Five Triggers to Watch For When Managing Virtual TeamsPublished: November 15, 2007 in Knowledge@Emory
Jobseekers looking for an edge in the job market are often urged to consider what employers want. Sure, potential future bosses like an impressive résumé and a good attitude, but they also want to know that their employees have developed and can practice the kinds of behaviors that the workplace will demand of them. These days, any CEO will tell you, that means prospective employees need to be able to work well in teams.
Teamwork: it sounds like a simple concept; easy enough to embrace, and yet, the success of team-based projects in corporations is often elusive. Toss technology into the mix, and the challenge of operating virtual teams and the issues that threaten to impede success multiply. “The rate of project success in the larger world of information systems and virtual teams is still pretty low,” suggests Dominic M. Thomas, a visiting assistant professor of information systems and operations management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School who has, through international development research both in the U.S. and abroad, developed a deep interest in what makes teams tick. “I have worked with designing a grants funding program with US AID and was a Peace Corp volunteer working in Nepal in the late 1990s,” adds Thomas. This experience showed Thomas that “there are real challenges trying to put together teams to do good. Even teams where everyone wants to [work] together [often] end up with problems and breaking down. That was the very first seed of this interest.”
That seed has grown into Thomas’s PhD in Management Information Systems from the University of Georgia and subsequent academic research projects since he arrived at Goizueta in 2005. One of his latest papers, currently in a second round of review for publication in MIS Quarterly, is “Vital Signs for Virtual Teams: An Empirically Developed Five-Trigger Model of Leader Interventions.” The study analyzes causes of leader intervention in information and communication technology-enabled virtual team interaction. The current state of the art in project management is focused, notes Thomas, on what is called the triple constraint—managers measure the time, budget and scope of a project to determine if it is operating successfully. Ultimately, however, the triple constraint may not be the most effective way to take a project’s pulse. “By the time a time, budget or scope violation is recognized and fully formed it typically indicates a completely mature problem; it’s too late. The project’s already unhealthy,” he explains, adding, “I’ve found that managers actually have some other ways of monitoring team interaction and intervening,” which can catch problems before they escalate.
Thomas set out to pinpoint the variety of possible causes of interaction breakdown that trigger leader action. In his study, he interviews high-performing leaders who intervened a total of 52 times on 30 different information systems projects. “We were interested in what pitfalls caused collaboration failure in distributed, computer-mediated knowledge work contexts and how the leaders understood and saw interventions involving technology as critical to improving collaboration while work was in progress,” explains Thomas. He calls on Occam’s Razor—a principle used in medicine to help practitioners and researchers deal with the complexity of ailments by focusing on core pieces that help explain the health of a person— to guide the empirical study and determine the “key explanators” that very successful leaders use to understand the health of team interaction.
The research finds that these directors of consulting and senior project managers—the go-to people in the face of project failure— are not just monitoring time, budget and scope. They actually pay attention to other issues. The empirical investigation reveals five triggers or indicators that virtual team leaders need to identify when monitoring team interaction and intervening to improve it. The paper offers detailed explanations of each trigger and its implications. The five trigger types include external interferences, or the external conditions imposed on a project such as global timeline and the policies of the organizations that are working together; internal interference, such as team size and team-member demographics; information and communications technology (ICT) inadequacy, including very basic problems with the sheer volume of the number of emails in a project to more complex software-related problems; trust and relationship inadequacy between team members; and ICT knowledge, skills and abilities inadequacy among team members. “These triggers provide a model for understanding intervention that is hopefully complementary to any understanding people have of that triple constraint,” suggests Thomas. “If you’re in a virtual team, you need to also pay attention to these other five things because they are the things that can cause team-interaction breakdowns that will lead to a triple-constraint violation.”
The research shows, adds Thomas, that managers involved in virtual teamwork do engage in interventions to improve team productivity through improved usage of information and communication technologies, supporting the importance of further research on design of these technologies and methods of managing them during team interaction. In a virtual team, technology is everything and team leaders need to recognize its importance in the success of the project. “One of the great problems that this paper points out is that people are using 12 or more systems, from email to calendars,” Thomas explains. “Future research should explore designing improved interaction systems for people to use in virtual contexts. In the end, you will be working with technology through technology and you need to be capable at assessing what to do with the technology. It is a lever that you have available to improve team interaction. Technology can play various functions in a virtual team and the leader is the chaperone making sure those functions are there.”
Thomas is currently working on subsequent team-related research that explores how high-performing leaders use technology to facilitate projects and to improve team interaction. He points out that the need for solutions is of great financial importance to the consulting world. “These projects are failing for a variety of reasons,” says Thomas. “If there’s anything we can do to improve that, all the better because a lot of money is at stake. I’m studying projects that cost $600,000 a month or more for five years. We’re not talking about small beans.”