Communication is defined as the transfer of some type of a message that contains one or more pieces of information. That information can be conveyed through either formal channels or informal channels. The nature of the information can be either technical or personal. Thus, the full spectrum of communication includes the following categories:

  • Formal communication: Status reports , plans, specifications, legal documents, letters , formal reviews, and forecasts

  • Informal communication: Memos, conversations, e- mails , and phone calls

  • Technical communication: Project-specific information, product specifications, and component descriptions

  • Personal communication: Typically information that is not officially concerned with the project

A given instance of information exchange might include all of the above characteristics during the course of that exchange. For example, many of the above attributes can be found in team meetings, in one-on-one meetings between the project manager and an individual team member, in one-on-one meetings between team members , on bulletin boards , in videoconferencing, in internal publications , and in newsletters. Some argue that the inclusion of each of the above features in a technical and/or project meeting contributes to the cohesiveness and trust among team members. It is further argued that virtual-specific meetings should be held regularly in order to nourish the people side of the project. The trademark of a sophisticated virtual team is that there are unique virtual-specific procedures in place whereby trust and cooperation can be established among the team members without the requirement of face-to-face meetings. Whether a team is collocated or virtual, open communication among its members is critical to the success of the project team.

The image depicted by regular face-to-face communication between employees of the same department in the same organization typifies a traditional, co-located team. Further, it is commonly accepted that working in a traditional team, in physical proximity with other team members, will reinforce social similarity, shared values, and expectations. Informal communication, such as that which might take place around a water cooler or coffee pot, is eliminated when the team is geographically dispersed. Such casual communication is not available to the virtual project team, since the team members will rarely, if ever, see one another. Another subtle advantage of proximity is that collocation increases the anxiety pressure resulting from the possibility of failing to meet commitments (Latane et al., 1994). Presumably, this anxiety increases the likelihood of success.

Larger teams tend to be afflicted with more communications barriers, particularly if there are multiple specialties within the team. Consequently, in large complex projects, as much effort may be directed toward communication and coordination as toward carrying out the required technical tasks (Frame, 1995). As a result, when an inordinate amount of time is spent sending and receiving messages, team efficiency declines. Therefore, as a courtesy to other team members, and for purposes of efficiency, communication should be purposeful and intentional. Further, to foster the habit of communicating with one another, project information must be communicated on a regular basis, although at times it might be in response to the occurrence of specific events.

At the other end of the spectrum, research has shown that collocation practices increase the opportunities for communication (Allen, 1977) and that distance inhibits communication. This research showed that people sitting 40 meters apart had only a 5% probability of communicating at least once a week. The percentage did not increase until the distance between the parties decreased to 8 meters . Then, team members would be more likely to communicate and collaborate. This research demonstrates the challenges faced in communication on virtual project teams, primarily because the distances are such that face-to-face communication is nonexistent, a rarity at best. Additionally, communication inadequacies are more damaging in virtual teams because of reduced personal access and because of a natural tendency to rely on nonverbal communication clues (Guss, 1997). Therefore, new or modified team processes and procedures must be formulated in order to maintain a healthy flow of communication within the team, in spite of the significant physical separation (Figure 3.2). After the team forms, team members must be continually aware of, and sensitive to, the fact that conventional human interaction is scarce in virtual teams (Figure 3.3). This is not to say that people do not make personal connections, just that modified or new venues must be employed to achieve personal connections. In traditional and virtual teams alike, one of the beneficial side effects of regular communication is that it imparts to the project team members the comfort of being physically and emotionally connected with the other members of the project team. The virtual team, however, may need more frequent communications so that team members continue to feel connected, especially since many of the virtual team interactions are asynchronous. Naturally, not everyone needs to communicate with everyone else on all topics.

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Figure 3.2: Communication


Traditional Teams

Virtual Teams

Hard Date

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Written Procedures

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Unwritten Rules

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Voice Tonality

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Facial Expression

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Body Language

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Social Interaction

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Figure 3.3: Human Interaction

If clarification or additional information is required during a communication of a collocated team, quite often the sender can sense that requirement from nonverbal clues. Moreover, if the sender does not notice the clues that signal the need for clarification, it is relatively easy for the receiver to explicitly ask for clarification or additional information. Even if the recipient of the communication fails to actually say something, one can observe how he or she reacts to what was said, and the nonverbal reaction may convey significant meaning. In other words, in face-to-face communication, it is easier to take responsibility for content transferences because both parties can pay attention to feedback at the time the communication occurs. Then, by analyzing the feedback, adjustments can be made. Literature shows that words only comprise 7% of the total impact of a message, with vocal tones representing 38% and facial expressions 55% (Meharabian, 1968). Verbal data, complemented and qualified by nonverbal clues in the face-to-face environment, transmit that status of our moods and emotions (Figure 3.4). Literature further indicates that the manner by which the message is delivered is sometimes more important than the specific verbal content of the message. Therefore, in order to receive the full set of available data, all project team members must practice active listening. However, considering the constraints of virtual teams, a medium-specific variation of active listening should be developed for virtual team members.

