Virtual Teams and Virtual Project Management Essay

Like it or not, the marketplace is becoming global and many companies are taking note. The world is represented by a technological environment that changes at unprecedented speeds; seemingly overnight. The Internet and collaborative software have made it easier and faster to communicate across vast distances. Many companies have switched to complex and flexible organizational structures that allow them to operate competitively in a world shaped by globalization and the information revolution.

Downsizing, outsourcing, and employee empowerment have become facts of life in the climate of many organizations, while job security is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The survival of many organizations depends on the ability of the organization to rapidly change its structure, culture and products to match the changing demands of the environment. [1] This ever-changing environment has set the stage for a new dimension of project management… Project Management (PM) is the discipline of planning, organizing and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of specific project goals and objectives.

This is hard enough to accomplish when the project is within a single department of a company and all team members are located on-site. Now, take all the stresses and difficulties normally associated with a project and scatter the team members all over the place; possibly in different countries and time zones. Wow, now it is really difficult and challenging to meet the three main goals of Project Management: time, cost and performance. With the scattering of the team, you have thus created the Virtual Team and the need for Virtual Project Management (VPM).

Peterson & Stohr define the Virtual Team – aka Geographically Dispersed Team (GDT) – as “a group of individuals who work across time, space, and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology. They have complementary skills and are committed to a common purpose, have interdependent performance goals, and share an approach to work for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. ” [3] Peterson & Store list seven basic types of Virtual Teams: [3] Networked Teams consist of individuals who collaborate to achieve a common goal or purpose; membership is frequently diffuse and fluid.

Parallel Teams work in short term to develop recommendations for an improvement in a process or system; has a distinct membership. Project or Product-Development Teams conduct projects for users or customers for a defined period of time. Tasks are usually non-routine, and the results are specific and measurable; team has decision-making authority. Work or Production Teams perform regular and ongoing work usually in one function; clearly defined membership. Service Teams support customers or the internal organization in typically a service/technical support role around the clock.

Management Teams work collaboratively on a daily basis within a functional division of a corporation. Action Teams offer immediate responses activated in (typically) emergency situations. The focus of this paper will be on Networked and Project/Product Development Teams, as these most closely relate to this class and are the most prevalent in the virtual world of PM. The team does not have to be spread all over the globe for the project to be considered virtual; however, this paper will assume that is the case. Why Virtual Teams?

In addition to some of the ones mentioned previously, there are several reasons and benefits that drive the formation of virtual teams. People can work from anywhere at any time, which allows employees with the required competencies for the project to be located anywhere in the world and still participate. It offers employees personal flexibility, and a flexible organization is more competitive and responsive to the marketplace. The global workday is 24 vs. 8 hours, which allows companies to keep up with the increasing globalization of trade and corporate activity.

Employees typically are more productive because there is less commuting and travel time. This reduction or elimination of expenses associated with travel, lodging, etc. , results in a huge savings for the company. The list could go and on, but the point is, there is definitely a growing demand for and benefit of virtual teams. Obstacles The benefits and lucrative potential of Virtual Project Management are many, but like all good things, come at a price in the form of new management complications.

Fostering open and meaningful communication, gaining the trust and respect of remote members, and building trust between members is the greatest challenge to the virtual PM. It is difficult for virtual team members to get to know each other well; consequently, they tend to communicate poorly because they often are less than comfortable with each other. [1] Communication is paramount in any project. Dennis S. and Michelle L. Reina define three types of communication that project managers must address for virtual work to be possible: contractual, communication, and competence trust. 4] Contractual trust – this is essentially doing what you say you will do.

The virtual PM needs to manage expectations, establish clear boundaries, delegate appropriately, honor agreements, and, above all, be consistent in their 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. Communication trust – this type of trust is, at its heart, a question of honesty and disclosure.

The virtual PM has to be willing to share difficult truths with their employees, admit their mistakes, give honest feedback, and at the same time maintain confidentiality. Competence trust – this type of trust involves respecting your teammates’ abilities and skills, as well as your own, and helping others learn new skills. The virtual PM needs to involve others rather than trying to do it all themselves. Establishing these forms of communication can be difficult to do with local projects, and is only compounded by the lack of face-to-face contact between virtual team members.

Members of virtual teams tend to develop relationships with those who are located with them rather than with those who are at distant sites. [1] The formation of these “cliques” can create an “us vs. them” mentality between the team members and/or project manager located elsewhere. Remote members often do not do a great job of sharing adequate amounts of information with each other and the interpretation of information may be different. Thus, not everyone is on the same page and sees the big picture.

This results in members having a different perception of the project dependent on their location. Sharing information in a timely and effective manner, mainly because of time zone differences, is another concern for the virtual PM. This is becoming less and less of a problem with the latest and greatest technologies. Lastly, the lack of face-to-face interaction with the PM may cause remote team members to be unsure of what their role is in the project and what is expected of them.

Technologies Many of the forces that are driving the need for virtual project teams, namely advancements in technology, are the same ones that make it possible to overcome the many obstacles encountered in this type of project. Since it is seldom possible in the virtual project to meet face-to-face, experienced project managers recommend using a variety of electronic communications – cellular phones, pagers, faxes, e-mail, web pages, and computer-to-computer transmissions across local area and wide area networks—to distribute everything from key reports to jokes, logos, and mottoes.

Effective and frequent communication helps establish that critical trust factor between virtual project members. Teleconferencing is still used extensively for communication within virtual teams; however, the Internet is what really makes the virtual project feasible these days. E-mail is hands down the main form of communication – it is cheap and just about anyone in the world can get access to it one way or another. E-fax can also be used if the remote members cannot read a file format or if a file is too large to be sent via email.

Smartphones, though not as powerful as Netbooks, are essentially minicomputers. Team members may have a company issued smartphone they can use at all hours of the day for email, web access, etc. Out of all the available technologies used in the virtual environment, videoconferencing has done the most to develop that trust and familiarization between distant team members who have never met or worked together before. Members can see what their remote teammates look like and see their actions and mannerisms during the meeting.

It used to be that video-enabled conference rooms had to be available in each location for all members to participate. Nowadays, with the advent of collaborative software, some of which can be free like Google Apps, videoconferencing is possible anywhere there is an available Internet connection. Conclusion There is no denying that the old way of doing business is becoming just that, “the old way of doing business”. Virtual projects are becoming more and more of a necessity and people with technical savvy and cultural openness are needed to run them.

There is definitely a whole new world of opportunity and responsibility afforded to Project Managers who are willing to take on the responsibility of a virtual project. This may involve working from your hometown with people overseas or having to relocate to a foreign country. The main thing the virtual PM must do is figure out creative uses of the available communication technologies to make the virtual project more manageable. Mastery of this skill is quickly becoming mandatory for anyone who will be involved in virtual projects.


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