Organizations identified for the virtual team projects had a defined set of requirements for the information systems they envisioned. The virtual work teams assigned to create the systems conducted thorough analysis before embarking on development. Each team wrote a narrative description of the project in order to clarify scope and direction. Teams also specified resource requirements and assessed the feasibility of the project. Finally, each team developed a baseline project plan to manage the progress of the work. The following passages provide information regarding team interactions throughout the initiation and planning stage of system development.
Initial communication between team members occurred in the form of a discussion posting that provided names and contact information for the Norwegian team members. Along with contact information came a promise that members from Norway would "post some lines about [themselves] individually" and a request that "it would be nice if [U.S. members] could do the same." Eight out of ten of the team members quickly provided information about themselves ranging from topics of age, personal interests, favorite movies or music, and relevant skills and experience. A few members included links to personal Web sites or attached photos of themselves. Most of these initial postings concluded with the team members expressing their excitement about the project and enthusiasm about working with the various members (e.g., "I look forward to working with all of you. I feel confident that we can learn from each other!")
Less than 48 hours after the first discussion posting was made, the team began sharing information regarding the project. Members in the United States initially took the lead in this area, as they had direct access to client. All documentation received from the client was posted in shared file sections to inform all members of project communication. This practice proved especially valuable because team members who were unable to participate in some sessions still had access to project information.
Sessions followed a pattern of structured, task oriented, focused communication on detailed aspects of the project (e.g., "we should develop a front-end in Access that will allow the users to do simple things"). These sessions were used to assess tasks to be accomplished, coordinate project ideas, and establish responsibilities (e.g., "Sounds good in theory, let's explore the different possibilities locally in the group and get back to you on choice of language"). These conversations were also used to establish timelines for the completion of tasks (e.g., "I'll do both then, expect it around 24 hours.") Chat communications were sometimes used to express opinions on previous suggestions; (e.g., "someone mentioned writing up a contract [with the client] that goes into more detail. I think that would be a good idea.")
Team B's objective was to develop a Web-based scheduling system for the sport and recreation division. Initial communication between the teams occurred via a discussion posting. This initial communiqué was strictly task-related and offered no introduction to the project or team. Subsequent introductory messages by the team members followed a similar pattern of focusing on details of the client or project. Personal information about team members was not offered or shared by the members.
Messages posted to the discussion section of the collaborative tool were very short and to the point during this phase of the project, often only consisting of a few words (e.g., "I have posted proposal and client information in the shared files section of WebCT™ Post any questions you may have"; "I don't see a file posted. Could you try again?"). Posts almost always focused on project related topics. Most posts didn't even include salutatory introductions.
Team B utilized the chat capabilities of the web collaboration tool and chatted at least once a week. During the first phase of the project, chat sessions were used to clarify project details and establish rules of communication. The members initially used sessions to assign and clarify team roles. Chat sessions usually began with greetings, but quickly transitioned to conversations regarding project topics. Generally one of the team members suggested, "We should probably talk about the project now." Or, "okay, we need to talk about the deliverable now." Such transitions effectively cut off all social interactions. Conversation rarely reverted to social communications of any kind other than to say, "Good bye, have a good rest of the day."
Nine days after the first communication posting, a Norwegian member of the team posted a message containing personal information: "A few facts about myself: I am a girl - I do not think my name is used in USA, so this might be useful information. I am studying for a master's degree. I will hopefully finish my master thesis in December—almost one year from now. I am writing a paper on estimating work in software projects by using UML Use Cases." This message was followed by similar postings from two other members of the team. Of the ten-member team, only four members provided any substantial personal information to the team throughout the duration of the project.
After one month, a team member from the United States posted the following message: "I must unfortunately tell you all that I cannot continue with the virtual project. I have been assigned to other projects that require my full attention at this time. I hope that you understand. I wish you all the best of luck and success in the future." Only one member of the team bothered to respond to the post saying simply, "Good luck to you." Apart from this message and the personal information shared by a few members of Team B, all message posts focused on the project and contained no social communication.
As project deadlines approached the frequency of discussion postings increased. Messages focused on which members would complete which parts of the next project deliverable. Questions regarding clarification of client expectations or information to be included in the deliverable were often asked via discussion postings. These sorts of "informational" posts were usually answered promptly.
Initial interaction within the team occurred via messages posted to the discussion forum. Messages originated from Norwegian members who provided brief introduction of themselves, limited personal information, and contact information. Members from the United States replied to the postings by providing similar information as well as expressing excitement for the project—"I just wanted to say we all look forward to working with you." Discussion postings continued over the following weeks. For the most part postings were short, establishing rules and norms for the project. Most of the communications were uni-directional whereby one side initiated the communication with the other watching, feeling uncomfortable to interact, or simply indicating their own presence on a particular communications channel (Lau et al., 2000).
After a few weeks, the team planned its first interactive chat session. The session focused on defining tasks necessary to successfully complete the project. Team members exchanged information regarding the project —"Well, we can create ASP web pages to access the information from a local database, or we could create a program that would allow them to enter info as well as extract it." These sessions represented the first real use of bi-directional communication between team members. In bi-directional communication, both local and remote members talk past each other in exchanging task or socially related information. Information is shared but responses are not meaningful and members' circumstances and priorities are not considered (Lau et al., 2000). In fact, members ostensibly engaged in chat where not devoting much attention to the chat—"Sorry, I got distracted—now I am back" "Sorry about that I am at work;" "ahh, I am at work too." Similarly, a few conversations occurred at the same time creating cross-talk and indicating a lack of attention/care to the ideas and questions being provided by different team-members.
Later conversations involved the sharing of personal information, humor and stories. The group discussed upcoming members' weddings, personal interests, even public transportation. Conversations such as these seemed to establish a social foundation and allow group member to move into a mutual communication pattern evident in the high degree of social cohesion in the group.
Following introductions, the team worked to establish a convenient time to hold synchronous chat sessions. Unfortunately, the group was unable to determine a time when all members of the team were available to participate. In the end, a time was selected that excluded at least two members from the online discussions. Prior to the first chat session, a member of the Norwegian contingent posted a message to the discussion forum. The post provided an agenda for the chat session. One of the agenda items indicated members of the U.S. contingent were to design and build a prototype for the system. A deadline for completion of the task was also provided. Team members from the United States had no prior knowledge of this prototype. One U.S.-based member stated, "I felt as if the Norwegian members were delegating project tasks to us without seeking information or collaboration from the United States-based members. They were assigning us tasks to complete without seeking any knowledge of our capabilities and/or skills. It was frustrating to be told to complete certain tasks. Had they bothered to ask, they would have discovered we did not have the required skills or knowledge to complete the task as assigned."
This chat was task-oriented with little social communication. Early in the chat, Norwegian members took a strong leadership role dictating how United States members would be participating in the project. The following comment from a Norwegian member is representative of the entire dialogue: "One of the deliverables is a design document, how do you plan to develop this document?" "When making the design you will not specify a programming language." Frustration in the United States group developed because they felt as if they did not have a say in the project. According the U.S. contingent, "the Norwegians had defined the role of U.S. members as laborers whose primary job was to focus on the grunt work of the project."
By the second chat, frustrations had swelled. This feeling was magnified when United States members asked a question regarding an upcoming project deliverable. Norwegian members responded by saying, "I thought that was our deliverable." This interaction provided the first indication that the two groups were destined to participate in the project as two separate teams working on one project. The attitude was prevalent for the remainder of the project and proved a serious obstacle in the team's ability to successfully attain project goals. For the remainder of the chat, the members of United States asked questions regarding the project and expressed confusion regarding the answers provided. One member from United States commented, ‘We expressed the desire to learn more about the client and the project and were told the Norwegian members would take care of that area. This was extremely frustrating because we felt we didn't have any say in the project and were just being delegated work.”
Following this first chat, team members from the United States contacted project facilitators and expressed concerns that they were not being provided the opportunity to contribute to the overall project. They perceived that Norwegian members felt that United States members' skills were inadequate to contribute in any significant way. When facilitators communicated this concern to the Norwegian team members, they quickly responded via a discussion posting. One member of the Norwegian team stated, "I am really sorry if you got the impression yesterday that your skills are not adequate." A more in-depth explanation of the project followed but did not address issues of collaboration and teamwork. At best, the comments only added more details as to what Norwegian members expected of the United States members.
The purpose of this phase in the development of the information systems projects was to analyze details of the current operations and outline problems, bottlenecks, opportunities and other issues present in the existing systems. Logical and physical design documents were created to layout system requirements and design specifications. Project teams develop strategies for acquiring or building the new systems described in Phase 1. Finally, project teams identified functional specifications such that programmers could develop the required systems. Project deliverables from this phase of the system development required significant investments in time and effort on the part of all team members.
As the project moved into Phase II, discussion postings continued at a steady pace. Posts were used to convey new information about the project and chat transcripts. However, after about six weeks, the communication began to change significantly. The team began to test the social aspects of the group to help understand the personalities of virtual members. This shift from task communication to social communication was first evident during a chat with a conversation regarding "Americans and lawsuits." Both sides joked about the potential for the system's vulnerability to lawsuits and that it might be wise to hire Johnny Cochran to represent the group. This conversation was followed by emoticons to convey personal emotions (e.g., LOL, ;-), hehehe). After a short discussion the conversation was refocused and the group "got down to business."
Similar instances of group members using humor to help uncover the personalities of members followed in the chats to come. The group joked about the time of day the chats were taking place, Member A - I'd say owl for us :); Member B - owl? Member A - It is pitch dark here; Member B - Bat time for you = owl time for us. (No big deal LOL). By the middle of the second phase of the project these exchanges of jokes and humor had become a significant part of chat sessions. Most chat session began with a few extensive conversations of humor and joking around before any actual project topics were discussed. This pattern continued throughout the remainder of the project. As the team members began to understand each other's personalities the exchanges became more tailored to the various individuals. One member of the team commented that this
"Shift to a more social communication pattern created an environment for a more open form of communication. The environment was then one where members could be constructively critical of ideas and thoughts without the fear of stepping on the toes of group members. This new social attitude also allowed for an environment in which ideas flowed with more freedom. While this didn't add much efficiency to the chats, the content of the conversations was much richer."
By the second phase of the project, discussion postings had grown in length and detail. Messages were typically specific to the project, frequently including detailed questions for specific members of the team. Roles and task assignments were assigned and posted as deliverable deadlines approached. Members of the team completed assigned tasks individually and asked questions to group-members as necessary. Chat sessions continued to take place at least once each week. Unlike the chat sessions in Phase I, little or no small talk occurred. Conversations were strictly task-based.
Project progress and communication slowed down as United States members took time off for vacations. Upon their return, team momentum lagged. Frustration within the team grew becoming obvious when miscommunications regarding task assignments were uncovered:
"The screen designs was our task … it is unnecessary that both local teams spent time doing this. At the chat meeting we said you could send or fax what you've made so that we could get some ideas. You were not supposed to complete this task—this was a task assigned to the Norwegian team." This message did not elicit a response from any member of the U.S.-based team. In fact, no action was taken to address the miscommunication and/or misunderstanding.
As the project progressed through the first phase and into Phase II, Team C continued to utilize all of the collaboration tools available in WebCT™ Messages were frequently posted to the discussion forum. These messages usually consisted of short bits of information such as updates on deliverables status, system status or schedule of chat sessions. Substantial discussion rarely took place via the discussion forum.
Chat sessions remained the primary method of communication. However, after several weeks of working together, the chat sessions began to shift drastically from the task orientation present in Phase I to an orientation that included much more social communication. One session consisted entirely of conversations about the ages of team members, birthdays, the structure of higher education systems, recent and future travels, even wolves and cougars—"Cougars are dangerous, I think. Wolves are not, not to humans anyway." These dialogues played an important role in the group's ability to understand each other's norms, values and experiences as well as shift the group communication pattern from bi-directional to mutual communication in which group members were "talking to each other" in a substantive fashion. The shift in orientation illustrated team members respect for each other and demonstrated the ability of each team member to consider individual circumstances later in the project.
At one point, social conversations encompassed approximately 75% of the chat session conversations. At times, non-project-related discussions dominated the dialogues so much that project tasks were not being addressed. In one instance a group member wrote, "I have to go in 15 minutes … could we go on?" After the request a few project points were discussed, but the conversation quickly reverted to more social topics. This pattern of putting social conversation first continued through phase two. Evidence of the lack of task focus began to frustrate some team members. In one session, members had to ask three times if they could begin discussing the project before the group began. "I think it is important that we decide it pretty quick as we don't have much time left," "ok … we should move on," "we need to move on …" Misunderstanding and confusion also surfaced as social conversation obscured project tasks – "sorry about the confusion, it made sense to us, but I guess we didn't think it through well enough."
By the second phase of the project team, cohesion had declined and frustration was increasing among members of Team D. Due to scheduling difficulties, some members of the team had yet to attend a single chat session. Consequently, they were unknown to remote group members. Progress was slow due to the lack of communication between group members. Six weeks into the project, the team used a chat session to finally set standards for document control. Shortly after this session, the problems that had developed within the team were brought to the surface and discussed. During one of the chat sessions a Norwegian team member expressed, "[United States]: we are sorry for not including you more in the earlier deliverables, was that a problem for you?" A U.S.-based team member responded, "Well, we'd like to start working on the prototype now." It became evident that roles had not defined very well. Communication was lacking on both sides. Norwegian members felt they were communicating while United States members felt they were on hold, waiting to be told when to participate. In fact, team members from the United States weren't listed as team members on project deliverables, nor did they have assigned roles. Both sides of the group agreed to communicate more often and become more actively involved.
Late in the second phase of the project, it appeared the team had come together to work as one entity rather than two. The group had an extensive dialogue regarding the next deliverable and how the work was to be divided. Initially, Norwegian members suggested that United States unit do the majority of the work and they would help where needed, ("We have also been looking at the next deliverable. Hopefully, we can take some of the work off you. However, this is only if you want to. We are more than confident that you can manage!") A few discussion postings later this approach had changed and Norwegian members proposed to work on six aspects of the deliverable and suggested United States produce the remaining two. All members of the group agreed that the matter should be discussed further and scheduled a chat session during which all members would attend. Unfortunately, all nine members of the group failed to recognize that time changed due to daylight savings time. Groups arrived to chat at different times.
The miscommunication allowed each side of the group to chat among themselves as they waited for the remote members to arrive. During one of these conversations, a Norwegian member discussed the quality of output produced by their United States counterparts— "what they have done is repetition of what we have done earlier." This comment led a few members of the group to becoming possessive. One Norwegian mentioned "our text" and asked, "why can't they just refer to our old deliverable?" At this point in the conversation, a team member pointed out, "We are suppose to work as one group, not two." It was clear to everyone that this principle was not being put into action by the team as a whole.
The final phase of the project involved writing code according to specifications defined in Phase II and documenting the system for future users. Teams developed working systems with documented code, test procedures, test results and maintenance and users manuals. The virtual teams delivered final project deliverables via ISDN lines and Microsoft NetMeeting. Videoconferencing allowed all team members to participate in showcasing their work. Upon delivery of the final project documents, team members were asked to reflect on their experience working in a virtual cross-cultural environment.
The third phase required teams needed to be highly interactive in order to accomplish all required tasks in the short time frame available to complete the projects. The stress was clearly evident in some groups, less so in others.
The project team worked diligently to complete the system for the client. By the end of April, the group had successfully created a system that met and exceeded user-defined needs. Over all, the group expressed excitement with the final results and that it was delivering a quality product. All members of the team participated in the final presentation. The videoconference was the first time group members interacted in a face-to-face environment. However, team members had interacted frequently throughout the project using discussion forums and interactive chat sessions. Team members were familiar with personalities, norms, and values. Consequently, the group was able to deliver a presentation as one group working toward the same goal. The final project presentation was entirely task oriented. The usual jokes and pats on the back were not evident to the audience. Nonetheless, following the final presentation and delivery of the system to the client, all members posted messages to the discussion forum echoing congratulations on a great project and gratitude for the hard work done by all members.
As the project entered the third and final phase, Team B's communication remained largely task-oriented. Attempts at social interaction were made when Norwegian members of the team posted pictures of themselves working on the project. However, only one member of the U.S. contingent responded to the posting—seven days after they were initially posted! Chat session occurred more frequently in this phase of the project as the team prepared for system delivery. Frustrations that had not been previously addressed continued to escalate over time leading to a near breakdown. Frustrated with the lack of communication and involvement coming from U.S. members, Norwegian members wrote a note expressing their frustrations. When members in the United States read these comments, one member posted a personal apology. "I want to start of by apologizing for my lack of communication over the past few weeks." The team member went on by reassuring the group of her commitment to the project—"I am willing to put in as much time as needed to make this project successful so please let me know anything I can do and I will get it done." The post drew a response from one member of the team and participation increased after the exchanges.
Team B presented the final product using NetMeeting (application sharing) and ISDN-based videoconferencing. After the presentation, team members posted messages to the discussion forum expressing their thoughts about the final project and the over-all experience. "Nice to finally talk to you all ‘face-to-face’," "I have had a great time working on this project and getting to know everyone. I think we did an amazing job and pulled off some great work." Follow-up posts were scant and never drew responses from other team members.
As the group moved into the final phase of the project, they found themselves in a rush to finish the system as they had spent little time focused on task details in the second phase of the project. Three months into the project, they were finally able to declare that they "have a good understanding of the project now," and "should be able to handle things from here." The late start on project work caused members to become frustrated and anxious—"we are experiencing some set backs here … kind of frustrating for us." The massive social interactions from previous phases seemed to be pulling the team apart. Fortunately, they played an important role in keeping the team together. In a weekly chat session, team members discovered that the client organization had gone bankrupt. Group members expressed disbelief and surprise, but the social relationships served to bond team members. Despite the clients impending demise, Team C made a decision to continue the project and deliver a solution reasoning that their solution could be useful as part of a future system. The individuals facilitating the virtual team environment agreed to continue with their sponsorship as well. One team member expressed her hope that the team could "manage to keep the spirit and complete the system even with the bad news." Others replied that the team should be "motivated by the challenge of the system, not delivery of the final project." All members agreed that they would make the best of a worse case. Here, the social bonds established in earlier project phases worked to hold the team together even the midst of a significant negative event.
Despite monumental eleventh-hour efforts to develop and code the applications, the team had produced a system that only partially met the specifications originally outlined by the client. Evidence of the social bond that had developed during early stages was evident in the final videoconference in which the both sides of the team interacted with comfort and ease. After the final delivery, members of the team posted closing remarks to the discussion forum expressing gratitude for the hard work and well wishes for the future.
By the final phase of the project, the team had almost completely split into two separate teams. Distrust and dissatisfaction led the team to conclude their best alternative was to try and deliver a prototype of a working system to the client. It was evident a full-fledged working system simple wasn't in the cards. Ironically, Norwegian members had assigned the task of building a prototype to United States members early on in the project. In fact, one United States member dedicated substantial time and effort to developing the prototype using information from deliverables and information provided in chats and discussions. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts and the lack of interaction in virtual space resulted in a prototype that was inconsistent with system requirements. After many long hours and significant struggle, the U.S. contingent was able to develop a prototype. Meanwhile, Norwegian members turned their attention to developing a final presentation for delivery of the project. The group divided the presentation - each side focusing on topics they were familiar with. Norwegian members discussed the analysis phase of the project. Members from the U.S. focused their presentation on the prototype. As a result of their efforts, U.S. team members were able to present a "successful prototype." However, when evaluated on communication and group cohesion evidence throughout the duration of the project, "success" appeared to be limited. In fact, the existence of any prototype at all was largely attributable to one or two individuals who took it upon themselves to develop a satisfactory product.