|Collaboration in a Virtual Team Environment: A Case Study in Planning the ASTD/AHRD 2001 Future Search Conference|
Authors: Gary L. May, Teresa J. Carter and Jennifer D. Dewey
Abstract: This case study explores the learning outcomes for the virtual team that planned the 2001 Future Search Conference for ASTD and AHRD. Team members completed the Global Process Team Questionnaire (GTPQ) and participated in interviews to determine effectiveness factors in team design, individual inputs, and process criteria. Results indicate that pre-existing relationships established trust in the virtual environment and supported the workload according to individual talents and interests. Motivated by intrinsic rewards of publishing, learning, and colleagueship, team members invested considerable personal time in the project. Highly effective leadership distributed among the geographically dispersed team members provided organizing techniques, including pre-sent teleconference agendas, summarizing documents, and extensive E-mail exchanges. Implications for HRD include the desirability of volunteer membership, the necessity of strong and distributed team leadership, and the effectiveness of organizing strategies for successful virtual collaboration via E-mail and teleconference.
Problem StatementVery little formal research has explored the effectiveness of virtual teams (Furst, Blackburn, & Rosen, 1999), even though trends towards globalization and enhancements in communication technology have made virtual teaming an integral part of most small group work (Katzenbach & Smith, 2001). Different time, space, and culture factors add to the complexity of collaboration in a virtual environment (Duarte & Snyder, 2001; Fisher & Fisher, 2001). In addition to these factors, the Future Search planning team was composed primarily of volunteers, an aspect of team participation that has received little or no attention in the research literature.
There have been a number of theoretical frames applied to explain the functioning and effectiveness of teams, including developmental stages (Tuckman, 1965), punctuated equilibrium (Gersick, 1988), social exchange theory (Hollender, 1978), and process structuration theory (Giddens, 1984). One theoretical model, the Team Effectiveness Leadership Model or TELM (Ginnett, 1996; Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 1999), has been developed specifically to examine the variables impacting team effectiveness in a business context. Figure 1 provides a diagram adapted from the TELM model.
The reasons for this limited focus are twofold: first, the organization inputs for a volunteer team of this nature were minimal: We had no organizationally sponsored control systems, including reward, education, or information systems other than international dialing access for teleconference calls. Five core members of the steering group and the Future Search facilitator who assisted them were geographically dispersed volunteers, including one member located in London; three other steering group members worked directly or indirectly for ASTD in the Washington, D. C. area. The six unpaid volunteers contributed more than two-thirds of the time, effort, and energy that resulted in a successful conference. Team leadership came from within the volunteer membership of the team and was not an organizationally assigned function.
Second, this is an exploration of process, individual, and team design factors that contribute to effectiveness rather than a study of team outcomes (the team "outputs" of the model). We take the effectiveness of the team to be an outcome achieved only in part, since the work of the Future Search conference is still ongoing. Conference attendees have been invited to participate in an extension of the dialogue that was begun in Orlando through online forums, and work is currently being undertaken to use the conference outcomes in the development of a book. Instead, we focus here on factors that contributed to success in planning the Future Search conference in a virtual environment in which E-mail and teleconferences were our primary modes of communication.
One role of case studies is to test theory (Yin, 1994). The purpose of this exploratory study was to compare and contrast the experiences of the Future Search Steering Group to specific aspects of the TELM, using the model as a theoretical guide. Our goal was to draw some prescriptive lessons that can be applied by volunteer groups working in a virtual environment in the future. The study was guided by the following research questions:
MethodologyMost case studies rely on multiple methods of data collection to ensure validity and reliability (Creswell, 1998). Two types of data were collected from the nine members of the FSSG during two months that followed the conference planning. Telephone interviews, lasting approximately one hour, covered the following: (a) the process of what makes a virtual planning experience successful; (b) individual factors contributing to motivation and commitment to participate in virtual planning; (c) team design factors, including leadership aspects of virtual collaboration; and (d) perceptions of group-level (collective) learning processes. All interviews were conducted by the same researcher, one of the paper's authors. Each team member was asked 13 open-ended questions, followed by probing questions for clarification, when necessary. All conversations were taped and professionally transcribed, resulting in 75 single-spaced pages of data gathered.
