ASIS Midyear '98 Proceedings

Collaboration Across Boundaries:
Theories, Strategies, and Technology

Technology and Virtual Teams: Using Globally Distributed Groups in MBA Learning [1]

Lori Rockett, Josep Valor, Paddy Miller
IESE-The University of Navarra, Barcelona, Spain

Peter Naude
MBS-The University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom

 

Abstract

This paper describes the experience of a globally distributed organization, as simulated across three MBA programs. The students, located in each of three countries, worked collaboratively in teams to create a common project, using technology as a means of communication. Observations were made of local team interaction, as well as the intergroup exchange that came about from merging the local teams into a larger global team.

The project revealed some weaknesses in technology as a communication tool, as compared to face-to-face interaction. Nevertheless, the findings support traditional group theories--theories developed through observation of face-to-face groups. The existence of mutual accountability and evaluation, superordinate goals, and the tone of the initial group meeting were found to be key for successful task completion and group satisfaction.

Building a team in a virtual setting was found to be more difficult than in a face-to-face environment, but not impossible. Team-building factors that might be implied in a local arrangement, had to be made explicit in the virtual setting, as opportunities did not exist for clarifying intentions outside of the meeting place. Additional experience in using the technology as a means of communication should reinforce this need for clarity, as managers become accustomed to fewer opportunities for communicating implications.

 

INTRODUCTION

Distributed organizations are proliferating in the business world, as firms seek opportunities in the expanding global marketplace. To function effectively, companies must develop skills in communicating and collaborating across distances, many times without face-to-face interaction. An MBA program provides a suitable place for teaching these skills to managers. This paper describes a collaboration among three universities to develop a distributed organization in the context of an MBA course. Using technology, students in MBA programs in three different countries simulated a globally distributed company.

The course was designed to address two topics in management studies: the functioning of globally distributed teams, and the use of technology to help organizations communicate. A collaborative exercise between schools was chosen as the way to accomplish this, and the following objectives were set:

 

At the beginning, the means for accomplishing these objectives were unclear. The international team consisted of professors in marketing, information systems, and organizational behavior, as well as technical support personnel, located in Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This team sought to design a course that would meet the above objectives, and would provide an interesting and memorable experience for students and faculty alike.

 

WHAT OTHERS HAVE DONE

In order to better understand what we were attempting to do, we looked at similar endeavors by other universities. Many educators have attempted to teach about, and to teach with, various communication technologies. The methods used have ranged from traditional lectures about technology, to methods using technology for student exercises.

Traditional lectures and case studies have addressed such topics as distributed work in global organizations, and the use of new communications technologies (including groupware and Internet technology). Some, such as Stanford University and the University of Western Ontario, have extended this with the use of video-conferencing to lecture to distributed classrooms, or to hold case discussions with distributed sites. Still others have allowed student experimentation with groupware or group decision support systems (Alavi, Wheeler & Valacich, 1995; Niederman & DeSanctis, 1995).

The University of Texas created a course module consisting of collaborative team projects that cross university and country boundaries (Knoll & Jarvenpaa, 1995). Each of the teams used Internet technology to become acquainted, set group procedures, brainstorm, plan and collaboratively write a business plan for an Internet start-up company. Evaluation of the project was done independently by instructors at each school--no group evaluation was done in determining individual grades.

The above endeavors ranged from traditional to innovative, with varying degrees of effectiveness in demonstrating the challenges of distance work. We see several limitations in what has previously been done. Traditional lecture tends to focus directly on the technology, rather than on the use of technology to achieve a business goal. Other methods, such as distributed lecture and case discussions, use technology to facilitate a teaching method, but fail to teach students how to use the technology for similar business purposes. Still others use controlled laboratory methods to demonstrate the use of technology, and are lacking in a compelling project for which to use the technology. The University of Texas project attempted to address these problems, but failed to assign joint accountability to team members for the final product.

 

GLOBAL ROLLOUT

To address the limitations that we perceived in prior undertakings, our aim was to develop a course that would meet our stated objectives, and also provide a compelling project that would actively engage students in the process of achieving these objectives.

In order to do this, we wanted knowledge to be passed on with a focus on the organization, not the technology. Although students would be supplied with a technical note on the use of some of the technology, they would primarily gain knowledge through its use. We felt the learning should be centered on a project with deadlines and real accountability. It would be used to facilitate the work. Because of the location of the three universities involved, it would also have a global component by design.

