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The Dynamics of Virtual Teams - INTRODUCTION, BACKGROUND, ISSUES AND CHALLENGES FACED BY VIRTUAL TEAMS, Building Swift Trust Among Virtual Team Members

vts communication cultural people

Norhayati Zakaria
Syracuse University, USA

Shafiz A. Mohd Yusof
Syracuse University, USA

INTRODUCTION

The world continues to be driven by the rapid development of information technology and globalization. Not surprisingly, the working environments that have been projected to grow the fastest are all related to the usage of computers, the Internet, and information systems. With globalization, many multinational corporations (MNCs) are increasingly employing virtual teams (VTs). It was reported that 137 million workers worldwide are involved in some form of remote electronic work (Solomon, 2001).

Some examples of companies that are already using virtual teams are Nortel Networks Corporation, which has 80,000 employees located in 150 countries; Price Waterhouse, which has 45,000 employees in 120 countries; and Deloitte & Touche LPP in New York, which has 90,000 employees in 130 countries (Geber, 1995; Solomon, 2001). The survey by Gartner Group Incorporation (Biggs, 2000) further estimated that 60% of the professional and management tasks at Global-2000 companies would be done via virtual teams by 2004.

In this article, we present the issues and challenges that are encountered by VTs in the same organization. In this respect, we will analyze VTs in the context of intraorganizational (within one organization) and not interorganizational (across different organizations). Our emphasis is on team members that have diverse cultural backgrounds and work in a global environment such as those in MNCs. Hence, a virtual team is defined as a group of members that collaborate and communicate primarily via computer-mediated communication (CMC) without any geographical boundaries, and the composition of the team members consists of people from different cultural backgrounds: for example, people from Motorola in Malaysia collaborating on a 12-week project with people from Japan and in the U.S. In essence, the project involves team members from three different countries—Malaysia, Japan, and the U.S.—yet all of them belong to the same organization: Motorola. Nonetheless, we do acknowledge that VTs can also include team members with similar cultural backgrounds, or team members that belong to different or multiple organizations, but both aspects are not the emphasis in our article.

BACKGROUND

The conceptual and empirical research conducted on the topic of VTs has also increased tremendously over the past years when electronic-mediated technologies became more ubiquitous (Belbin, 1981; Geber, 1995; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999; Kostner, 1994; Townsend, DeMarie, & Hendrickson, 1996). Many researchers began to look at many different issues faced by virtual teams. Some of the latest works that concern VTs are studies that look at personality types and interaction styles that affect the communication of VTs as compared to conventional team performances (Potter & Balthazard, 2002), the use of technology in global virtual collaboration (Qureshi & Zigurs, 2001), the effects of the temporal coordination mechanism on conflict management, the behavior of VTs supported by an asynchronous communication technology (Montoya-Weiss, Massey, & Song, in press), radical innovations without collocation (Malhotra, Majchrzak, Carmen, & Lott, 2001), the understanding of the best practices of VTs (Lurey & Raisinghani, 2001), sharing and reusing knowledge between team members in other organizations, and virtual relationships (Majchrzak, Rice, King, Malhotra, & Ba, 2000). Problems stemming from intercultural communication, trust, leadership, and training are all crucial to understanding in light of VTs.

According to Maznevski and Chudoba (2000), out of the 41 studies conducted on technology-supported distributed teams from 1990 to 1998 published in 11 major journals, only a small number of research works were conducted to understand how cultural boundaries affect the context in which the communication takes place and the communication process itself (e.g., Turoff, Hiltz, Bahgat, & Rana, 1993). Furthermore, for internationally distributed teams, only two studies were conducted to understand the role of trust in global teams that never met face to face (Jarvenpaa, Knoll, & Leidner, 1998; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). Research on multinational teams is far more limited than research on distributed teams, with most of it focusing on the effectiveness of team performance of a heterogeneous group and a homogenous group (Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000).

