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ESSAY SUBMITTED TO MR. DAVID NOTGRASS IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE COURSE PRINCIPLES OF MANAGEMENT MANA 3301.05
BY RICHARD J. FINN DUE: 3 DECEMBER, 2008
Introduction More and more workers are joining the virtual workforce. Organizations tend to view virtual teams as traditional teams with one extra dimension. The research, however, shows virtual teams are different from traditional teams in appreciable ways. This paper examines the research on virtual teams and examines problems around communications as well as the development of mental models, mentoring self-managed team members, and software used to connect virtual teams. Research No official statistics exist on how many workers in the United States participate in virtual teams. However, if we look at fairly recent survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2004 we find that 15.1% of workers (16.6 million people) work from home at least one day per week (“Work at Home”, 2005). According to a report by Gartner from 2005 only 11.2 million workers in the U.S. worked from home at least one full day per week. In this same report workers who worked from home at least one day per week worldwide reached 1.1% globally (30.5 million workers) by 2004 and were forecast to reach 1.4% (41.4 million) by this year (Jones, 2005). The numbers are even larger, up to 100.1 million workers worldwide, when part-time teleworkers are taken into account. A teleworker is not, explicitly, a member of a virtual team but many are. Additionally, this data presents a trend in teleworking (or “telecommuting”) which reflects on organizations willingness to conduct business using computer-mediated communication systems, or CMCS. This is, in part a response to new economic realities of a “flatter world” and employees new expectations about work revealing in
survey results, “employees want more opportunities to telework, and that their top priority is to gain the flexibility to control their own time” (Cascio & Shurygailo, 2003, p. 363). Additionally, the global economy creates opportunities where “standards of performance are rising more quickly and more broadly than ever before, leaving subpar performers no place to hide” (Colvin, 2008, Ch. 2 ¶2). Researchers identify virtual teams in different ways. According to Bell and Kozlowski there are three principal forms of virtual teams: pure, traditional and hybrid. A pure virtual team is one in which its members are geographically dispersed, never met face-to-face, and the life span on the team is expected to be short or task based. A traditional virtual team is characterized by team members who worked together in the past but are now dispersed and expect the team’s lifespan to be long-term. The hybrid virtual team exhibits qualities of both types of virtual teams (Bell & Kolzowski, 2002). Cited in almost every research paper on virtual teams the article, “E-Leadership and Virtual Teams”, uses a matrix to classify virtual teams according to two variables: the number of managers and the number of locations as indicated in the attached diagram (Cascio & Shurygailo, 2003, p. 364). For all types of virtual teams the authors of this paper see all aspects of projects impacted by their virtual nature. For instance, the authors advocate assigning proactive projects where tasks are predetermined and measurable, to virtual teams as opposed to reactive projects which lack these points of clarity. Task ownership in virtual teams, according to the authors, should explicitly be defined. Where ownership and task boundaries cross represent the largest risk for virtual teams. This article contains a great
deal of application material to be returned to later in this paper. A similar paper by Ilze Zigurs considered virtual teams along a continuum whereby the more dimensions, “on which a team is dispersed, the more virtual it is” (2003, p. 339). The more virtual a team is, the further from a traditional team it is and the more complex team coordination and leadership become. In their essay, “Virtual Teams as Sociotechnical Systems”, a group of researchers from the University of Central Florida break down the composition of virtual teams. They write, “Researchers and practitioners need to focus on system design issues not only at the individual or task level, but also at the team, and quite possibly, at the organizational levels” (Cuevas, Fiore, Salas, & Bowers, 2004, p. 2). The authors examine three factors acting together to shape the virtual team: the personnel subsystem, the technological subsystem, and the external environment in which the team operates. Among these systems the “technological component, in particular, plays a key mediating role by setting limits upon the system's actions as well as by creating new demands that must reflect in the internal structure and goals of the organizational unit” (Emery & Trist, 1960). Defining their key term the Central Florida authors write, “Taken as a whole, these subsystems collectively represent the organizational unit as a sociotechnical system” (Cuevas, et al., 2004, p. 2). Cuevas et al. see technology-mediated interactions forcing communication abstraction on the team, referred to as team opacity (Fiore et al., 2003). They see this distributed organizational structure lacking richness in communication and awareness leading to the development of negative team attitudes and counterproductive behaviors. However, increased openness can alleviate this opacity. According to the authors team opacity may limit implicit (non verbal) communication when conveying information about complex tasks while too much explicit communication may reduce performance when faced with complex and time sensitive issues.