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Figure 3.4: Team Communication Clues for Meaning

While face-to-face communication of a collocated team is almost always sender controlled, distance communication of a virtual team is primarily receiver controlled. Therefore, one cannot assume that because a message was sent, it was received. For example, if you call someone on the phone, the person may choose not to answer your call in the first place or might choose to terminate the call at any time. If you send an e-mail to another person, he or she might choose not to open it or might open it but choose to read it at a later time. By comparison, in face-to-face communication, it is difficult for the receiver not to hear the message and/or not to respond. Finally, given that most of the virtual project information is exchanged in an asynchronous mode, the reader is usually left to his or her own devices to interpret the material, thus creating another level of complexity for virtual communications.

In any type of communication, and particularly in a virtual team environment, the receiver must accept the transfer in order for the communication to occur. The next complication is that it is easy for the receiver to filter the information and mentally register selected portions of the communication. If this behavior is allowed to continue, there is a likelihood that some team members will perpetuate a state of isolation from the virtual project team by avoiding all but the required forms of communication. Conversely, other people might feel that they really are contributing to overall project success if they bombard the team with lots of information even if some of that information is only tangentially related to the project. These team members may feel that extensive information exchange helps to demonstrate their commitment to the project. Thus, they end up focusing on the quantity, rather than the quality, of communications. Furthermore, it would be inaccurate to assume that all people on a team will use the information they receive in the same way. In reality, some people may feel that certain information is important and requires immediate attention, while others put that specific information in a file with other project documents and regard it as something that is nice to know but not necessarily important.

The traditional process of walking someone through the comprehension of a topic obviously does not exist in the virtual mode, at least not in that exact form. Therefore, the impact of errors, even minute ones, is magnified, because there is no opportunity for a continuous stream of questions and answers, as there is with traditional teams. Consequently, there is extraordinary pressure, at least compared to traditional teams, to be accurate, succinct, clear, and direct in all items of information that are transmitted to other team members. Different levels of energy also are present at the time of communication (e.g., 9:00 a.m. in the U.S eastern time zone is different than 4:00 p.m. in parts of Europe). Therefore, some methods to enable the virtual team to develop cohesion, in the absence of face-to-face communication, are required. These methods are relatively easy to use, although team members need to be careful to use only those methods that are appropriate and effective in the special circumstances of that team. Hopefully, these behavioral modifications will open new windows for positive change.

Efficient communication techniques, and strategies to ensure team member involvement, are more desirable in virtual projects. Thus, if the team, as a group , has set clearly documented project goals and business outcomes , these planning documents can form a subtle but effective foundation for collaborative project work. These collaborations and communications will ultimately serve as unifying motivators for all stakeholders, thus establishing a more direct link between project objectives and organizational goals. Since communication is more delicate in the virtual team than in its traditional counterpart , a project communications management plan and a training course, focused on communication issues, will be very useful. A typical training course could cover the following:

  • Use of relevant communication modes and media

  • Enhancement of interpersonal communication skills

  • Methods to prioritize communications

  • Methods to address concerns and issues instead of personalities

  • Effective use of e-mail

  • Methods to facilitate meetings

  • The importance of active listening

  • Skills for consensus building

  • Techniques for group problem solving

3.1.1 Cross-Cultural Issues

Project managers in the virtual environment must pay attention to cultural differences and recognize their effect on team members' values, attitudes, and behavior. Cultural differences are inevitable in projects that use virtual team members from around the globe. An inability to recognize, and deal with, cultural elements of the team might lead to problems with the project deliverable 's attributes of time, cost, and performance. Cultural differences also can alter communication symbols and meanings, thus resulting in misunderstandings. Therefore, team members must be vigilant to recognize what might be a cultural difference. For example, a team member might summarily discount messages that are not consistent with his or her own cultural norms. To overcome this problem, and to minimize the possibility of misinterpreting what is being said or what is being done, each person must be cognizant of the specific culture of his or her teammates (Sohmen and Levin, 2001). Under some circumstances, an increased level of conflict might occur as a result of a mismatch between implicit, culturally based, assumptions of team members.