Teams are often viewed as an important means to enhance an organization’s creative and problem-solving capabilities (Jarvenpaa, Ives, & Pearlson, 1996; Zachary, 1998). Maznevski and Chudoba (2000) define global virtual teams as groups that (a) are identified by their organization(s) and members as a team, (b) are responsible for making and/or implementing decisions important to the organization’s global strategy, © use technology-supported communication substantially more than face-to-face communication, and (d) work and live in different countries. A virtual team is also defined as “a temporary, culturally diverse, geographically dispersed, electronically communicating work group” (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999, p. 792). The notion of temporary in the definition describes team members that may have never worked together before and who may not have expected to work together again as a group (Jarvenpaa & Ives, 1994; Lipnack & Stamps, 1997). A virtual team is considered global when the members’ backgrounds are culturally diverse and they are able to think and work with the diversity of the global environment (DeSanctis & Poole, 1997; Jackson et al., 1995). Finally, the team members use computer-mediated communication technology such as groupware that allows members to engage in collaborative work despite the separation of time and space.

ISSUES AND CHALLENGES FACED BY VIRTUAL TEAMS

There are some challenges and issues facing the VTs that we need to address. First of all, the emergence of VTs implies the extensive use of electronic forms of communication such as e-mail, videoconferencing, online discussion forums, the Internet, and so forth. The complexity in communicating over time, distance, and space causes the MNCs unique problems that are not easy to solve. Although distance and speed can be considered the most desirable advantages to VTs, there are other essential aspects that would create some problems and challenges such as the lack of expressive (nonverbal) behavioral cues as well as contextual cues (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986).

Practical experiences and research findings have shown that when VTs are not managed properly, they can be less effective than traditional teams. In addition, Warekentin, Sayeed, and Hightower (1997) reported on studies that have shown that teams that rely entirely on virtual communication by substituting face-to-face communication would resist using this form of communication. However, living in a global village, many organizations realize and take into consideration that VTs are their best resource of human assets. Townsend, Hendrickson, and DeMarie (2002) postulate that the reality of the virtual workplace accentuates the need for change in management, particularly when organizations need to understand some of the inherent challenges that people face at the transition from traditional teamwork to a virtual one. The following discussions pertain to the challenges and issues facing VTs (as illustrated in Figure 1).

Building Swift Trust Among Virtual Team Members

According to Das and Teng (1998), intercultural communication competence is an important antecedent to trust in the context of team alliances. Teams are able to know the level of trustworthiness of their members through effective communication. Intercultural communication is challenging in this case because it involves many different styles and patterns (Chen, 2001; Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1996). According to Sitaram (as cited in Novinger, 2001, p. 4), “[b]ecause different cultures often demand very different behaviors, intercultural communication is more complex than communication between persons of the same culture.” In order to function effectively and to increase confidence and security in cross-cultural relationships, VTs require trust (Earley, 1994). Trust is the critical enabling condition and the glue of the global workspace (Duarte & Snyder, 1999; Gibson & Cohen, 2003; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). Since a virtual team is a phenomenon that is based on temporal and ad hoc relationships, people need to form trust in a short time, a notion called swift trust. In a virtual environment, the problem of building swift trust is exacerbated given the cultural differences of the team members and the type of technology used for communication. A need to explore and understand the trust phenomenon is thus fundamental given the avid use of VTs in MNCs.

The concept of teams varies across cultures and organizations, and how teams are perceived will differ based on the organizational and national cultural attributes of its members (Gibson & Zellmer-Bruhn, 2001). It is also critical to note that individuals from different national cultures vary in terms of their group behaviors and communication styles (Gudykunst, 1997), which in turn impacts the formation of swift trust. Empirical studies that explain or even understand the impact of cultural diversity on communicative behaviors for effective trust building and information sharing in VTs are largely deficient. As a result, the need to understand how to improve team effectiveness and what facilitates trust and information sharing between cross-cultural teams is paramount (Duarte & Snyder, 1999; Kostner, 1994; Lipnack & Stamps, 1997). According to Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1999), trust needs to be formed in the very early stage of a relationship, so the first interactions are strategic. They went on to emphasize that “virtual team members should be very careful about what they say in their first messages” (p. 2). Jarvenpaa and Leidner further added that in the virtual world, the old adage of “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” reflects the high need for effective intercultural communication competence.

Trust is considered as a key lubricant for cross-cultural relationships. Johnson and Cullen (2002, p. 335) suggested that “in exchange relationships, where one party’s outcome depends on the behavioral and intent of the exchange partner, trust is particularly crucial. Without trust, the objectives and outcomes of the exchange are in constant and chronic jeopardy.” Trust also provides a crucial condition for information-sharing behaviors. The main concern for this psychological process of information sharing is that people attempt to control the flow of intimate, personal, or private information. Hence, once trust is achieved, team members are more willing to disclose and share information via electronic-mediated technology.

