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For multinational companies, virtual teams operating across boundaries of time and geography are necessities of everyday working life. However, research suggests that typical success rates run at less than 30 percent. Jenny Goodbody, a global change manager with the BOC Group, and leader of a project team with members in six continents, considers the critical success factors for global virtual teams.

Critical success factors for global virtual teams

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Overcoming common obstacles to improve team performance

By Jenny Goodbody

PGS is the engineering division of the BOC Group, a worldwide industrial gases, vacuum technologies and distribution services company. BOC serves two million customers in more than 50 countries, employs over 43,000 people and had annual sales of over US$8.3 billion in 2004.

P GS, the engineering division of The BOC Group, is one of BOC’s three global lines of business. It is headquartered in Singapore

but its customers and employees are located in over 60 countries around the world. Like most global organizations, PGS uses virtual teams extensively in many areas of its business. It’s a highly matrixed organization with teams that cross functions, business units and geographies, tasked with carrying out everyday business processes and unique projects. My team, for example, is tasked with managing the organizational change aspects of implementing a global asset maintenance management system in 35 countries. Our job is to ensure users know why, how and when the system will be implemented, how the related business processes will change, and what it will mean to them in their various roles. But since the team is comprised of individuals based all over the world, they’ve never actually met face to face.

Identifying success factors

Although the use of virtual teams such as this has become increasingly common within the organization, leadership recently became aware that some virtual teams have been highly successful while others have struggled to achieve objectives. A year ago, we decided to investigate this issue by seeking answers to the question:

What are the factors critical to the success of virtual teams? Identification of these issues would enable the organization to develop business processes and personal development programs to help teams achieve their goals. Through research of current literature on the topic, and interviews with team leaders and members throughout PGS, we identified factors that determine the success or failure of virtual teams in three key categories:

1. Team formation

2. Trust and collaboration

3. Team communication

1. Team formation

Many authors writing about teams, both co- located and virtual, agree that this is the most important stage in the life of the team. Without successful team formation, the goals and

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objectives are unlikely to be attained, or at best, will be partially reached through the efforts of individuals, removing the advantages inherent in teamwork. The following factors all contribute to developing a strong virtual team.

Clear sponsorship Team members need to know who their sponsor is; the person they can go to when problems arise, with whom they can discuss progress and issues and celebrate success. The sponsor should be present at the team kick-off meeting – this provides an early opportunity to define expectations – and should maintain a sufficient level of interaction with the team throughout the life of the project. Within the change management team, we’ve created a standard list of the characteristics that we expect of a good sponsor, and we use this as a basis for discussion around team expectations. The list reflects issues important to change management projects, such as understanding the impact of a project on end users, showing public and private support, openness to feedback, active tracking of project progress, and ensuring necessary resources are available. As the project progresses, the sponsor or sponsors should be actively involved in the project steering team. In a global project like ours, with multiple reporting structures, there may well be multiple sponsors, but the same rules of sponsorship still apply.

Agreed goals Where possible, team members should have input into goal definition, so they can take personal ownership of those goals. In some cases this isn’t possible, particularly where the goals are strategic in nature and set by senior leaders. In these instances, members should play an active role in setting short-term goals and success measurements. In our change team, for example, we’ve been given the overall project goals and schedule, but we “own” the project implementation plan and are measured on its success and sustainability. The more dispersed the team, the clearer the purpose or goal must be since the team leader cannot be on hand to direct members all the time.

Recruiting the right team members The advantage of virtual teams is that membership is not restricted to a specific location. However, large virtual teams are difficult to manage and as a result can be inefficient. The team leader needs to ensure the required knowledge and skills are provided, with

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February/March 2005 Volume 9, Issue 2

Jenny Goodbody is a global change manager with the BOC Group. Currently, she heads up
Jenny Goodbody
is a global change manager with the BOC Group.
Currently, she heads up a team responsible for the organizational change aspects of
implementing a global asset maintenance management system. Goodbody holds a master
of engineering degree and an MBA (Project Management). She has worked for BOC for
over 10 years in various engineering and business roles in the UK and US.

the smallest number of people. My immediate team comprises six people but each is from a different functional background, bringing a unique strength to the team. This means we can learn from each other and work together to solve problems.