The FSSG members also completed ITAP International’s Global Team Process Questionnaire (GTPQ), a diagnostic instrument designed to help teams improve their effectiveness and productivity (Bing, 2001). As with all teams who use the instrument, this version of the GTPQ was customized for use with the FSSG. The instrument consisted of 19 close-ended items assessing such factors as equality of work distribution, clarity of team objectives, group communications, trust, conflict resolution, and leadership. Each item included a section for additional comments. The GTPQ questionnaire has been thoroughly tested for reliability and validity with global teams in the pharmaceutical, consumer products, and information technology fields for more than five years. For purposes of the questionnaire, a global team is one with members located in more than one country or one that has members from more than one country temporarily working in the same location (Bing, 2001). Mean scores were obtained for the GTPQ close-ended items. Transcriptions of the taped telephone interviews and open-ended comments from the GTPQ were analyzed for themes by the paper co-authors.
Results and FindingsFour major themes emerged from the interviews and open-ended comments on the GTPQ within this virtual, geographically dispersed team: (a) the importance of energizing and highly effective leadership; (b) intrinsic rewards that motivated individuals; (c) the necessity of a trustful environment, and (d) specific "enabling" virtual communication techniques and protocols. These will be described and related to three aspects of the TELM: team design, individual input factors, and process criteria.
Team Design Factors
Team design factors relevant to the TELM model included a narrowly focused task (organize a Future Search conference with 64 key leaders in the field of HRD); a tight deadline (four months); and volunteer FSSG team membership from within ASTD's Research-to-Practice committee. The nine-member FSSG team was composed of five core members, one volunteer facilitator from outside the ranks of ASTD, two ASTD research officers in liaison roles, and one member in an ASTD administrative role. A clear line of "authority" in the form of team commitment to the success of the project for ASTD and AHRD existed, although the sponsoring organizations exerted little, if any, formal control mechanisms.
This desire to work with "a finely tuned team of professionals" was, for many, a compelling reason to join the FSSG, but all acknowledged that what maintained the team's momentum was energizing and highly effective leadership, a role that was shared by several team members. Early on in the project, the member who had volunteered to lead the team began clustering various tasks into "blocks" of work; team members volunteered to spearhead a block of work and were called "blockheads," a term that was one of the group's many inside jokes. Dividing up the task and then monitoring the resulting progress became a coordinating leadership role that was essential to effective team management. Team members agreed, however, that leadership actions were dispersed, with the informal leadership role within the group assumed primarily by another member of the team. Instead of vying for competing roles, team members welcomed others' leadership efforts and attributed this to the volunteer nature of the team:
[G]iven the nature of the project and the fact that we're all volunteers, I think you've got to have somebody who's pushing it forward all the time ... we each divide up the work and take on different components but [team member A] invariably will jump in and do a little bit just to shove it along ... it always seems to be good stuff and it tends to make you think and keep pushing a little harder yourself.
Individual FactorsWhile energizing and shared leadership and the volunteer nature of the team were deemed essential team design factors, individual input factors also contributed heavily to successful task completion. The TELM model considers interpersonal behaviors as the foundation for individual inputs and a direct function of team members’ interests, motivations, skills, abilities, values, and attitudes. For the members of this virtual team, individual factors provided intrinsic rewards and created a trusting environment that made success possible.
One of the GTPQ questions specifically asked about the equitable distribution of such intangibles as participation, project visibility, authorship of the book, and editorship of papers and conference articles--all motivational factors in the minds of team members. Most team members agreed that everyone had an opportunity to contribute in areas that interested them--"everyone gets a piece of the action"-- while one member noted "it's not an issue of trying to be greedy and hog all the glory (none of us has time for it!) … [but] I think some of us have more visibility in certain areas … this is a high-stakes issue because a book authorship is an extremely tangible professional accomplishment." Learning about the Future Search methodology (Weisbord, 1992; Weisbord & Janoff, 2000) and learning about teamwork in a virtual environment were motivating factors, as well:
I've also learned how an ongoing virtual conversation ... can contribute to collective efforts that far exceed what any one individual can do ... this has been a tremendous learning, for my experience in face-to-face task forces and group efforts had led me to believe that a few people usually do all or most of the work. Here the work was truly shared according to each person's ability to contribute.An attitude of respect for professional colleagues permeated the virtual experience for team members. Each had an opportunity to contribute his or her own special interests and talents, and each trusted that others would see their portion of the work through to completion. The ability to do high-quality individual work that was then brought back to the team for discussion was a repeatedly mentioned theme: "For a project of this complexity to work, you've got to have people on the team that can run with whatever their passion is ... for the team to disperse and people to be doing their thing and bring it back and let the team crunch on it."