Learning to Lead and Train Virtual Teams

Within a business environment, learning is a conscious attempt on the part of organizations to improve productivity, effectiveness, and innovativeness in uncertain economic and technological market conditions. The greater the uncertainties in the virtual work environment, the higher the need for learning to take place among the team members. Learning can be challenging for team members that have never experienced working in a virtual environment. Not only do they need to learn how to use the technology for effective communication, but they also need to learn about the cultural backgrounds of their remote-located team members. Learning to develop instant or swift rapport and trust is another challenging issue. These issues can be overwhelming and stressful.

Nonetheless, learning is successful when people are ready and willing to learn; that is, when people are motivated and curious to know something. Sometimes people’s readiness to learn comes with time and experience. In this case, a leadership role can be a major factor in motivating one’s learning process. If a desired change in behavior is imperative, the leader may need to supervise directly to ensure that the desired behavior occurs. But, in a virtual environment, empowerment is the key to self-learning. Hence, absolute support from leaders such as top management can result in learning to occur naturally. There is no doubt that leadership plays an important role in virtual workplaces. This role also assumes a different responsibility since team members are empowered. Leaders should recognize that leading and managing VTs are two key strategies that need to be carried out jointly for organizations to succeed.

The last challenge arises from the issue of training the VTs. There are two types of training that are critical: training teams for intercultural competence and training for technological competence. When one has an ability to interact across different cultural contexts and become aware of one’s own and others’ cultural conditioning, one is known as having intercultural communication competence (Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1996). Intercultural communication involves an exchange of meaning in which the process of communicating is more dynamic, multifaceted, and complex. As such, cultural conditioning will affect the evaluation of experiences as well as the means by which information and knowledge is shared, conveyed, and learned. In a culturally diverse environment, the transmission of information does not often, however, ensure understanding and learning. Typically we view the transmission of information from sender to receiver as a one-way process where the active participant is the sender while the receiver remains an inactive recipient. From a multicultural perspective, the challenge stems from the transmission of information that involves many people at one time from different locations and cultural backgrounds.

Even though computer-mediated technology has become pervasive in today’s workplace, there is growing evidence of unrealized or less-than-expected productivity gains due to poor technology acceptance and use by users or the employees. Hence, this circumstance entails MNCs to train people for technological competence. Naturally, people always resist any new ways of doing things. Having the right attitude and perception of using technology is critical. In a review of computer attitude training, Dupagne and Krendl (1992) and Liu, Reed, and Philips (1992) showed that people who have no prior experience exhibited high anxiety toward using computers, while people who have had computer training are more likely to show positive attitudes toward computer use.

In essence, we came up with the following implications to illustrate some of the key challenges that VTs encounter in the new workplace. Once the issues and challenges are overcome, the result leads to enhanced performance, cooperation, and commitment from the VTs.

IMPLICATIONS FOR MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS

Due to the heavy reliance on CMCs for this global and virtual work context, MNCs need to employ strategies on how to effectively motivate, train, and lead VTs to collaborate. The current and future trends for MNCs are increasing involvement in high-intensity collaboration among the virtual team members. As the pace of change is rapid, this condition necessitates MNCs to renew themselves and constantly adopt innovative ideas to keep up with the challenges. With remote or virtual workplaces, team members are being empowered, which means that each team is accountable for success and is a source of creative thinking. All workers need to become part of an organization-wide collaboration process with standard operating processes and procedures.

Strategies like open communication where members provide honest feedback, accept constructive criticism, and address issues head-on need to be employed. Trust requires leaders. In the most ideal situation, the units that are in good trust-based organizations hardly have to be managed. Managing VTs thus takes on a new perspective all together. What MNCs need is a distributed form of leadership. Because the emergence of this type of leadership in VTs is still limited, MNCs need to continuously promote and build leadership skills by establishing a strong organizational culture—a culture that can promote learning, trust, and teamwork values as its key monitoring mechanisms (Zakaria, Amelinckx, & Wilemon, 2004).