During the communication activities of the project, team members are expected to be able to determine if the receiver of the message, or the observer of an incident, interpreted the meaning differently. The team is further expected to discern if this difference was because of a communication barrier caused by preconceived notions and assumptions rooted in cultural backgrounds. Behavioral experts agree that one must always be aware of differences in assumptions that are made while interpreting actions or words (Bauhaus et al., 1996). Cultural differences can create inconsistent assumptions, varied constraints, unique challenges, unexpected opportunities, and unusual risks. It goes without saying that the communication is ineffective if the intended message takes on differing meanings.

It would not be surprising to find that different people react differently to contents of phone calls, e-mail, and voice mail. This disparity in comprehension and in subsequent behavior is almost inevitable in virtual teams because larger geographical spans lead to greater cultural interpretations of the messages of the communication. The originator of a concept should take responsibility for making it clearly understood by the receiver, and the interpretation of the content of the message should not be left up to the receiver. For example, common misunderstandings that might easily occur in phone conversations can be the result of different interpretations of the significance of silence and the meaning of pauses in different cultures. Another example of a potential misunderstanding is starting from the abstract and moving to the specific, which might be accepted by some people and not by others.

Since a global project normally employs people from different nationalities, the project team should select a common language for the official project business. Research has suggested the use of English as the link language for international projects even though there are three times as many native speakers of Chinese as there are of English (Crystal, 1997). Because different words may mean different things to different members of the team, it is important to recognize that even a team member who is fluent in languages other than his or her native language may react differently to written and verbal terms when using one of these languages. Simple and direct communication will help reduce the risk of distorted messages, which in turn will reduce the probability of misunderstanding. For example, a word such as " resent " may convey different meanings based on the context of its use. If English is selected as the common language for the project, project communication should be based on a vocabulary that is limited to essential and unambiguous words. Thus, the official project language with the abbreviated English vocabulary could easily serve as a common language for the project team. Virtual project team members, conceivably representing many different cultures, might adopt an international English vocabulary, which contains the approximately 4000 words in the English dictionary that are commonly used, in order to promote a simple and clear communication tool (Chaney and Martin, 1995). This approach would create a new language that is based on English words and patterns but free from slang and colloquialisms (Sohmen and Levin, 2002). It is reasonable to expect one's personal conversational language and the official project language to be different. Therefore, adoption of a project language will require that even those team members whose native language is English be more careful in their choice of words.

The growth in the number and usage of global projects will increase the likelihood and intensity of cultural diversity of virtual project teams. Culture, as defined by Ferraro (1998), is everything that people have, think, and do as members of their specific group or society. Culture is transmitted through the process of learning and by interacting with one's environment. Ferraro further notes that success on global projects is directly related to the team's knowledge of its members' cultural environment. Therefore, it might be useful for the virtual teams of global projects to adopt a unique project-specific culture.

Since the original birth culture of each team member impacts the project in many ways, global project team members must recognize the influence of their own culture on their own behavior and the resulting influence of their behavior on the overall team's behavior. In some circumstances, one team member might evaluate another team member's behavior by the standards of his or her own culture, based on the belief that one's own culture is superior to another. Instead, in order to create synergy, the team members must embrace, and not avoid, the cultural differences. Cultural background, affiliation , and previous experiences of each team member must be acknowledged as a prelude to leveraging the cultural differences as a source of inspiration and discovery rather than irritation and frustration. Candor, honesty, directness, and openness will go a long way toward making a cohesive team, independent of the cultural origins of the team members.

3.1.2 Modified Meetings

In traditional projects, face-to-face meetings serve to provide a feeling among participants that a project team exists and that the project team members work together as a team. Team meetings have become a common tool in managing traditional projects (Verma, 1996). For example, a project kickoff meeting has proven to be an exceptionally useful tool in starting a project with the appropriate attitude. Then, once the project is off and running, progress review meetings should be used to assess status and report on the progress of the project. However, project meetings must offer adequate benefits in exchange for the time that they consume . Therefore, all meetings of any project team should be planned with specific objectives and with sufficient preparation. As a symbolic signal that the team operates in a collaborative fashion, anyone who can make a contribution must be encouraged to participate. Thus, progress reporting meetings can also be used for team building. These meetings can provide an environment in which each team member would clearly recognize how his or her work contributes to the project deliverable. These sessions can provide a way for team members to interact, to discuss problems, to air issues, and to share ideas for problem resolution.

