How to Prevent Technology From Impeding Communication and Wrecking Your Virtual ProjectPublished: February 08, 2006 in Knowledge@Emory
In many cases, technology does more than make communication better—it makes it possible. Take, for instance, a global project to implement a large software package company-wide, such as an enterprise resource planning system, better known as ERP. The average monthly budget for such a project exceeds $1.2 million and involves, over time, up to 60 team members around the world. These days, communication tools as simple as email and as complex as collaborative integrated development environments support such large-scale projects without team members ever needing to board an airplane. Technology is truly a wonder—but it can also be an impediment, tripping up the most seamless of projects with all-too-often unanticipated collaboration breakdowns.
When that happens, Dominic M. Thomas wants team leaders and project managers to be ready to take actions to enable their teams’ more effective use of information and communication technologies or ICTs. Thomas, a visiting assistant professor of decision and information analysis at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, along with co-authors Robert P. Bostrom and Marianne Gouge, is helping managers and team leaders understand how to better use technology communication in a virtual team in his paper Making Knowledge Work Successful in Virtual Teams via Technology Facilitation.
The study addresses the need for specific, efficient intervention techniques for resurrecting interaction when it fails by isolating how virtual team leaders in the Information Systems industry are getting their teams to effectively use ICTs through technology facilitation during team interaction. These ICTs include everything from fax, email and instant messaging, to knowledge portals and more sophisticated virtual meeting tools. “A lot of these big projects fail and I wanted to know why,” explains Thomas, who became interested in how technology can help with international development and with business efficiency while in his PhD program. “Some of the indicators are that the teams are unable to work together; they’re unable to solve small problems and those small problems lead to all kinds of consequences, sometimes even the collapse of a project. I wanted to find out in an active sense some of the things leaders can do in the middle of a project to make things go right.”
Thomas and his team set out to capture the moments of interaction breakdown and what was done to fix them in order to analyze their elements and isolate the specific interventions that leaders were making. They conducted interviews with 13 practicing virtual team leaders or project managers with experience in more than 20 organizations. “Intentionally, I wanted them to be some of the best project managers,” notes Thomas, who checked references and resumes of his interviewees. “Then I structured two-hour interviews using critical incident technique, which guides them through a process of recall focusing on when breakdowns or improvement efforts were undertaken during projects—when the leader took action to improve team interaction.” Those interviewed also had to clearly indicate outcomes that resulted from the technology facilitation and how they resulted from the actions the leaders took.
While Thomas did find some cases of projects that did not have collaboration breakdown, most of them did experience a breakdown. In fact, interviewees reported numerous work stoppages resulting from technology use problems. “Most of the time it was only when problems occurred that the leaders were doing something to improve interaction and involve the technology of communication,” he says. Thomas and his colleagues collected data on 52 incidents of technology facilitation in 30 projects.
In one case, writes Thomas, a leader came into an ailing project involving multiple organizations, including some offshore. The new leader spent time assessing the situation, identifying the following change triggers: tool inadequacies (too much reliance on email), information visibility problems (shared task information could not be accessed easily), internal group structure problems (dispersion and team size made email unworkable as the main information sharing device), and cooperation problems (private communications between members that should have been shared and differing views on task information led to conflicts). His foremost technology change was blocking the use of the project management tool and centralizing all of the task information in an Excel spreadsheet and placing that spreadsheet in a shared team space where all members could view it any time and update their portions.
Thomas notes that the findings of his research on virtual teams fall into several categories. First and foremost, he says, businesses need to consider how they integrate communication technologies. They should develop a tool kit of technologies that fit their project needs. “Those tool kits should be flexible so that when new partners come into a project, they can be easily integrated,” suggests Thomas. “If you don’t have this, it becomes a waste of time and a problem that can actually lead to break downs in trust and relationships that stop work all together, even over e-mail and over the phone. These most comfortable technologies can become troublesome because people have different perceptions of them. Delineating the tool kit and explaining how it’s going to be used helps, especially when different cultures are involved.” In his research, for example, Thomas came across members of the same team who had very different perceptions of the role that e-mail should play in their project—one saw it strictly as file transfer and another saw it as a means of chatting.
Thomas also underscores the need for a virtual water cooler in large technology-driven projects. “People want to chat. They want to get to know the people they work with to some to degree. They need that outlet,” observes Thomas. “Tools like instant messaging in particular were used by some of these leaders very effectively as a virtual water cooler. This can help a lot with trust in interpersonal relationships. That problem trumped all others. When trust in relationships breaks down, it can short circuit the work across all contexts.”
It is also crucial, notes Thomas, for virtual team leaders to recognize the importance of team knowledge. A group of team members may not know enough about how to use the document versioning tool, for example. “Leaders need to be aware that there needs to be a way to train people,” says Thomas. “If you have this tool kit of technologies, how do you bring new team members into it? One team leader ran an intro to the project in a program that captures audio and slides. Whenever someone new came into the project, he or she would view the intro and quickly get up to speed.”
Overall, says Thomas, virtual team leaders need to set a framework for ongoing communication improvement and be prepared for what is often an inevitable collaboration breakdown. “With virtual projects, you have more volatility and you don’t have enough time to get to know people. You have more groups coming and going frequently,” explains Thomas. “As a result, breakdowns happen. In the virtual world some preparation will help keep that from happening and it will help address it more effectively when it occurs so that the loss of productivity doesn’t last as long and cause the project to fail.” Project managers, through proper training, need to learn to recognize the triggers, shift their focus to improving team interaction, and effectively take action, in order to maximize team productivity.Thomas has already tackled several similar research projects, including his paper Exploiting and Developing the Shared Mental Model of Information and Communication Technology in Virtual Teams. “There is a theory out there that says in order to get effective group work, you have to have a shared model of what you’re doing,” explains Thomas. “The first model you’ve got to have is the equipment or technology model. If you don’t understand that, then the team and task models are worthless.” Stay tuned to Knowledge@Emory for more on information and communication technology as Thomas works to demystify teamwork in the virtual realm.