In a similar vein, it is useful to note that MNCs need to incorporate complementary sets of leadership skills that are technical as well as cross-cultural in nature. One cannot do without the other. If a person only knows how to use a technology but lacks the capability to understand human aspects such as cross-cultural differences, then the teamwork will not be successful. Therefore, training needs to be balanced in order to accommodate and instill this new set of balanced competencies. The future trend for selecting, recruiting, motivating, and training VTs should be an increase in the need for leaders and teamwork that fully understand human behavior. With this value, they could potentially engender cooperation and collaboration, and stimulate creativity and innovation. As management hierarchy becomes more flattened, global leaders will depend more than ever on these skills to create this high-commitment, high-performance, high-cooperation workplace.

FUTURE RESEARCH TRENDS AND CONCLUSION

With the demands of globalization and the integration of culturally diverse virtual teams, cross-cultural and technological management is becoming a more challenging task. The relationship between VTs and CMCs will become increasingly important as organizations increasingly rely on virtual teams to carry out and implement important projects. Deploying CMCs intensifies the challenges of global management, whether it is team based or not. For example, CMCs can shape the way people perform their tasks in organizations as much as they can impact the way people communicate and collaborate globally. Without a doubt, we are focusing on new ways of working across borders. CMCs are not just simple tools; instead, they need to be integrated and aligned with team design, behavior, and the processes of collaborating and communicating. While CMC usage is essential in the communication and knowledge-sharing processes for geographically dispersed employees, computer-facilitated communication technologies are only as effective as those using them.

Based on several reviews of the literatures, there are many future research opportunities that can help advance the knowledge of VTs and their use of CMCs. Zakaria et al. (2004) suggested that research on the following areas of inquiry could offer many useful insights into improving the effectiveness of these increasingly important teams.

  • How important is a sense of team membership in VTs? If it is important, what are the most effective means for developing VTs’ identification? How might the use of CMCs assist in this process?
  • What approaches can be used to resolve conflicts in VTs? Are traditional conflict-management techniques useful in a VT environment? How might the use of CMCs increase and/or decrease the amount of conflict experienced in a VT?
  • How does leadership emerge and how is it exercised in VTs? What factors are particularly important in gaining and maintaining support? How might CMCs assist in the exercise of the leadership function?
  • What role does trust play in VTs? If swift trust is an important factor in facilitating virtual teamwork, what function might CMCs play in creating and maintaining such trust?
  • What role can CMCs play in helping to over-come the cultural barriers that can hinder effective VT performance?
  • How can VT members most effectively transfer ideas, plans, resource needs, and performance objectives to their respective organizations via CMCs?
  • Within an organization, how can the learning from one VT be captured, stored, and retrieved by a newly appointed leader in VTs? What role can CMCs play in the VT learning and dissemination process?
  • Can useful online training programs be designed for VTs to develop technological and intercultural communication competence? If so, how can these programs be administered?

We conclude that both the human and technology aspects need to be managed so that a virtual team with high performance, high commitment, and high cooperation can be created. Therefore, MNCs need to select and recruit the right people to work in the virtual workplace—people with open minds and flexible attitudes, as well as people that are willing to collaborate and work in teams. It is indispensable for MNCs to incorporate an organizational culture that acclimatizes to factors such effective leadership, efficient use of CMCs, and appropriate rewards and incentives for VTs to perform successfully. Last, national culture should not be viewed as a barrier for effective collaboration; instead, the differences should be viewed as a synergy to create an innovative workplace.

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almost 4 years ago

You may interest to see the following articles as well:
(http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=1379350)

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3- Work Together… When Apart Challenges and What is Need for Effective Virtual Teams

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4- SMEs; Virtual research and development (R&D) teams and new product development: A literature review

International Journal of the Physical Sciences Vol. 5(7), pp. 916–930, July 2010


5- Virtual Teams: A Literature Review

Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 2653-2669, 2009


6-Innovation and R&D Activities in Virtual Team

European Journal of Scientific Research, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 297-307, 2009


7- Virtual Teams for New Product Development: An Innovative Experience for R&D Engineers

European Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 109-123, October 2009


8- Modified Stage-Gate: A Conceptual Model of Virtual Product Development Process

African Journal of Marketing Management, Vol. 1, No. 9, pp. 211-219, December 2009


9- Virtual R&D Teams in Small and Medium Enterprises: A Literature Review

Scientific Research and Essays, Vol. 4, No. 13, pp. 1575–1590, December 2009

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almost 4 years ago

my thesis is on distance managment, and I found the the dynamics of virtual teams useful, I would be thankful for providing date of publishing.



Many thanks,

Joumana