In the late 1980s, one of the authors of this article was director of the distance learning program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York. This was before the term online learning had ever been used, and RPI’s graduate programs were shared with industry using TV-like production facilities and satellite broadcasts. A faculty member who taught in this program wanted to use a new and exotic piece of hardware in the classroom that took some time to figure out and integrate. That device? A mouse!
One cannot overestimate the impact that technological advances, the emergence of the Internet, and the realities of a global economy have had on learning and working during a few short decades. In fact, we refer to this profound and pervasive change as a “new sociology of work.” Today’s workers find themselves in global enterprises and on teams that are cross-cultural in nature and interact in virtual, technology-driven environments. It seems appropriate to ask if we are adequately preparing both leaders and team members with the knowledge and skills required to succeed in this environment.
The cost of not asking this question is great. Mergers, acquisitions, and joint ventures that fail due to cultural misunderstanding result in the loss of billions of dollars. Cross-cultural communication breakdowns, fueled by the lack of context and connection that can characterize virtual communication approaches, contribute to breakdown of trust and failed projects. And yet research indicates that less than 16 percent of employees in multinational organizations who work virtually have had any specific preparation or training for this work.
The good news is that a body of knowledge for successfully leading and performing effectively on global virtual teams is emerging. We are beginning to identify the best practices of high-performing global virtual teams and the attributes of those who can lead them successfully across the demanding virtual, cross-cultural terrain they navigate. We also know that the payoffs can be great. Those who can harness the inherent creativity of varying cultural perspectives have the opportunity to lead through innovation.
A recently developed training program called Leading Global Virtual Teams has identified what we consider to be the top success factors for global virtual teams. These success factors draw on a meta-analysis of the literature and the examination of hundreds of cases involving global virtual teams in corporate environments. The program is based on a model that considers the fact that:
- the work is carried out virtually
- the work is often carried out across cultural differences
- these two phenomena interact in interesting ways.
The model further depicts the critical role of trust and leadership in tying all of this together for productive team outcomes. Emerging from this model are some useful tips for team leaders and members to apply. A couple of these tips are:
- Emphasize strong team startup with the goal of alignment and building relationships. We all know that first impressions matter, but this is especially important in the case of global virtual teams. Team leaders need to create a robust team that’s built on connection, purpose, and mutual accountability. They should consider the kinds of activities that will gain the commitment of far-flung team members. The goal is to consciously build a form of “swift trust” that will sustain the team through challenging times ahead. Leaders should consider writing a team charter, which answers the question: Why does this team exist? Likewise, a team operating agreement is critical; it answers the question: How will this team go about conducting its work?
- Stress mindful use of collaboration technologies. Mindfulness is a term that has its roots in Zen Buddhist meditation, but it has entered the American mainstream in recent years. It relates to bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience or moment. We find it a useful concept for cross-cultural and virtual work. It is the opposite of the knee-jerk response, in which we act instinctively without considering the context of the moment. Those who navigate successfully across cultures are mindful of their own cultural approaches and how they might affect others. In applying this concept to the use of collaboration technologies, we are calling upon people to consciously create and construct the cyberspace environment of their team to support the required communication tasks. In brick-and-mortar places we often take care to design the space to support and enhance work. Cyberspace is the equivalent for global virtual teams—and yet we often grab the technologies at hand without careful thought to the nature of the space we are creating.
These tips are just two examples of the many concrete, practical ways to improve the effectiveness of global virtual teams. It is critical that team leaders devote the necessary time for team building and training. The ties that bind virtual teams together can be fragile across time, distance, and culture. But we firmly believe that virtual environments can be humanized and that connection, creativity, and true collaboration can be accomplished in global virtual teams.
If you have any best practices for training global virtual teams, questions, or cases to share, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or share them in the comments. We’d like to include them in future articles that address this important topic.