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Communicating with Virtual Project Teams/Creating Successful Virtual Organizations - Virtual Communication

What is the "virtual workspace"? Can it be incorporated into your organization? And just how do accountability, trust, and adaptability figure in the equation? These articles from Harvard Management Communication Letter answer these questions and more, examining effective communication in the new world of virtual teams and the technology you need to stay connected.
Communicating with Virtual Project Teams

Communicating with Virtual Project Teams

You've just been assigned to lead a team charged with taking a product from concept to marketplace. Bring it in on time and on budget, and you're a hero. Screw up on either of those parameters, and you're a bum. It's that simple.

But, unfortunately, it immediately gets more complex. Your teammates are spread out over two continents and three time zones. How do you bring them together to get the work done?

You've got two problems. One of them is a management problem: How do you apply what you know about managing teams to the virtual world? The other problem is technological: What tools do you need to keep the team communicating?

In this article, we address the technological question. In the article titled "Creating Successful Virtual Organizations," we'll discuss some basic managerial rules for communicating in the strange new world of virtual teams.

A variety of Internet-based products that might broadly be described as "virtual workspaces," most of them free or low cost, have sprung up to address the challenges involved in keeping project teams in touch. Virtual workspaces typically provide a password-protected Web site with services ranging from e-mail to information storage to chat rooms. The sites usually offer tools that allow your team to chat live or to work independently and store that work for other teammates to review later.

A host of companies that provide these services has sprouted like digital mushrooms after virtual rain—Agillion, Intranets.com, ScheduleOnline, eRoom.net, Lotus QuickPlace, HotOffice, and many others.

Both professional service companies and manufacturers use virtual workspaces to manage projects and inventories. eRoom.net's Pam Sullivan cites the example of Hewlett-Packard. "When they build their ink jet printers, they work with contract manufacturers to get the components—the ink from the east coast, the engine from Mexico, the rollers from somewhere else, and so forth. They need to be able to manage multiple suppliers and inventories."

The virtual workspace is designed to handle the communication needs — and the potential snafus — that result from all of these intercompany exchanges. In HP's case, says Sullivan, "they use it to track the supplier-managed inventories. So the suppliers will be flagged when they're low on a certain piece. Everyone needs to be in the loop so the inventories don't shut down."

Why not just run one of these sites on your corporate intranet? The issues are ease of access — Web sites exist outside corporate firewalls and thus are easier for your customers and contractors to get to — and speed. Training time is minimal when everyone can use the familiar Web browser environment.

Penny Hussey, cofounder and executive VP of Romance Foretold, an online publisher, manages employees located all over the world. Romance Foretold uses Intranets.com as a common storage place for information vital to the publishing process. "When a manuscript is electronically submitted to us, it gets logged in and assigned to two readers. If the readers approve it, we contract the book. Then it goes to a managing editor, the senior editor, and then the technical people who format it. If we make all that information available via the Web, we can know exactly where each manuscript is at any given time. Files can get lost, information can be dropped through the cracks. This way, it's all in one place and we know where to get it."

To be sure, these services have their limitations. First, they are subject to the problems of the Web itself — inaccessibility, server crashes, susceptibility to hacking. Second, their speed and user-friendliness vary considerably, and no two products are alike.

Beyond that, you must ask yourself the question, "Will this service still be there when my project is reaching its culmination?" Internet-based software companies have uncertain life spans, and there is always the risk that your project lifeline could suddenly run out of money and fold. Or some hacker could take the site down or compromise its security.

Thus, you'll still want to keep your whole suite of familiar communications tools handy—voice mail, e-mail, videoconferencing, and the like. But don't let the evanescent qualities of virtual collaborative tools keep you from experimenting with them. After all, you could always go back to face-to-face meetings, red-eyed travel, and endless audioconferences.

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Creating Successful Virtual Organizations

In many ways, the world of work today is utterly different from even a decade ago. You work with teams of people you never see — and may have never met except in the virtual sense. If you do have a place of work, the people in it come and go at all hours, in various states of dress ranging from the traditional to the bafflingly outré. It is not improbable that you work out of your home, at least some of the time.

Moreover, people come and go from employment in your company with astonishing rapidity. Some work for other firms that are temporarily connected with you in joint alliances. Some work for subcontractors that have long-term relationships with your company, and some simply work for themselves, having given up on corporate employment altogether.

All of this complexity adds up to one certain issue: good communication has become more difficult than ever. How do you ensure that it happens successfully, and often enough to get the job done? What are the new ground rules of communication in the virtual age?