Linking performance measures to priorities Individual and team performance measures must be aligned with the priorities of the overall organization, as well as the specific project. If a

project is given low priority, resources will not be made available and team members will become demotivated when they’re unable to achieve goals. On the change team, we’ve used formal role profiles for team members – i.e. job descriptions –

to define responsibilities, development

requirements, and key performance indicators for

both individuals and the team as a whole.

The kick-off meeting

A

kick-off meeting, whether held virtually or face

to

face, sets the foundation for good working

relationships between team members. The goals

of the meeting are to formally initiate the team,

secure understanding and agreement on the mission, agree on sub-team or task requirements, provide opportunity for feedback, and review team members’ roles, expertise and accountabilities. It’s important for all members to understand what each brings to the team.

Face-to-face meetings will naturally provide an easier forum for this, particularly where there is the opportunity for social as well as professional interaction. Where this isn’t possible, team leaders should take proactive steps to help members form these relationships. This might include encouraging members to share information about their country, culture or personal background, or ask pairs or small

q

! KEY POINTS: • A year ago, the BOC Group set out to investigate the
! KEY POINTS:
• A year ago, the BOC Group set out to investigate the critical factors
that influence the effectiveness of global virtual teams.
• They identified factors within three key categories: team formation,
trust and collaboration, and team communication.
• Attention to factors listed within each category is helping BOC’s
project teams perform more effectively and achieve objectives.

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Critical success factors for global virtual teams

Figure One: Cultural influences on global teams

Variable

Implication for multi-cultural team

Individualism vs.

Individualistic team members will voice their opinions more

collectivism

readily, challenging the direction of the team. The opposite is true of collectivists. Collectivists will also want to consult colleagues more than individualists before making decisions.

Collectivists don’t need specific job descriptions or roles but

will do what is needed for the team, ideally together with other team members. Individualists will take responsibility for tasks and may need reminding that they’re part of the team.

Individual-oriented team members will want direct,

constructive feedback on their performance and rewards tied closely to their individual performance. Collectivists, however,

might feel embarrassed if singled out for particular praise or an individual incentive award.

• Collectivists prefer face-to-face meetings over virtual.

Power distance

• Team members from cultures that value equality (i.e. low

power distance) expect to use consultation to make key decisions. From the viewpoint of a team member from a higher power distance culture, however, a team leader exercising a

more collaborative style might be seen as weak and indecisive.

Members from high power distance cultures will be very

uncomfortable communicating directly with people higher in the organization.

Uncertainty

In a culture where risk taking is the norm or valued, team

avoidance

members tend to be comfortable taking action or holding meetings without much structure or formality. Members who are more risk averse need a clearer, prepared meeting structure, perhaps with formal presentations by all members of the team.

They’re unlikely to take an active part in brainstorming sessions.

Members from lower uncertainly avoidance cultures will not respond well to “micro management.” They may also be more willing to use new technologies.

Task/relationship

Team members from relationship-oriented cultures want to

orientation

spend extra social time together, building trust, and may have problems interacting smoothly with short-term members.

t groups of members to complete short-term tasks together, reporting back to the whole team.

Awareness of cultural influences There are several aspects for team leaders and members to consider when working within a multicultural team. Figure One (above) captures some of the potential issues that may arise.

The right competencies and skills Just because someone has been successful working as part of a co-located team, does not mean they will work well within a virtual team. Competencies or characteristics required for a successful virtual team member include communication or networking skills, comfort with use of technology, and the ability to self manage. Some competencies can be taught or developed over a relatively short space of time, for example, ability to use technology. Others, such as adaptability, flexibility and self- management are more complicated to develop.

Developing a team identity The creation of a team identity or brand can help

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in team formation, as it gives members a sense of

unity and is useful when communicating progress and success to the wider organization. Where team membership changes over time – through natural turnover or changes in membership – team branding can help new members identify key goals and objectives, and take their place in the team more quickly.

2. Trust and collaboration

In conventional co-located teams, trust is

developed over time through informal social interaction and sharing of information. For virtual teams, social interaction is usually limited – some members may never meet. However, development of trust is still dependent on interaction and information exchange. Team leaders should consider the following factors to help develop an atmosphere of trust and collaboration.