Good written and oral communication skills proved essential in a virtual conversation. Clearly, members realized that it was important that they make allowances for different modes of individual expression and create what one called an attitude of "slack": "There's something around creating slack ... Giving people the benefit of the doubt when they appear to be on your territory or saying something that's negative." Thus, motivated by an opportunity to work with respected colleagues, to share in tangible outcomes according to each team member's interests and abilities, and to learn from one another created the necessary trust for virtual collaboration.
Process CriteriaIn addition to team design and individual inputs, our lessons learned came from many process factors, some of which we stumbled into and others that we created intentionally. The TELM model considers process criteria to be the effort expended, the knowledge and skills brought to bear, the planned strategy or techniques adopted, and the group dynamics that emerge from collective action.
Pre-existing relationships among the Research-to-Practice committee members that had been established in a face-to-face environment proved essential to commitment in a virtual one. Telephone conferences added the emotion of tone and voice to messages exchanged electronically, and, most importantly, humor created and sustained a shared group culture that grew through the weeks of conference preparation. One member referred to the "lubricant of a keen sense of humor" and noted that it was hard to get tense in a flurry of metaphors and one-liners. "I think the teleconferences ... help glue things together for us. They re-establish ... you can hear the chuckle that goes with the joke." Without the pre-existing relationships, most doubted that the team would have been able to collaborate so easily and with such clarity.
All acknowledged that more was shared in this team culture than the occasional humorous remark that lightened the workload: Each team member's commitment to the task and to the other members functioned to prop up the group as a whole and maintained a "high level of intensity" without a long lag time between virtual meetings or E-mail exchanges. E-mails were characterized as "rapid fire." No sooner did a message go out than a flurry of responses picked up the dialogue exchange. While conducive to capturing the flavor of real-time conversation, this also proved disconcerting at times for our London colleague:
Every now and then I’d go to bed at ten o’clock which is five Eastern [time] having checked all my E-mails and being up to date and while I'm asleep dialogue is taking place in North America ... And I wake up the following morning ... and see that the dialogue has changed quite drastically as a result of ten different E-mails going back and forth ... I sit there and say, "I've missed this. I feel like I've got to take them back a step in order to say what I would have said…"It was in this process area that we also recognized our most serious shortfalls. In the world of virtual teams, we were decidedly low-tech, relying heavily on E-mail and teleconferences as our primary communication mechanisms. In retrospect, all acknowledged that we could have benefited greatly by using an electronic bulletin board or some form of virtual collaboration software, such as WebEx® that provides chat rooms for synchronous conversations. The deluge of E-mail traffic was overwhelming at times: "It was tough to stay on top of them. If you took a few days off and didn't have E-mail access and you suddenly came back, you were 30 to 60 E-mails behind."
Many of the process techniques we adopted became "enabling" structures and protocols that evolved over time as we worked together in a virtual environment. We discovered that a pre-set agenda, sent out by E-mail the day before a teleconference, was essential to effective time management. Not only did it allow the blockheads to summarize their work ahead of time for all to read in advance, but also team members were able to pose questions for the group to consider before a scheduled call. This process allowed us to tackle a sizable number of items in an hour and a half teleconference and come to resolution on them. Dates and times for the calls were set after posing alternatives and letting the group decide on those most convenient for everyone, as opposed to a time that was established by team leadership. Teleconference calls were also planned well in advance for scheduling purposes. During the call, the formal team leader kept notes on actions agreed upon during the call, placing them right into the text of the agenda in bold highlighted text. Within minutes after completion of a teleconference, the team leader sent out a revised copy of the agenda by E-mail with the actions agreed upon highlighted. This allowed anyone who missed a call to be quickly brought up to date.
Overall, team members credit advance organization; pre-planned and electronically distributed agendas, followed by agendas sent out by E-mail immediately after a teleconference with action items; and a lively and active interchange of E-mail dialogue as processes that enabled them to reach their goals. These enabling protocols, however, were only mechanical processes. Individual attributes skills and abilities, shared commitment, and desire to contribute to the field provided the relational processes of virtual collaboration, and they proved to be as essential as any mechanical techniques.
