacities to make decisions about how much time they had to move ahead on project tasks, placing high value on closure. Having too many decisions or activities drag on creates internal tension for such individuals. While this team rarely met face-to-face to hold each another accountable for the many decisions, promises, and activities each member took on, the high Judging strengths of team members provided each individual with a sense of personal urgency and commitment to come through on the commitments they made, and “cross another item off” their weekly list of deliverables. When commitments could not be made, the team members at least openly admitted the reason behind their lateness, and took steps to complete the task or gladly accepted another's help to complete the task.
Member A questioned the value of the PSI in terms of its inability to convey what kinds of situations override the natural affinity toward Introversion or Extroversion, and whether these situations strengthen or disable the team. Member A observed that the team leaned toward extroversion on conference calls or face-to-face communication. Conversely, the team seemed to embrace the freedom and independence of carrying out tasks during the time periods between group communications. In general, the social interaction sometimes by email, and most times by conference calls and face-to-face interaction enhanced extroversion tendencies to create boisterous fun that all members appeared to highly value. This extroverted behavior often acted as a welcome exchange that counteracted the pressure on the group to meet stakeholder expectations, deliver results on time and on budget and work through numerous project obstacles that emerged. This also help members managed their own substantial professional workloads above and beyond the virtual project activities.
Leading North American researchers Lipnack and Stamps (1996) identified people, links and purpose as the key characteristics that distinguish a virtual team from a traditional team. The greatest difference from same place teams lie in the relationship between the nature and variety of these links. Conversely, the European community tends to place a greater emphasis on technical factors. For example, Skyrme (1998) stated that—time, space and technology structure best determine virtuality. This case study favors the behavioral approach to understanding virtual project teams. To test these assumptions, the team completed a Team Effectiveness Profile (TEP) and a Trust Test (TT). Each test is discussed in the following section. Each test is discussed in the following section.
Team Effectiveness Test
The Team Effectiveness Profile developed by Glaser and Glaser (1980) claimed the ability to verify the existence of a number of factors that affect group productivity and member satisfaction. Each group member determines how characteristic 50 statements appear with respect to how the team functions. Each member rates these statements on a five-point scale to assess five major areas of team performance including: group mission, planning and goal setting, group roles, group operations processes, group interpersonal relationships, and inter-group relations. Each of the subtotal scores may be plotted to provide a map of the team's effectiveness. The scoring of individual areas follows a Likert scale of 10 (very ineffective) to 50 (very effective). Overall, the Profile scoring includes a possible low score range of 50–113 (Immature Group) and a potential high score range of 216–250 points (Synergistic Team). The middle range scores include: 134–160 (Fragmented Group), 161–188 (Cohesive Group), and 189–215 (Effective Group). The Profile scores from members (A = 204, B = 209, C = 233, and D = 225) indicate a highly effective team.
Exhibit 2. Dimension: Group Relationships
Similar to the PSI, the Profile lacks reference to teams that work in a virtual context. Thus, some of the questions do not appear relevant and are difficult to answer. For example, question 36 reads “The group's vision, mission, and goals are usual defined for us by our appointed leader.” In the context of a virtual project team, the team's leadership changes often so overall leader was appointed. Two of the test dimensions of the profile appeared most relevant to the team assessment: relationships and roles. The higher the score on the test means a higher level of satisfaction with that dimension. Exhibit 2 presents on the dimension “Group Interpersonal Relationships” because the results from these dimension appear most relevant to explaining the team's relationships.
Member B recognized the importance of assessing the team in the context of what brought it together, how long they had known each other, and the formation of the relationships on past experiences with each other. Member A commented that the Profile assumed that the team did not function effectively if roles appeared flexible and not clearly defined. This finding did not seem to fit with the actual operation of the virtual project team, which acted more as a self-organizing unit (self-assignment of tasks). Members C and D speculated that their higher satisfaction with group relationships may be due to previous bad experiences with other types of work groups in comparison to this one.
Exhibit 3 shows the scores on the dimension “group roles.” Member A reported the lowest score on this dimension because she felt that the questions did not address the behavior of the virtual team. The test instrument rated the team as less effective in they had flexible and changing roles.
Member D commented that “As a team, there appears to be some split on our sense of clarity on our group roles and processes.” She suggested that, “it would be interesting to talk as a group and try to understand where those different views come from.”
What the Literature Reports
The literature suggests that the need for boundary spanning and communication may intensify with more ambiguous roles and objectives (Eccles & Crane 1987; Weick 1982). However, the literature does not cover the precise nature of these ties, nor provide nonsociological models to explain their importance (Van Alstyn 1997). As well, the strength of ties may vary over time, influencing communication patterns and ability to shift roles easily (Baker 1993; Burt 1993; Weick 1982; White 1976). Research suggests that teams that have met or have first established face-to-face relationships appear to more easily form bonds and be comfortable shifting roles (Walther 1996).
Exhibit 3. Dimension: Group Roles
Exhibit 4. Evidence of Monitoring
Exhibit 5. Overall Trust Score
As well, managers are interested in finding out how virtual project teams communicate and divide the work to complete a project successfully. The task-driven nature of virtual project teams appears to challenge the need for roles to describe an employee's place in an organization as with traditional teams (Ott & Nastansky 1997). Ott and Nastansky (1997) suggest that the difference may in part be attributed to the design process of a virtual project team itself as being evolutionary rather than rules-based.