(Cuevas, et al., 2004) This reduction in performance among group members leads to process loss, or a lack of simultaneity of effort and decreased social motivation. Decreased results lead to increased reliance on explicit time consuming communication which themselves hinder social motivation (Fiore, et. al., 2003). Positive attitudes and coordination flow from motivation and the development of a shared mental model. Cuevas, et al. write, “These two factors may also impact the development of positive attitudes among team members, such as mutual trust, collective efficacy, and team cohesion” (2004, p. 7). A great deal of research has been done on shared mental models in team interactions. A robust shared mental model, or SMM, enables a team to shift from a reliance on explicit communication to more implicit coordination which decreases the “communication overhead” (Cuevas, et al., 2004, p. 10). From the same volume as “Virtual Teams as Sociotechnical Systems” follows an article entitled, “Effective Virtual Teamwork: A Socio-Cognitive and Motivational Model” written by Lynne J. Millward and Olivia Kyriakidou, both of the University of Surrey. The authors of this chapter complain about the lack of research on virtual teams as a new structure as most of the literature simply applies known team models without much modification writing, “despite the growing enthusiasm for virtual teams, little empirical research exists that explores the dynamics inherent in a virtual work environment.” The authors continue, “Virtual team models are based on the assumption that the team is a singular concrete entity characterized by stability, regular interaction, symbiosis, and team member proximity” (Millward & Kyriakidou, 2004, p. 21). The authors feel these assumptions are inappropriate. Given the “altered” social context of social teams, Millward and Kyriakidou argue for a building and maintaining a social and cognitive climate. This climate can lead to increased cohesion which is linked with virtual team effectiveness (Millward & Purvis, 1998). Millward and Kyriakidou define a virtual team as, “a
collection of individuals who think, feel, and act as an interdependent unit and who are recognized by others to constitute a virtual team,” and, “can thus respond flexibly to task demands and contextual changes” (2004, p. 27). Based on their research, Millward and Kyriakidou found self-regulatory virtual teams managed their own processes ably. These teams established their own internal criteria of effectiveness required to achieve the task goals. They developed a common language (including a common understanding concerning their task), learned from their own experience, has the ability to adapt processes to requirements, reconciled team members personal interests with team interest, and understood each team member’s role and contribution. According to the authors, the more metacognition a team exhibits (understanding of roles and self-regulatory processes) the more effective the virtual team achieves its task goals (Millward & Kyriakidou, 2004). This leads back to the concept of a shared mental model mentioned previously. A great deal of recent research focuses on shared mental models. In an article on the subject from the Journal of Applied Psychology the authors define a mental model as, “organized knowledge structures that allow individuals to interact with their environment” (Mathieu, Goodwin, Heffner, Salas, and Cannon-Bowers, 2000, p. 273). These models allow people understand the behavior of people around them and construct expectations about the world. A shared mental model is one in which an entire team espouses. This allows them to predict how each team member will behave and what they need in order to complete their tasks. This allows team members to consistently coordinate their actions (Mathieu, et al., 2000). Further explained, shared mental models allow teams members to adapt quickly to changing demands and new tasks (Cannon-Bowers, Salas, Converse, 1993).
In leading teams in general six competencies show special importance: “focusing on the goal, ensuring collaborative climate, building competence, demonstrating technical know-how, setting priorities, and managing performance” (Sivunen, 2008, p. 48). Unfortunately, testing these qualities against virtual teams specifically stills needs to be undertaken. However, the availability of the team leader does affect the effectiveness of the virtual team (Cascio & Shurygailo, 2003). This availability comes less in the form of close monitoring and more in the form of coaching. Team members need to be self-managed (Sivunen, 2008; Fisher & Fisher, 2001). Accomplishing this requires clear goals, empathy, support, and mentoring (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002; Kayworth & Leidner, 2002). Effective leaders are, “able to assert their authority without being perceived as overbearing or inflexible,” and, “extremely effective at providing regular, detailed, and prompt communication with their peers and in articulating role relationships (responsibilities)” (Kayworth & Leidner, 2002, p. 7). The concepts of transformational versus transaction leadership are important concepts in a paper entitled, “Virtual Teams: Implication for E-Leadership and Team Development” (Avolio, Kahai, Dumdum, & Sivasubramanium, 2001). The authors define transactional leaders as ones who, “use goal setting and contingent rewards to motivate followers to achieve agreed upon levels of performance” (p. 350). These leaders focus on clarification of task objectives and linking achieving of goals to certain recognition and rewards. These leaders contribute to formation of trust early in the life of a team by creating a fair and consistent task environment, though such trust is conditional. By contrast, transformational leaders are perceived as more benevolence and, in some cases, possessing higher abilities in regards to the task or team function. These leaders, “use individualized consideration when encouraging team members to consider the input provided by every member of the team and its relevance to the task at hand”