To lend credibility to the organizational simulation, we would partner with a company that had a global information need that could be turned into a classroom project. This project would be developed by the "global organization"--made up of student teams located in each of three "subsidiaries." Students would be given control of available technology to help facilitate their work. To stress the need for collaboration, student teams would be held jointly accountable for the output of the project. This would involve joint evaluation across sites--requiring collaboration among facilitators as well. Finally, students would present the final product to the partnering company.

Course Design

A marketing project was selected as the vehicle for the course to coincide with the expertise of the planning team. The students would develop the plan for a global product, with parts of the project taking place within their local teams, and other parts requiring collaboration with the other countries.

The project was scheduled for a ten-week term. The first session would be a video-conferenced orientation, with a presentation by an executive from the partnering company. The objective of this session was to provide students with the opportunity to obtain information about the company and the project, and to clarify group goals. A facilitator-led discussion on team building was planned. This first exercise with the video-conferencing technology had the instructors leading the session, with the students playing a somewhat "passive" role. (see Figure 1)

The first month of the course would then be dedicated to local market research, with periodic video-conferences between the three sites to report local findings. These video meetings to share findings would be led by the students, with the purpose of exchanging information. We labeled this use of the technology "interactive." (see Figure 1)

Each of the sites would coordinate with local company representatives, and teams could send supplementary data between locations by electronic mail or fax as needed. During this time, weekly video-conferences would be conducted by professors covering marketing and organizational topics (discussion-based "lecturettes"). The output of this local phase would be three local marketing plans. (see Figure 2)

In week five, the local teams would combine with the other sites to create four global teams, each of which would bring their local expertise to bear on a global marketing issue. Each of the new global issue teams (GITs) would make a recommendation on the amount of global standardization desirable for their issue. (see Figure 2)

The GITs would communicate by electronic mail, FirstClass™ chat (interactive chat software allowing multiple users), file sharing, and 30 minute weekly video-conferences. These teams could choose how often they communicated and what medium they used [2]. The video-conferenced meetings for the GITs went beyond the "passive" or "interactive" intentions of earlier conferences, and focused on "collaboration." (see Figure 1)

The last two weeks of the course would be spent formulating a global plan, using input from the local plans and the GIT standardization recommendations (see Figure 2). This last phase would include a presentation to the company's executives.

It Can't Be That Easy...

Changes to the course came about while still in the planning stage, due to administrative constraints at the schools. The US school had a long-running student project that was similar to Global Rollout in context. This annual marketing project partnered student teams with global companies to create regional marketing plans. Instead of running a separate course, the school felt it better to tie Global Rollout into the existing course--adding the teams in the UK and Spain to the data gathering dimension, and including the additional learning experience involved with the distributed teams and technology.

A company was identified that was eager to have the additional resources from the European schools, and pleased to take part in the experiment. This company, Firm C, wanted an analysis of the market for their product in Europe. They already had a strong presence in North America, and wanted to expand the market in Europe.

The most evident problems with this proposal were a difference in calendar times and goals. The US project had already committed to begin in November and complete in April, while the course duration at the other two schools ran from January to mid-March. This implied not only that the US school would be well into the project by the time the others began, but that they also would be alone in delivering the final project to the company. In addition, the US students would be fulfilling the objectives of the international marketing project, which were slightly different from the objectives of Global Rollout. This could undermine one of the original goals of uniform grading of the final report, although collaboration could still take place between the faculty at the European schools.

This arrangement also presented a difficulty when Firm C revealed that they would not hold the European schools accountable for the final product. While this was seen as an opportunity to concentrate on the process rather than the product, it also indicated that the American students would be under different pressures. Also, with the data collection only being done in Europe, the role remaining for the US school would be one of direction and coordination. The European schools would in essence be subordinate subsidiaries to the US headquarters. This traditional hierarchy was not what we had in mind when we designed a course focusing on a distributed organization. After a lengthy discussion, it was decided to move ahead with this arrangement, recognizing that in many ways it was a better simulation of reality. It would give us the opportunity to see how to make empowered teams work in a hierarchical structure.

A final conflict came with the assignment of class session times. Due to scheduling constraints, each site had slightly different hours set aside for the course. This coupled with three different time zones had the result of each site having to make some sacrifices in order to come up with workable timetables for meetings.

Given the difficulties encountered in the planning stage (see Table 1), we decided to plunge forward, believing we still had the opportunity for an interesting learning experience. We realized that our plan had been based on different assumptions, and were willing to improvise if it no longer proved viable. The students concerned were in agreement. They understood that the course was of an experimental nature, and were willing to go wherever it might take us.

 

HOW IT WENT

Kick-off

The first session was to be an orientation, with the head of European operations for Firm C giving a short presentation of the firm from the US site. This was to be followed by an exercise on team building, facilitated by an instructor in Spain. The meeting would be a 3-way video-conference, with faculty at each end acting as moderators.

When the day arrived, mother nature intervened. The US experienced a record snowfall, to be followed days later by another. Before it was over, the school was closed for more than a week.

In the absence of the Americans, the other schools met as scheduled. The instructor-led exercise took place, but seemed lifeless. As it was the first video session, it is possible that there was some discomfort with the medium. When the session was turned over to the students to discuss the specific project, the energy level seemed to increase somewhat.

During this session, the two European schools discussed a preliminary strategy for tackling the local markets. In the week following this meeting, each local site divided into task groups and set about defining group structures and norms. They then began their local market data collection.

America Digs Out

As the USA shoveled out from under the snow, the Global Rollout schedule was already being challenged. The second week's video-conference was originally planned to be a lecture and discussion on a marketing topic. The lecture was canceled to give the teams an opportunity to meet for the first time.

The European students were excited to report on their progress, and were wanting to propose a general plan of action. Having not heard from the US team, they had charged ahead on their own, assuming (wrongly) that the Americans were not interested in leading the project.

Had the Americans been present at the first meeting, it is probable that they would have established a leadership role by virtue of their prior knowledge of the project. However, due to their absence and the subsequent group formation without them, they were established as the outsiders from the beginning. When they arrived at the end of the second week, they were unaware of the progress made by the subsidiary groups and were ready to establish their leadership role. The other groups, having already established a group structure of their own, resented the perceived "mandates" from headquarters. These power struggles set a tone for the remainder of the course.

The presence of a technical interface may have inhibited a smoothing over of the process, as it provided no opportunity for face-to-face social interaction to alleviate tension. In the absence of the face-to-face meeting, we made do with the technology, and relations did not improve.

Onward Ho

The course limped along as designed for a couple of more weeks, but the extended group never developed a rapport. The first of the GIT meetings was characterized by the local groups defining turf and posturing for leadership positions. After these first meetings, the US team decided it would be more productive if they worked independently, and opted out of the remainder of the GIT meetings. The pressure they were feeling to deliver an acceptable product to Firm C far outmatched their need to learn about distributed groups. The project was more important than the process.

By contrast, the European students were concerned primarily with learning about distributed teams, and secondarily with the marketing project. The exit of the American team was a blow to their virtual organization, but they felt they still had a great deal to learn about distributed teamwork. They remained in the global teams they had formed and began the collaboration process of recommending standardization in Europe for each of the global issues.

The small GIT groups had more success than the large classes in using the video for effective meetings, and the learning curve for them was steep. After the first few sessions, they seemed to forget the technology and automatically adapted to the technical glitches. They quickly developed a familiar rapport using the medium.

The relationship was further strengthened by the use of FirstClass™ chat sessions. Two of the teams scheduled on-line "chats" to hold follow-up meetings in the days between video-conferences. Not much task work was accomplished during these chats, but the students enjoyed them immensely. They were characterized by such comments as:

"So John, are you here to play around, or are you here to work?"
"I'm here to play around, why did you come?"
or
"Hey, who has a good joke?"
"I do, have you heard the one..."

While email was also used for communication among these groups, it tended to be very professional in nature. The chats, by contrast, satisfied a social need in the group that was not met through other forms of communication.

Finale

The European teams continued working together, and delivered a recommendation to the US team on European standardization of the product. In addition, each country provided a document on issues relevant only to their country. The Americans presented a preliminary plan to Firm C at a meeting in Paris in March. Representatives from the other schools also attended, but the presentation itself was handled by the US team.

The week before the meeting in Paris, the European students decided that the experience they had gained from working as a distributed global team could be of some value to Firm C. They took it upon themselves to draft a document detailing some of the difficulties they had run into. The focus of the document was a comparison of face-to-face versus technology-mediated group interaction. As this report was not part of the objectives set out by Firm C, it was included in the package of documents for the company, but was not presented in Paris. This was the end of the project, and the course, for the European teams. The US team took the recommendations made by Firm C during the Paris meeting, and incorporated them into the final document, which they presented to Firm C in April.

 

WHAT WE LEARNED

Team Building/Organizational Issues

The first opportunity for team building came with the first meeting, which the Americans missed. The team building exercise was performed by the other two teams, followed by a discussion of the project, but the session in general appeared to be "flat." Perhaps it was an initial discomfort with the technology that made the session seem unsuccessful, for despite the lack of energy, these two groups apparently benefited from the initial meeting, and formed a bond that was never established with the US team. The tone that was set up-front was of a serious nature, with attention given to task details rather than personal exchange. The teams were polite in their interaction with one another, and even friendly, but in a professional manner. We would see the relationship continue in this way throughout most of the course. The behavioral norm was established at the first meeting and continued through the life of the group (Feldman, 1984; Gersick, 1988).

By the time the American students were introduced to their European teammates, the direction of the group had already been set. By missing the crucial first meeting they were established as outsiders. It might have been possible to overcome this with time, but the many differences the teams faced, such as project goals, activities and deadlines (see Table 1), made this improbable.

Researchers in group theory state that the most important factor for building a team is to have an important and interesting task to offer--one that identifies a significant mission for the group and has immediate performance goals (Lawler & Cammann, 1977; Hackman, 1977; Kidder, 1981; Katzenbach & Smith, 1993; Leavitt & Lipman-Blumen, 1995). For intergroup activity, the existence of a superordinate goal is critical for merging groups into one, as team identity is more difficult to forge (Sherif, 1958). Given the lack of face-to-face interaction in the distributed teams, the need for such a task/goal combination became all the more apparent. While the final goal of the US team centered on delivering the project to the company, the focus for the Europeans was on the process. Evaluation (or performance goals) was also not aligned, as the sites were serving different masters and deadlines.

The technology and distance also created conditions, real or perceived, that inhibited team-building. Eye contact and body language that could be used to build trust were not discernible over the video links, and the distance made it easier to drop out of the process. When groups are connected only through technology, extra care should be taken in team-building exercises and providing opportunity for social fulfillment--an important factor in face-to-face teams (Halachmi, 1991). Local groups will set norms, learn to interact, and build their team identity not only in formal meetings, but also in hallways, lunchrooms, and after hours. A virtual team is challenged to perform these same functions across distance.

Contrary to what we originally expected, we did not find apparent differences between the groups due to national culture. This was best explained by the international makeup of each of the business schools, ensuring a heterogeneous mix at each site.

We did observe a distinct business school culture for each of the schools, and presumed that students in their second year of an MBA program have learned the preferred methods and norms of their school--they have learned the culture. We saw differences in the way the three groups handled such issues as delegation and consensus building. They also relied differently on the faculty, with one team looking to the instructors for guidance and acknowledgment, and another team preferring autonomy in performing their work.

Technological Issues

Our limited experience with the video technology revealed that few service providers were prepared at that time to offer multi-point video service between Europe and North America, given our variety of equipment and line types. The lack of international protocols for service and equipment made this a market that was still experiencing growing pains. We tried three common carriers (in the US and Europe) before we finally found one that was both willing and able to link us successfully on 3-way connections.

The video sessions seemed to be marked by "flat" interaction, particularly in the "talking head" scenario of lectures. The technology did not seem well-suited for passive participation. Technical problems such as blurring, delayed response, and problems with voice-activated site switching caused awkwardness and lack of spontaneity in the groups, even when participation was interactive. During the collaborative sessions, students became more involved in the process and seemed less disturbed by the technical hiccups.

We found the sharing of documents to be a problem during video meetings. Document viewers were tested, but the resolution for text documents was poor--they were better utilized for overheads and graphs. The availability of on-line computer terminals or fax machines in the video-conference rooms would have been ideal.

We learned to test the video connection thirty minutes prior to every call. Meetings will fail if there are problems with technology, and at the time, reliability did not seem to exist. For 3-way meetings, we learned to mute our voice activated system when we were not speaking. The voice activation is really noise activation, which can cause the video screen to jump back and forth between sites every time a pencil is dropped close to a microphone. This is not only distracting, but also confusing, as uncertainty arises as to which site is speaking.

Some problems were experienced when sending documents between Macintosh and Windows-based systems. These problems pointed out the importance of setting standards for document transfer ahead of time, and making sure everyone is aware of what those standards are and how to use them.

The students that experimented with chat reported a lack of control in those sessions. As the sessions were used to vent a need for "social expression," this was not seen as an acute problem. However, for the technology to be utilized in an orderly manner, procedures should be established to designate a moderator, specify signals to indicate when someone finishes speaking, etc. Such procedures would provide some process structure and eliminate the chaos that appeared in the playful sessions.

We believe that students were influenced by the presence of the technology. The students seemed to look forward to distributed group meetings for Global Rollout, despite the scheduling conflicts that were created with other classes. Although the positive reaction to such meetings could have been due to a general propensity toward the course, the project, or the other group members, we suspect the lure of the technology played a part.

 

CONCLUSION

In the end, it was determined by both students and faculty that the real learning in the project came not in developing a marketing plan, but in the process of learning about distributed teamwork. The European students felt the course had been a success, perhaps because of their successful partnering with each other. They were quite contemplative about the experience, and felt they had learned a great deal about managing across distance.

In the team document that they presented to Firm C, they wrote that the technology, while making communication over distance possible, was not as effective as face-to-face meetings in team-building:

"There is some magic to personal meetings that can simply not be achieved by indirect ones, especially in terms of creating personal relationships between team members."[3]

Much as they felt face-to-face meetings were more effective, they did learn how to manage the technology quite well. They looked forward to their weekly conferences, and made good use of their meeting time. They gained confidence in the use of the file server and email capabilities. It was not apparent that they learned to use the chat feature effectively for business purposes, but it did serve as an outlet for socialization--something they had not provided for with their use of the other technologies. The Europeans utilized technology to help fulfill the needs of their extended group, and were thus able to maintain a cohesion that the larger group could not.

Questionnaires returned by the American students showed that they did not share the same satisfaction with the course. The American team was placed at a disadvantage from the start. They were set apart from the other groups by the very design of the undertaking. Their head-start on the project and their relationship with the company made it impossible for the teams to look at each other as equals. Their position as leaders was never accepted by the other schools, and resentment built from the outset. The intervention by mother nature in the initial team meeting, a critical one for setting group direction, helped to solidify this separation.

The want of a superordinate goal was a critical factor in the global group's failure to stay together. Added to that was the lack of mutual accountability and evaluation, decreasing even more the chances of building an effective team. The introduction of technology as the means of communication may have limited the opportunities to repair the shaky relationship.

Technologies such as video-conferencing and groupware are intended to enhance communication over distance, but they may not always be suitable substitutes for being in the same place at the same time. Both the successful European team, and the unsuccessful global team agreed that relationships were better built using face-to-face communication. That said, what we observed was that organizational issues played a far greater role in the successful functioning of the distributed teams. When attention was paid to team-building factors--common goals, accountability and evaluation-- the technology became an enabler, not a limitation (see Table 2).

Suggestions for Practitioners

Organizational factors should be addressed before establishing globally distributed teams. Extra care should be taken in the planning stages to ensure goals are clearly defined, and that mechanisms are in place for evaluation and assignment of accountability. Once the team is designated, these procedures should be clearly articulated to all members, even to the point of redundancy. Misunderstandings and miscommunication can usually be overcome in face-to-face encounters, but are more difficult to reconcile over distance.

If technology is being used as the means of communication, reliability must be established from the start. In addition, training might be required to familiarize participants with the features and limitations of each technology. Groups may adapt their use of the technology to meet their own group needs (both task and social); the amount of adaptation will depend on the culture of the organization, and the needs of the group. If goals, accountability and evaluation are aligned, and the technological tools are available and understood, distributed groups can be expected to use the tools effectively to accomplish their objectives.

Suggestions for Further Research

Finally, despite the technical and social problems associated with the technology, we found it to be a key factor in drawing students to the course. The technology was seductive, and this probably influenced students' behavior. We assume this will wear off as students become more familiar with the use of these different technologies for communication. We suspect that future studies in this area may provide different results.

 

NOTES

1 The authors wish to thank JoAnne Yates, Rafael Yahalom, Nils Fonstad, and the anonymous reviewers for comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

2 Due to scheduling restrictions and cost, video conferences were limited to one 30 minute session per group per week.

3 Extracted from the IESE team document on working in distributed global teams, written in March of 1996.

 

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Paper presented at the presented at the 1998 midyear meeting of the Association for Information Science, May 17-20, 1998, Orlando, Florida.


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