Organizations in today’s global economy face continual pressures to remain responsive to changes in the competitive marketplace. One way firms have adapted to these pressures is to use Web-based communication technologies to support virtual project teams. To better understand the effectiveness of these dispersed teams, a coding scheme based on design rationale concepts compared and contrasted the communication activities of high- and low-performing virtual teams working in the early stages of software design.
In our recent research, Rosalie J. Ocker and I found that high-performing virtual design teams differed from low-performing teams in terms of the number of messages, message length and the content profile of those messages. The high-performing teams had significantly more messages and longer messages than the low-performing teams.
Additionally, the leaders of the high teams had more messages and longer messages than the leaders of the low teams. High-performing teams communicated more regarding aspects of the design. They also sent considerably more messages and longer messages that focused on summarizing their work and discussing the write-up of the report covering the project design.
The high-performance teams not only communicated more, but they communicated regarding key design aspects of the project. Through their increased communication, it is not hard to conceive that they generated a greater number of high-quality and creative ideas.
Additionally, and maybe as a consequence of the increased amount of messages, the high-performance teams spent time summarizing their work and sharing these summaries with their teammates. Although the high- and low-performance teams did not differ in the amount of messages concerning team management, the summaries served a coordination function by keeping members apprised of their teammates’ ideas and progress.
These summaries also appear to be key when preparing the final design report. Inspection of the transcripts shows that much of the design reports came directly from the text of comments, many of which were summary comments. In three of the four high-performing teams, the leaders did the summarization. In the fourth team, another team member did the summarization and thus was an emergent leader. In the low-performing teams, the leaders did not do any summarization at all. Thus, it is plausible that this simple act of summarizing work, coupled with the not-so-simple act of putting forth more effort, were key aspects of the success of the high-performance virtual design teams.
This finding supports other research that suggests effective teams have effective leaders who actively facilitate the sharing of specific information. In the case of this particular study, the leaders are organizing the ideas about the functionality and design of the task for the rest of the team. This summary becomes the cornerstone of their final reports.
Several contributions are apparent:
1. There are measurable differences between high- and low-performing virtual teams.
2. Technology mediation improves performance.
3. The content of the communication is different between high- and low-performing teams. The high-performing teams communicate more on the task-related issues.
4. Leaders do much of the summarization and create the shared intelligence.
Given the inherent difficulty of virtual project work, the fact that some virtual teams failed miserably should not be surprising. Asking people to accomplish complex collaborative work without the freedom to regularly meet face-to-face is challenging. While some teams perform quite well in virtual situations where no group interaction structure is given, other teams seem to flounder. In the virtual world, time management skills and structure may be even more important, as it is much easier to ignore team members and your responsibilities when you are working virtually.
There are several implications for professionals and leaders. First, leaders must examine the patterns that emerge over time interacting with the team, technology and task. For example, it appears low-performing teams never completed idea generation; they just keep on brainstorming regarding aspects of the design. On the other hand, the high-performing teams entered a summarization phase that appears to be directly linked to report writing. Second, leaders need to be aware of the transitions (e.g., from idea generation and brainstorming to building consensus to generating the final deliverable) teams need to make to successfully meet deadlines.Filed under: Technology