(p. 351). They promote discussion, a deep understanding of contributions provided by each team member and collective action required to achieve high performance (Kramer, Brewer, & Hanna, 1996). Through promoting intellection and relational stimulation the transformational leader hopes to increase the information exchange among team members and unconditional trust built on social motivations. These leaders augment a transactional leader in the same team by instilling confidence among teams members about the team’s ability to accomplish collective goals. In original research conducted by Anu Sivunen the findings indicate found types of social behavior to be important in a virtual team leader: “1) motivating team members to participate, 2) giving support, 3) giving guidelines for the use of communication technology and computer-mediated communication practices in general and 4) setting clear goals for the future” (2008, p. 54). Such leaders also encourage team members to mimic these behaviors serving as a role model, particularly in the realm of active communication. The leaders considered the most effective also provided support, usually not in the domain expertise of the team members but in regards to decisions made about tasks, communication, and priorities. Additionally, support from team leaders came in situations where the team member needed information in order to complete the task or ran into the occasionally help in gaining further domain knowledge from the team leader or outside source. Due to the high levels of autonomy members of virtual teams posses, Zigurs (2003) sees leadership in these teams as a system and development process. In such a system the role of leader can shift depending on what area of leadership is being expressed. The key is on developing the members and empowering them to be self-managed. In the study conducted by Zigurs participants were typically unaware of the roles they fulfilled themselves in a virtual
team, a surprising result. “Even more surprising was that the team members viewed the TeamFocus® software in a rich and varied way,” according to Zigurs (2003, p. 343). Apparently, members to the team using this software felt it filled the roles of Recorder, Proceduralist, GateKeeper, and even Motivator. According to this finding there appears to be some role for collaboration software in leadership roles. Also in the study came the unsurprising result that a leader’s telepresence, their ability to be perceived as present and available to team members, contributed to the team effectiveness. “Leadership in virtual teams must be experienced by team members,” wrote the author (Zigurs, 2003, p. 344). Presence refers to the actions of a leader, not their rhetoric. Returning to software, Zigurs explains the meetingware category of software centered around agendas as the organizing concept (2003, p. 345). These types of collaboration tools focus on the process rather than deliverables such as more popular project management software. The meetingware category encourages team interaction and development, striking a balance between flexibility and enforcement. Analysis Understanding virtual teams begins with their composition. The research on virtual teams mostly revolves around adapting traditional team models to virtual settings while some, such as Cascio and Shurygailo or Zigurs seek to create new models entirely based on research specific to virtual teams. Most of the research does agree: no two virtual teams are alike, but studying them as a group provides insight. Combining the research we may conceive of virtual teams as existing on a continuum of virutality and as a sociotechnical system comprised not only of individuals but the software used to interact and the external environment.
The research clearly comes back again and again to the concept of a shared mental model. These models form through effective leadership and mutual trust in the team members. The higher the quality of the SSM the more effective the team is and the less explicit communication is required and the more consistent decisions tend to be over time (Avolio, Kahai, Dumdum, and Sivasubramaniam, 2001). Trust in team members to posses the required skills and honed through relational development helps to solidify shared mental models. Avolio, et al. contrast with other research in their finding that lean media richness for initial interactions may actually help form trust quickly by masking potentially prejudged social identifiers. They believe a shared mental model may be formed and then rich media used to strengthen existing relationships. Leadership becomes the key to this whole topic. The research focusing on traditional teams come to the conclusion characteristics associates with transactional leaders most benefit the team. On the other side the research specific to virtual teams seems to lead more in the direction of transformational leadership. Even research which does not include a definition of transformational leadership highlight qualities found in effective leaders of virtual teams which equate with transformational leadership. Even more important seems to be guidance, support, and mentorship as a keep ingredient of effective leaders. All studies indicate high levels of communication enrich the effectiveness of the team which begins with the leader setting the example. Application In applying these finding one should concentrate on a few core ideas. First an effective leader, in most cases, should follow the transformational form. That is to say leaders should
focus on increasing unconditional trust in the team through relational development and communication media rich enough to facilitate this. Team opacity should be understood as a barrier to trust and the ability to use effective implicit communication. Second, aspects of a transactional leader are required in setting goals and defining their boundaries. Team trust is further strengthened by consistently meeting goals and delivering completed tasks on time (Cascio & Shurygailo, 2003). Thirdly, mentoring and developing team members allows them to more effectively complete tasks within their domain and “buy-in” to organization goals. Effective virtual team members are self-managed and able to communicate both implicitly and explicitly with team members to achieve task goals. Finally, virtual team leaders need to examine the software they use in order to evaluate how the software facilitates process and communication among team members. Conclusion Various issues affect virtual teams including a lack of personal interaction which degrades implicit communication and mutual trust, a lack of a shared mental model, and lien media richness used to conduct communications. Virtual teams can overcome these issues by focusing on leadership. Effective leaders set good examples of communication, mentoring, support, clear task identification, and building relational trust. As virtual teams become a larger part of the workforce both in the United States and globally it is vitally important that organizations come to understand and implement these principles.
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