Project Management in Virtual Teams{10}


by Kevin F
Introduction

In the scope of most corporate IT departments, one will find a plethora of projects that are being proposed, currently in progress, and being monitored for their ROI.  This is due to the fact that IT system design and implementation is unique to the needs and priorities of each situation.  As a result, PM, or project management, is an essential skill for anyone who is considering a career in IT.  The emergence of an increasing number of virtual team environments challenges the traditional PM approach, which has initiated an array of new research projects aimed at addressing this issue.

The Challenges of Virtual Teams

The root problem of the issues that arise as a result of virtual teams is centered on the idea that individuals cannot collaborate face-to-face; this slows the development of social relationships and therefore trust.  “The consequences of weak social relationships between team members are grave.  Not only can they cause decreases in working motivations, but also reduce the overall performance of the team” (Schilling, Laumer & Weitzel, 2013).  The communication mediums that are relied on by these teams, which are primarily email and instant messengers, do not reflect non-verbal cues found in face-to-face communication and result in miscommunication incidents.  “Reliance on electronic tools such as e-mail may increase conflict due to limitations of such communication channels, and the lack of face-to-face contact could reduce individual team members’ identification, trust, and commitment to the team, resulting in reduced performance” (Beise, 2004).

Additionally, cultural diversity can be another obstacle in itself.  “Cultural diversity is frequently cited as a barrier to team, especially virtual team, performance” (Beise, 2004).  It is surprising to read this statement as our society greatly encourages workforce diversification to facilitate innovation and collaborative thinking.  Unfortunately, these cultural differences are harder to recognize and respect in a virtual environment.  When a teammate is simply seen as a name and an email address, it is often hard to remember that he or she has a personality, religion, and set of cultural norms and behaviors that contrasts what you are accustomed to.  These differences manifest themselves in plain site during face-to-face interactions, and are therefore more easily adapted to in traditional team environments.

Case Study Review

In the case study “A Case Study of Project Management Practices in Virtual Settings” by Catherine Beise, Traci Carte, Chelley Vician, and Laku Chidambaram, multiple virtual teams were given a database development project and were monitored on their approaches and final performance results (Beise, Carte, Vician & Chidambaram, 2010).  They found that while all the teams exhibited similar behavior and experienced common issues, the highest performing team was identified for a few characteristics.  When the project started, the highest performing team made the largest effort to make personal connections with one another.  “These team members were sharing personal information (i.e., I have a test) that helped other members understand local differences and be mindful” (Beise, Carte, Vician & Chidambaram, 2010).  The lowest performing teams focused primarily on the task at hand and did not address personal development until much later in the project’s development, suggesting that PMs must encourage personal development early on when leading a virtual team.  This builds trust and openness in the discussion of multiple opinions.  The highest performing team also spent more time planning process management topics such as establishing norms in communication and technology use.  Making these decisions early allows a team to prevent ad hoc organization of communications and supporting documents down the road.  When all members have an agreed upon code for how everything is done, there is little time wasted on confusion and conflict.

In the end, the study resulted in some generally agreed upon points.  Firstly, the researchers noticed that in most cases management needed to intervene in order to keep momentum up.  “Towards the end of the project, management team intervention was needed to help the project teams overcome some significant technical difficulties” (Beise, Carte, Vician & Chidambaram, 2010).  Technical issues need to be resolved as soon as possible due to the working nature of virtual teams.  “Virtual teams by definition are teams that are geographically and/or temporally dispersed and are brought together by information and communication technologies to accomplish assigned tasks.  Hence, technology is each member’s lifeline to the team, and good technology choices are key to developing successful team processes and structure” (Beise, Carte, Vician & Chidambaram, 2010).   Lastly, regardless of when each team made an effort to develop their personal relationships, they all found value in the end from doing so.  “While many teams found consensus building took longer due to the asynchronous nature of the communication, they also suggested that the teammates were more open to others’ opinions, able to tap into more diverse ideas, and ultimately learned more” (Beise, Carte, Vician & Chidambaram, 2010).

PM Best Practices

From the information above, several guidelines can be given to PM’s who are looking for advice on how to manage a virtual team.  From the case study, “several of the more successful team strategies articulated in the debriefing reports included: reliance upon more concise, more detailed, and more frequent messages; proactively posting messages telling other members when to expect drafts; regular and more frequent checking of messages; and picking up the slack for absent team members” (Beise, Carte, Vician & Chidambaram, 2010).  PM’s must also be aware of and compensate for the diverse schedules of each team member.  “Virtual team members frequently face competing pressures from local assignments and concerns about free-riding teammates” (Beise, Carte, Vician & Chidambaram, 2010).  In order to do this, PM’s must be aware that strong communication is a key success factor in this regard.  “Communication and information flows must be more frequent, even continuous, in distributed contexts, in order to maintain commitment and build trust” (Beise, 2004).  Enforcing communication norms among strangers is no easy feat, so facilitating personal relationship development early on or even hosting an initial face-to-face social event can help increase participation.  “Some researchers have suggested that using face-to-face meetings or richer media in the early stages of virtual team development may foster closer interpersonal relationships” (Beise, Carte, Vician & Chidambaram, 2010).

Conclusion

Virtual teams take the already challenging role of PM to a new level with their communicative, social, and logistic complications.  An effective PM must recognize the common pitfalls of virtual teams identified in this text in order to minimize the performance-sapping effect they have if left untreated.  As more and more projects move into the hands of virtual teams, effective PM strategy adaptations are crucial to the success of organizations.

 

 

Works Cited 

Beise, C. (2004). IT Project Management and Virtual Teams. SIGMIS CPR ’04, 129-133.

Beise, C., Carte, T., Vician, C., & Chidambaram, L. (2010). A case study of project management practices in virtual settings: Lessons from working in and managing virtual teams. The DATA BASE for Advances in Information Systems41(4), 75-97.

Schilling, A., Laumer, S., & Weitzel, T. (2013). Together but apart – how spatial, temporal and cultural      distances affect floss developers’ project retention. SIGMIS-CPR ’13, 167-172.