When you have a group of these powerful individuals hell-bent on doing their own thing, you've got a real coordination challenge on your hands.
— Tom McDonald, psychologist

At its heart, virtual communication puts stress on three competencies that have always been important: accountability, trust, and adaptability. Following is a survey of expert insight into the new communications rules of the road in these three essential areas.

Ensure accountability

Psychologist Tom McDonald stresses the need for accountability in an article in Successful Meetings. "Ironic as it may seem, virtual teamwork starts with a high emphasis on individual responsibility, rather than on group thinking," McDonald argues. "Team members are very clear about what their individual jobs are, and, frankly, want to be left alone to do them. Achievement is uppermost in their minds. They take their jobs seriously and expect each team member to do the same."

McDonald cautions, however, that "at times this individualism can be overdone. When you have a group of these powerful individuals hell-bent on doing their own thing, you've got a real coordination challenge on your hands. The best way to approach it is to give team members a lot of room, and rest secure that they'll do the job well, even if it's done in their own way."

There are pitfalls to the focused approach of the virtual team, McDonald admits. "Being so task-focused," McDonald notes, "team members can easily miss the subtleties of tricky interpersonal dynamics." To counteract this potential problem, give your teams practical training in how to listen and other communication skills. But keep it practical—these virtual workhorses don't want their time wasted.

Build trust

For Dennis S. Reina and Michelle L. Reina, principals in an organizational development research and consulting firm and authors of Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization, the basic issue is the establishment of a solid trusting relationship. Without that, virtual work is impossible. They identify three kinds of trust that employers must address to be successful: contractual, communication, and competence trust.

Contractual trust is, fundamentally, doing what you say you will do. You need to manage expectations, establish clear boundaries, delegate appropriately, honor your agreements, and, above all, be consistent in your words and actions. This kind of trust is especially frail in today's workplaces because of the legacy of layoffs, downsizing, and reorganization that reengineering and economic problems have brought to the modern corporation.

You simply cannot keep the trust of your workers if you exhort them to work hard on behalf of the corporation, on the one hand, and lay hundreds or thousands of them off on the other. No matter how sincere your intentions, your employees will see inconsistency and indeed hypocrisy in those two sets of behaviors — and judge you accordingly. The result will be a workplace that focuses more on internal politics than on getting the job done.

Communication trust is, at its heart, a question of honesty and disclosure. You have to be willing to share difficult truths with your employees, admit your mistakes, give honest feedback, and at the same time maintain confidentiality. That's a tricky path to negotiate, and one on which many an executive has stumbled while trying to find the right balance between openness and company confidentiality.

The third kind is competence trust—respecting your teammates' abilities and skills, as well as your own, and helping others learn new skills. It means involving others rather than trying to do it all yourself.

Learn to adapt

Finally, William E. Fulmer, author of Shaping the Adaptive Organization, finds adaptability to be at the core of the new communication style needed in today's workplace. At the heart of Fulmer's argument is the idea that corporations today will succeed or fail depending on how well they can constantly take in data about their changing business landscape and then communicate that understanding throughout their organizations.

Business leaders must scan the terrain with attention and insight as never before, because the terrain is changing so fast, and because it is so important to business success in a consumer-driven marketplace. But that's only half the story. Companies then must build their organizational communications — indeed their very organizations — around this understanding of the terrain. Once the terrain is understood, the business leader must articulate a clear sense of direction forward, without becoming locked into one path and one way of doing things. Every employee needs to know precisely what the company's business is every day in order to be empowered to realize opportunities and correct mistakes at ground level.

Fulmer writes, "The leaders at several large organizations I have examined have been especially successful at articulating a clear direction for their employees." The secret to making things clear? Keep it simple, communicate your goals to everyone, and incorporate your values in everything that you do. Further, Fulmer offers strategies for bringing this clarity to your everyday practice: encourage individual learning and then share it, promote responsible risk-taking, create an atmosphere of openness, treat employees as owners — and continually "listen" to what's going on out there in the business terrain you inhabit, committing yourself to the painful job of being willing to change direction precisely when things seem to be going well, and there is every reason to take success for granted.

As Andy Grove, the famously paranoid chairman of Intel Corporation says, "You have no choice but to operate in a world shaped by globalization and the information revolution. There are two options: Adapt or die. You need to plan the way a fire department plans. It cannot anticipate fires, so it has to shape a flexible organization that is capable of responding to unpredictable events."

From Harvard Management Communication Letter, December 2000.

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