Lipnack and Stamps (1996) believe that roles defy definition because virtual teams focus on achieving tasks in a fluid and flexible manner. Miller, Pons and Naude (1996) and suggest that shifts in leadership drive the change in team members’ roles. In virtual teams, leadership shifts from one group member to another, and may also shift from one geographic or temporal site to another (Miller, Pons & Naude 1996). Thus, team member who possesses information vital to the team's functioning or well being frequently accepts leadership status afforded by the team (Wired Learning Zone 1999). Team members in this case appear willing to step into and out of the role of leader quite freely without fear of stepping on each other's toes. Although paradoxes exist in terms of power sharing and role shifting, Gristock (1997) and Palmer and Johnson (1996) point out that virtual projects can experience the simultaneous benefits of vertical/lateral communication without actually physically reorganizing.
Test developed by Libove Ribble and Russo (1997) appears more current in terms of its content. However, the test may be the least applicable to evaluating trust in a virtual project team environment. The test only captures a general attitude toward trust on the basis of a 10-point Likert scale (never trust others (0) to always trust others (10). The 24 statements must be rated regarding a team member's behavior toward another individual that may be on the team or part of another relationship. The test hopes to capture the essence of trust by considering the level of trust evident in this relationship as well as the reasons behind trusting (or lack thereof).
The four subgroups of the Trust Test include: Evidence of Lack of Monitoring, Evidence of Benevolence, Evidence of Openness, and Evidence of Risk Taking. The test claims that these factors heavily weight decisions to trust other people. An overall Trust score represents the level of trust on all four dimensions.
Dimensions of Importance
Evidence of lack of monitoring refers to the degree of leeway or freedom to act without controls in place. When a high level of trust exists, fewer rules or controls appear necessary. This dimension is the only one of the four that warranted discussion because the questions from the other subgroups had low applicability. The results in Exhibit 4 show a very low level of monitoring in this virtual project team.
Overall Trust Score
The overall trust score represents the evidence of trust that exists within the team (Exhibit 5). This score should reflect the decision whether or not to trust on past experiences with the person used as the context. This also includes how you see the person treating others who you may know. The overall score may range from 0-120. Overall, the team scored high on the Trust test.
Member D reasoned that, “I‘m not sure what to make of the trust scale, as we didn't necessarily complete it with the team in mind. We need to be cautious about generalizing our trust scores: while we can't claim that the team members trust one another based on this instrument, we can begin to talk about how our being fairly trusting individuals in general impacted our capacity to work well together in this virtual work arrangement.”
Member B noted a high level of trust on the team. She reported that the team used minutes, email and phone reminders, and deadlines to monitor task progress. She felt that it was understood by all that, “if one got behind or needed help, the others would pitch in, hence there was less need to monitor.” She also reported that the team “shared issues, life experiences and challenges and that this allowed the others to feel more of a sense of cohesion and cooperation to jump in and help out.” She also reported that since member D came onboard after the team had worked together for awhile, that “our trust and respect for Member C (who introduced D) allowed us to accept member D more readily.” Member C suggested that her prior relations with all three of the other members put her in a position to report high levels of trust in this team. She also noted that she did complete the instrument specifically with this team in mind. Her perception was that shared goals and open communication around objectives and limitations combined with trust in future reciprocity for current efforts made the team trust level expand. Member A noted she did not complete the instrument with the team as the reference, and thus the score seems lower that her actual level of trust.
What the Literature Reports
When balanced, the ability to quickly bond proves useful in virtual project teams because members may move in and out of the main project communication web. Chen (1997) referred to the initial bonding as a situational awareness or knowledge about what each member does or needs to do on the project (Chen 1997). One major distinction between virtual and traditional teams lies in the nature of the situational awareness. He suggested that virtual team's function on intensional awareness because only the characteristics of suitable resources or providers may be known. In contrast, traditional teams depend on extensional awareness because they may know the specific resources or providers. Thus, the awareness of the resources plays a role in how the team weaves together its skills set and builds trust.
Conclusions and Observations
This case study sheds light on some of the controversies of virtual teaming by providing some insights into the operations of a successful virtual project team. By incorporating psychological testing and personal experiences, the team sought to provide rich observations of working in this realm. Since three of the team members had worked together prior to this project, they had developed mutual trust and respect as well as an understanding of team dynamics among them. They believed this common understanding of the importance of meeting goals played a significant part in helping them to quickly form and start working. These team members understood the need to clearly define deadlines and complete deliverables on time. The common focus on agreed on goals and time lines enabled the team members to monitor their own personal goals to ensure alignment with the overall project goals. Although some members had significant personal challenges in their lives, the atmosphere of trust provided a safe place to share their concerns openly and to shift the workload accordingly. In general, behavioral instruments like these seem dated in terms of their ability to assess the behaviors of teams that form or work mostly by electronic communications and have to respond to a rapid business pace. An area for future research relates to the development of behavioral instrument that address the dynamics and challenges of virtual teamwork.
Effective teamwork requires continual monitoring and assessment. The following recommendations may be applied during the project to help avoid breakdowns:
• Expect shifting of roles and leadership—put the ego aside and learn from the experience of being a member on a task or section of the work that you normally lead.
• Arrange to meet as many of the team members as possible either in person or by means of other media in the early stages of the project as a way to enhance trust.
• Practice open communication to build a safe environment that encourages member's to let each other know if personal or work responsibilities have become overwhelming.
• Reserve judgments about team members—instead, take the first step and listen to the reasons for their actions and agree on the next steps forward.
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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA