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Virtual Teams - Creating a Global Explosion of Productivity and Profits
by Susan Schwartz

 
   
 
   

Almost every business journal includes at least one article referencing "global" or "virtual" teams. This can mean a core group of managers directing remote operations from a centralized location, or geographically-dispersed workteams operating within a decentralized management structure. Despite the fact that these management styles are often discussed collectively, they are actually very different.

I have personally worked in both of these environments, as well as local teams in which all members were literally "under the same roof." Despite the common belief that successful projects require face-to-face interaction, my most productive and cohesive teams were those that were decentralized across countries and time zones. In contrast, members of centralized teams seemed to spend most of their energies "pushing back" on the top-down edicts; valuable time and intellectual resources were wasted hindering - rather than achieving - project success.

Given my positive experiences with decentralized, virtual teams, I can't help but question why:

  • So many corporate leaders are uncomfortable unless they are working in close proximity to their team members.

  • Project managers are afraid to reach beyond time zones and cultures to create fully global programs.

  • The phrase virtual team conjures up images of disjointed, disparate workgroups for so many people today, when - back in medieval times - virtual actually meant "powerful."

But how does a manager break out of a "central core group" mindset and begin to create a productive, profitable virtual team? While the tactical elements may vary for each situation, the overall strategic approach is no different whether a team is spread out over 10,000 square feet or 10,000 miles. You must (a) create an extended community, (b) identify a business vision, and (c) share your passion.

Create an Extended Community

An effective team brings together a diverse group of people to achieve a shared goal. Like any well-rounded community, the strength of the team will be measured by the diversity of perspectives and the balance created to service the various wants and needs of each member. Successful teams must trust each other to participate as a part of the whole. Each team member, in all likelihood, represents a different community faction: a country, a functional group, or an external partner. Team members are expected to communicate in both directions. They need to share the business unit's objectives and challenges with the other team members, as well as promote the mission and actions of the team back to their constituency.

Communications play a vital role when building a strong team. Without the visual reinforcement of body language, virtual team members must work hard to hone written and verbal communication skills. Listening, clarification, and constant feedback will help team members understand the impact of their decisions on the entire organizational structure.

Increasing communication between cultures and functional workgroups will minimize problems that can creep in during program deployment. Greater productivity and cost savings will be realized because redundant remedial activities will be kept to a minimum.

Identify a Business Vision

The most successful teams are made up of members who understand the overall mission of the organization and assure the team goals are a part of the total organizational strategy. Results are very important. Teams can be notorious for creating meetings, minutes, and lots of wasted time. Team leaders need to keep team members focused on outcome-oriented milestones. When these are achieved, the team leaders need to promote the success across and up the organization. Colleagues within the organization must believe the team's activities are integral to organizational success.

Successful teams consistently clarify the essence of the challenge at hand. Often the perceived problem is only a symptom of a much greater systemic issue. Teams representing several languages, cultures, and functional areas must understand the perspective of each group to grasp the impact of the challenge and the solution on each group within the organization. Taking time to identify the true problem rather than immediately attack the symptoms will help minimize costs and increase productivity in the long run.

It also is important to be flexible as organizational needs change. There will be many times when your team's activities will need to adapt to align with the organization's evolving vision. There may be other times when a team's activities drive - rather than react to - business change. An example of this occurred when I was working with representatives from ten countries and five functional areas to develop global education standards. Through this process, we opened discussions with software developers and established procedures that shortened the time required by the other functional groups to support the software in the field. In addition to the immediate increase to productivity, a much stronger partnership was established between what had previously been functional "silos."

Share the Passion

The final component of successful team leadership is to believe in the importance of the vision for the team. Your passion for the goal will motivate team members to want to share in your excitement. Delegation is very important, but don't forget to participate. Trust your team members with responsibility and follow up with their progress. Work through challenges together and celebrate their successes. The results will be a team of folks who care as passionately as you do, and who will work to resolve business challenges with creativity, flexibility, and speed.


     
   
     
   

The Author

 

Susan Schwartz works with global companies to design and launch on-line collaborative communities and next generation learning solutions. She is the founder and principal consultant of The River Birch Group, a performance improvement consultancy that provides a broad range of services including role-based job task analyses, certification/assessment programs, mentoring/coaching, and curriculum design. Susan’s passion is helping companies learn how to drink from virtual water coolers. Susan can be contacted by writing her at riverbirchgroup@cox.net, or visit her web site www.riverbirchgroup.com .

     
   
     
   
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Copyright 2002 by Susan Schwartz. All rights reserved.

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