Ensure consistency

It’s essential that team members “walk the talk.”

If they agree an action, they must follow it

through. In a virtual team, members must be self- starters, able to manage their own time and priorities without too much overseeing. Many experts recommend the formal development of meeting and behavioral norms, for example, a “team charter” to help build trust between members. Team formation should ideally include this process, allowing members to discuss, agree and document appropriate behaviors regarding aspects such as communication channel selection, response times, document storage, meeting frequency, conflict resolution and decision-making processes. Creating a charter will also encourage team members to discuss issues such as technical and language restrictions, cultural norms, and the expectations they have of other team members.

Encourage collaboration

A culture of collaboration should be proactively

encouraged within a team, rather than assumed.

It

will follow naturally when team members learn

to

trust each other. A supportive climate

encourages members to share information freely, whereas a defensive environment promotes conflict and suppression of ideas. In the change team’s weekly teleconferences, we try to ensure that some portion of the meeting is spent chatting about non-work related topics. This has helped foster a relaxed, collaborative team style. Another way to help build this kind of climate is to publicly acknowledge particular

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efforts, either within the team or organizationwide as appropriate. Team leaders should also send encouraging messages to mitigate the isolation that virtual team members often feel.

Celebrate achievements In a virtual team – as in any team – it’s important to celebrate milestones reached or improvements made, and recognize and reward team members for achievements. In a virtual team, this also helps build relationships and provides an opportunity to communicate successes to the wider organization. As it’s unlikely the virtual team can get together for frequent celebrations, the team leader will probably need to find other ways to acknowledge success or achievements. In the PGS change team, we try to ensure sponsors and managers are aware of individual efforts, and have used the company intranet and internal publications to broadcast achievements.

3. Team communication

Given that the right people have been selected to join a virtual team, and their goals and objectives are clear, communication is the final element that will ensure the continued success of the team. Here are success factors critical to maintaining effective communication within virtual teams.

Select appropriate technology Try to keep the selection of technology as simple as possible. Select communication channels and technologies that are appropriate both for the task being undertaken, and the level of infrastructure available to all members. Pure information sharing obviously requires a much lower complexity of technology. My team uses weekly teleconferences, e-mail, ad hoc telephone calls, and a central document repository, all very simple and widely available.

Share information proactively This is particularly important for teams where members don’t all speak the same first language. Team members must develop a mutual understanding of what knowledge or information to share and when, to enable the team to make decisions or draw conclusions. Of course the transfer of information is only the first step. Members must be sure that communication has been successful, in that the message has been understood. This is particularly important within multicultural teams. There is also a balance to be found between

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Critical success factors for global virtual teams

ensuring that everyone has enough information to complete the work required, and inundating people with irrelevant e-mails. This is something the team leader should monitor and manage.

Facilitate team meetings Team meetings are effectively facilitated when all objectives are met, and all members can contribute. However, after speaking with team leaders and members throughout PGS, it’s clear that this can be a challenge. Without facilitation, meetings can be dominated by one or two individuals, particularly in multicultural teams or

“Communication is the final element that will ensure the success of the team.”

teams where members are not all speaking in their first language. My team has found that sharing information prior to a meeting is invaluable. Each member prepares a 6-10 bullet-point overview of progress, issues and action plans to be circulated 24 hours before meetings. This enables the group to concentrate on the important issues in the actual meeting. As team leader, my job is to make sure no one dominates the discussion, and everyone plays an active role. There is a strong tendency in virtual teams for everyone to be included in decision-making meetings, whether appropriate or not. Clarification of which tasks need input from the whole team, and which do not, is a critical step to avoid this problem.

Mixed success

PGS has had mixed success with virtual teams in the past, often throwing teams in at the deep end and assuming they will survive and perform well. Paying attention to the factors listed in this article is starting to help some teams, including mine, to perform more effectively. This improved performance makes it far more likely we will

achieve, or exceed, our goals.

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CONTACT

Jenny Goodbody

BOC Group

e-mail:

Jenny.Goodbody@boc.com

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