Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Managing virtual teams

Together with Sibrenne Wagenaar I wrote a Dutch article of 15,000 characters on virtual teamwork. 15,000 is really short for all there is to say!

During the literature review one of the best articles we found is the article called Managing Virtual teams by Lisa Kimball. It is actually the text of a speech in 1997. As Lisa Kimball says:
"although the technology that supports these new teams gets most of the attention when we talk about virtual teams, it's really the change in the nature of the teams -not their use of technology- that creates new challenges for team managers and members. "
I think this an important observation, virtual teams require us to rethink the group dynamics of teams as we know them. This is the exciting part because why not try and create powerful virtual teams, leveraging a variety of tools to become more creative and productive than some of the 'normal' teams? However optimistic that may sound, I believe that with more tools and ways of communication, we should be able to do a better job than with only one tool and modality (face-to-face interaction). So that in the end 'normal teams' can learn from virtual teams how to use a variety of online tools to communicate and collaborate smarter. I can see the pitfall of increased miscommunication in virtual teams too, so we all need to become increasingly skilled in choosing the right tools for teamwork, and the right medium also depends not only on the work requirements but also on the preferences and experiences of you teammembers. This requires understanding of group dynamics PLUS how these dynamics work in a virtual team.

Lisa Kimball points out that there is a need for a new managers mind set- I agree and think this is true for the whole team that needs to shift mind sets. One of the needed shifts I believe is from "face-to-face is the best environment for interaction and anything else is less" to "different kinds of online interactions can be played with to draw out the best of all team members".
If you believe this, you can try and get an optimal mix of communications. As Lisa also observes, virtual teams may need more check-ins and short process checks. In a virtual team, you need regular feedback about the use of tools.

Our article purposely draws on the so-called web2.0 tools, in complement to the software packages offered by organisations. With web2.0 tools, a flexible toolset is within reach of the virtual team, and that may enhance the virtual teamwork. Rather than forcing a software package upon a virtual team, the team can then depart from individual online experiences and preferences and build upon those. Adjusting the toolset to the teammembers rather than adjusting the teammembers to the tools.

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