So What Exactly Is a Virtual Team?
virtual team, like every team, is a group of people who interact through interdependent
tasks guided by common purpose. Unlike conventional teams, a virtual team works
across space, time and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by
webs of communication technologies. The image of face-to-face interactions among
people from the same organization typifies our older models of teamwork. What
sets virtual teams apart is that they routinely cross boundaries. What
makes virtual teams historically new is the awesome array of interactive technologies
at their disposal. Virtual teams now use myriad electronic technologies to cope
with the opportunities and challenges of cross-boundary work.
Regular meetings, encounters in the hallway, getting together for lunch, dropping
into one anothers offices these are our standard methods for getting
things done. But these methods lag behind what has become everyday reality.
People rarely see one another when they are in different places, spread out
around the world, or even housed in different parts of the same city. Motorola,
for example, has some 20 locations just in the Northwest Chicago area, each
of which has multiple buildings. In the most extreme cases, some teams never
meet face to face but work together online. Such is the case with the 1200
employees of Buckman Laboratories in Memphis, Tennessee, who form and disband
numerous situation-specific virtual teams on a daily basis even though
they are spread all around the globe.
Many of todays teams are ineffective because they overlook the implications
of the obvious. People do not make accommodation for how different it really
is when they and their colleagues no longer work face to face. Teams fail when
they do not adjust to this new reality.
Close Is Really Close
What first comes to mind when you think of a team? A group of people working
side by side, in close proximity to one another a basketball or a rugby
How close do you have to be to get the advantage of being in the same place?
That is, what is the "radius of collaborative collocation?" The startling
data that MIT Professor Tom Allen has been compiling for the past several decades
show that the radius is very small. He says that based on proximity, people
are not likely to collaborate very often when they are more than 50 feet apart.
The probability of people communicating or collaborating more than once a week
drops off dramatically if they are more than the width of a basketball court
apart. To get the benefit of working in the same place, people need to be quite
To put this in perspective, think of the people you regularly work with. Are
they all within 50 feet of you? Or are some of your coworkers a bit more spread
out, down the hall, on another floor, in another building, or perhaps in another
city or country? Increasingly, the people we work with routinely are no longer
within shouting distance. Any team of more than about 10 to 15 people is by
sheer physical mass probably more than 50 feet apart.
From a team perspective, the important distances are the personal ones. How
close people like to be for interpersonal interactions varies by culture.
How far away do people have to be before they need to worry about compensating
The farther apart people are physically, the more time zones they have to cross
to communicate. Thus, time becomes a problem when people who are not in the
same place need some of their activities to be in sync. The window for routine
synchronous work shrinks as more time zones are crossed, closing to effectively
zero when people are on opposite sides of the globe. People who work together
in the same place also can have time problems. Salespeople or consultants, for
example, rarely occupy their offices at the same time. Even apparently collocated
teams often cross time boundaries and need to think virtually.
Proxemics North American Culture
Most core business processes require that people regularly work across organizational
boundaries. Supply chain management, marketing, product development, sales,
quality improvement and change management are just a handful of activities that
require virtual teams to work over walls and across borders.
Large-scale systems change invariably requires teamwork across organizational
borders. To reinvent its administration and information management system, the
US Department of Commerce has involved hundreds of people in teams from five
major bureaus and dozens of smaller organizations. Usually numbering eight to
ten people each, these virtual teams also involve scores of contractors who
provide everything from consultation on change management to software programming.
When Acacia Mutual Insurance Company in Washington, DC, decided to have a third-party
administrator do the processing of its new variable universal life insurance
product, it immediately created a virtual team with its supplier, Financial
Administration Systems, located in Connecticut. Alliances, joint ventures and
partnerships all require companies to establish cross-boundary teams of small
groups from member organizations.
Acacias ability to easily team with a third party draws on its decade-long
change effort that began when a new CEO arrived in 1988. "I wanted people
to embrace customer service and have a team orientation," says Charles
T. ("Tuck") Nason, also Acacias chairman. "It was a very
bureaucratic, function-oriented culture." By working in cross-organizational
teams, the company has reduced new product development time from 14 to 18 months
to 9. "Every insurance company should be doing this," Nason says,
who also cautions that it requires patience. "Its a long and arduous
process. The magnitude of the change were talking about is so huge that
theres often much resistance throughout the organization."
Not surprisingly, virtual teams also are springing up in the very industries
driving the momentous changes that are carrying us from one age of civilization
to the next.
Excerpted from Virtual Teams: Reaching Across Space, Time
and Organizations with Technology (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), by Jessica
Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps.
About Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps
||Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, PhD are co-CEOs
of NetAge Inc. Together, they have spent the past 20 years developing the
theory and practice of networked organizations in major organizations around
the world.Lipnack and Stamps are acknowledged as the world's leading experts
on networked organizations. They have co-authored five books and numerous
articles for major publications, given 150 speeches in the past three years
in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan, have appeared on many radio
shows and are often quoted in the press.
||They have also conducted scores of inhouse workshops that
have launched networks of all kinds within companies, nonprofit organizations,
major religious organizations and educational institutions.
For more information, visit NetAge Inc.