DiscussionWhen we examine our first research question about how our experiences in virtual collaboration compare with the TELM model of team effectiveness (Ginnett, 1996; Hughes et al., 1999), we find that the three elements of team design, individual inputs, and process criteria were all essential to successful task completion. Each element functioned similarly to the model's basic design: individual inputs contributed to team design, which, in turn, affected the process criteria of effort, knowledge, skills, and strategy. These process criteria were supported by highly effective group dynamics within the team.
In contrast to the model were our experiences in organizational input factors. As a volunteer group, we came from many different organizations within both public and private sectors, and we were largely a self-directed and self-supported team. The TELM control system factors, such as reward systems, educational, and informational systems that comprise the usual organizational inputs, were missing from our collective experiences. However, we all understood that ASTD and AHRD had specific expectations for sponsoring the Future Search Conference and we acknowledged collective responsibility for delivering results that would be deemed worthwhile. In addition, ASTD provided the funds to support the conference and the administrative resources to ensure its logistical success. One of our team's members was heavily involved in administrative staff support on behalf of ASTD and two others provided key roles as ASTD research officers. Without their sponsorship, the team would not have been able to function as effectively as it did to ensure a successful conference outcome.
Our second research question asked about the respective contributions of team design, individual inputs, and process factors to team effectiveness. Among team design factors, we found that a clearly defined task with a short time frame for task completion and a high stakes outcome created compelling momentum for this virtual team. Volunteer membership permitted self-selection based on individual interests, motivations, and personal desires for professional recognition and contributions. Norms, developed through membership in ASTD's Research-to-Practice committee, already existed, and we were able to build on them, creating a shared vocabulary that formed the basis for many humorous exchanges that lightened the workload and alleviated tension. This, in turn, sustained a healthy team culture.
The most important of individual inputs that contributed to effectiveness were team members' shared motivations to participate in the effort. Collectively, we were motivated by opportunities to work with respected colleagues, to enhance academic publishing in a variety of forums (e.g., book chapter authorship, conference presentations), and to contribute to the field of HRD in a meaningful way. We believe that the importance of shared motivations in accomplishing our task cannot be under-estimated. Shared motivations created a powerful synergy among team members and encouraged individuals to contribute specific skills and abilities, including leadership talents. They formed the basis of a trusting team environment.
Among the process criteria that contributed to our effectiveness as a team, we believe that the combination of individual talents, knowledge, and skills resulted in a team culture with well-established, effective group dynamics. Team leadership was an important aspect of our group dynamics. With prior knowledge of the specific strengths and potential contributions from various members, team leadership (both formal and informal) designed strategy to utilize team member strengths fully. Shared leadership was also effective in dispersing effort among team members, so that no one individual carried the whole load.
Conclusions and Recommendations
When Future Search methodology was adopted for strategic planning to explore the future of workplace learning and performance, volunteers in ASTD's Research-to-Practice committee had little virtual team experience in collaboration. The tight four-month time frame for organizing the conference meant that team members had to jump into the process without much pre-planning. We used the tools that each of us had readily accessible: electronic communication via E-mail and the telephone for conference calls.
What would we do differently next time? Certainly, more sophisticated tools for virtual collaboration exist; we regret that we did not pursue them early in our organizing processes, for they would have undoubtedly enhanced the online nature of our dialogue, saved hard drive space, and avoided E-mail overload.
Contribution to New Knowledge in HRDIn an increasingly global world, organizations are likely to use advanced communication techniques to create groups that work in virtual time and space. This case study provides evidence that, in spite of today's technologically sophisticated means for virtual collaboration, human relationships are essential for effectiveness in a geographically dispersed team. Face-to-face relationships sustained our diversity in experiences, perspectives, and written and oral communication styles. Organizations need to consider how to provide a time and place to establish such relationships, or, conversely, how to take advantage of existing interpersonal relationships when establishing virtual teams. Our experience has taught us that relationships among virtual team members are essential for successful outcomes.
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Gary L. May, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, School of Business
Clayton College & State University
Address: Morrow, GA 30260
Work Tel.: 770-961-3673
Teresa (Terry) J. Carter, Ed.D.
Executive Learning Strategies, Inc.
Address: 9325 Cardiff Loop Road
Naperville, Illinois 60563
Work Tel.: 804-674-6148
Fax: 804-674-5782 or 804-272-9328
Jennifer D. Dewey, Ph.D.
Director of Internal Evaluation & Quality Assurance
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL)
Address: 1120 East Diehl Road, Suite#200
Richmond, VA 23236-1516
Work Tel.: 630-649-6509
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