An interdisciplinary MIT team has identified key factors for successful virtual collaborations among members of globally dispersed teams, and is continuing its work to make virtual meetings more effective. Underway for the last three years, the research integrates both organizational and technological challenges.
Virtual collaborations are of special relevance given the tragedies of Sept. 11. Extensive face-to-face meetings, once seen as a vital way of building and strengthening partnerships and enhancing teamwork, will no longer be as prevalent for a variety of reasons, including general reluctance of employees to travel following the terrorist attacks.
The MIT project, which also defines potential pitfalls in virtual collaborations, especially among members of geographically disparate teams, is led by Senior Lecturer Janice Klein of the Sloan School of Management and Professor Feniosky Peï¿½a-Mora of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
From an organizational perspective, the research team has found that the leader of a virtual team must focus on capturing maximum "mind share" of team members. "Team leaders need to make sure that the attention of their team members is focused on the priorities of the team," Klein said.
That can be difficult, however, because team members must juggle global and local priorities. They often get caught in a tug of war between virtual team objectives and local priorities not necessarily related to the team. Klein and Peï¿½a-Mora suggest the following tips to maximize mindshare:
- Invest the time that team members would have spent traveling to identify and manage cultural differences and geographical disparities at the onset of the project.
- Develop meeting norms and workgroup protocols that preserve and integrate cultural differences. Determine, for example, group expectations for punctuality at team meetings, and frequency of checking e-mails or group bulletin boards.
- Develop performance measurements that include the team member's virtual work as well as assignments in the home office.
- Designate someone to mind the "virtual water cooler." Regular one-on-one telephone conversations with team members will help clarify local priorities and concerns. This will help coordinate the players, manage the project, and identify and bridge any gaps that arise.
The research findings highlight the difficulties that even leading-edge companies have had in merging "older" venues such as the physical workspace of meeting rooms with newer, virtual venues like e-mail, project web sites, and video and data conferencing.
"Technology should not be perceived as an 'add-on' to a space, but as an integral part of it that needs to work naturally to support the realm of activities conducted in that space," Peï¿½a-Mora said.
The researchers have identified five interdependent factors to consider that are critical to deploying collaborative technologies and offer the following tips:
A technology's availability--for example, multiple-line telephones may be quickly installed in one country, but in others it can take years. This can mean that a team member in a particular country without multiple lines may need to stay in the office until midnight to attend a virtual meeting to access a phone and the Internet at the same time.
A technology's reliability--the technology might rely on communication networks that are slow or systems that frequently crash. This not only increases the frustration level of participants but also delays action on time-critical information.
A technology's capability--a project web site may be useful in helping a virtual team accomplish a given task, but may not be capable of supporting interaction required for diagnosing a real-time problem.
A technology's supportability--virtual team members are more likely to use technology supported by help-desk and support staff, since they know that if they hit a glitch, they can still move forward with the content of the discussions while technical experts resolve hardware or software problems.
The human being's ability to use the technology--for example, members of a virtual team must know how to use the cameras in a videoconference meeting to allow for bird's-eye and close-up views of attendees. This will increase a sense of inclusiveness and build community while encouraging participation from all members.
Peï¿½a-Mora is working on a system prototype to incorporate these organizational and physical space issues into a tool that will increase the effectiveness of the space in which virtual teams interact. This will include support for heterogeneous computing devices for rich data collaboration. For example, his system will allow people to attend a meeting using personal digital assistants such as iPaqs or PalmPilots, Java-enabled phones and personal computers that can in turn interact with rich graphical programs such as computer-aided design tools. All will follow a well-regulated agenda facilitated by a software agent.
Klein and Peï¿½a-Mora conclude that while traditional wisdom on forming and leading on-site teams also applies to a globally dispersed team, managing the latter requires more extensive discipline and attention to details because there are fewer opportunities for informal or ad hoc interaction.
This research is funded by Ford, Visteon and Intel under the auspices of the Leaders for Manufacturing program and the MIT-Ford Alliance, the NSF, Draper Laboratory and Kajima Corp. of Japan.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 7, 2001.