Project managers of collocated teams, in the traditional project environment, can easily call a meeting on a semiregular basis, since project participants can quickly assemble to meet face to face. This pattern of management, although very effective, takes advantage of the physical proximity of the team members in avoiding extensive meeting preparation, monitoring, and reporting. However, the project manager of a virtual team must be far more proactive and organized, because meetings and information exchanges cannot be arranged nearly as quickly for a virtual project, nor can they be conducted effectively without a clear and specific agenda. Preparation for a virtual team meeting tends to be more complex than its traditional counterpart because there are more variables involved in planning and holding these meetings in the virtual environment. These meetings might involve different time zones and different native languages. Since there is no face-to-face interaction, there is a need for means, methods, and protocols that would facilitate receiving project information in different formats. The virtual team requires additional guidelines for its team meetings in order to maximize efficiency of the meeting and in order to ensure that team members fully participate in the meeting. Generally , in the interest of holding the complete attention of all virtual team members, the topics covered in meetings should be narrower in scope than in traditional collocated meetings. Finally, the project manager should occasionally solicit the individual team members' feedback on how to best improve the conduct of the meeting. Basic guidelines for procedures for virtual team meetings would cover topics such as:

  • Circumstances for calling a virtual team meeting

  • Format for the meeting agenda

  • The lead time for distributing the agenda

  • The importance of following the agenda

  • Mode of the meeting, such as a web address or a phone call

  • Required confirmation from those team members who are expected to attend the meeting

  • Contingency plans in case the technology to be used cannot be accessed by all team members

  • Review of minutes, and action items, from previous meetings by all participants

  • The importance of being brief in presenting ideas

  • Methods to use to check for understanding

  • Assigning someone to serve as a recorder, or note-taker, for the meeting

  • Regular rotation of meeting management duties

  • Time limits for responding to ideas and for making suggestions

  • Assigning action items at the end of the meeting

  • Tracking meeting action items to completion

Finally, a short survey such as the one shown in Appendix 3A would be useful in determining the success and efficiency of the meeting.

3.1.3 Trust and Identity

The behavior, interrelationships, teamwork, and performance of the entire team are impacted significantly by the manner in which a team member views, relates to, and shows respect to other team members. Trust is far more pivotal in the virtual team than its traditional counterpart. In a virtual project, trust is the key ingredient necessary in preventing the geographical and organizational distances of team members from becoming psychological distances (O'Hara-Devereaux and Johansen, 1994). Since the vast majority of virtual teams communicate over the computer and asynchronously, they lack face time to build rapport. Additionally, the cultural dimension of relationships must be carefully considered when implementing virtual project plans. One notable skill for developing trust is the proper use of what is referred to as "trained respect," in that one trains oneself to suspend judgment, temporarily or permanently, in order to truly listen to a different point of view (Bauhaus et al., 1996). Team members must demonstrate that they regard one another's views as valid. One must take time to understand the other team members, in order to relate to and connect with them. For example, when a team member proceeds to initiate a problem-solving dialogue, he or she must check whether other team members have interpreted correctly what has occurred. It is entirely possible that different team members might interpret the problem, or define an issue, differently because of a cultural communication barrier.

Another requirement for a cohesive team is that team members must adopt a policy of not stereotyping others (e.g., the engineers , the young kids , the auditors , the people about to retire, etc.). Generally, stereotyping of other team members is based on an individual's views and attitudes toward members of a specific group, which in turn is often based on incomplete information. It is an interesting occurrence that if these stereotyping views are positive, relationship building will increase, but if they are negative, they will dramatically thwart team building (Flannes and Levin, 2001).

Knowing the identity of the people with whom one is communicating is essential for a full understanding of the explicit and implicit components of a particular interaction. In a traditional collocated team, there are basic and abundant clues from facial expressions and from general body language that help team members in gauging one another's personality and social status. To state the obvious, one cannot use the same barometer to gauge the identity, and personality characteristics, of one's teammates in the virtual environment. For better or for worse , on-line interaction strips away many of the clues and signs that are part of face-to-face interaction, thus making identity and organizational status ambiguous concepts. Although the lack of identity clues is generally considered a disadvantage , it can also be an opportunity for virtual team process improvement. The advantage is that under this mode of communication, people will be judged by the value of their ideas rather than by gender, race, religion, national origin, class, or age. Further, traditional chain-of-command hierarchies may be less evident in virtual teams, thus facilitating a shift from the traditional power base of the team. This power shift can enable team members to speak up more willingly. The net result is that team members might offer more useful suggestions, insights, feedback, and alternative approaches to problems, on one another's work, and on the overall direction of the project. Therefore, the team members will become accustomed to the advantages of conducting a specific communication without any knowledge of, or reference to, one's status in the organization. Communication that is based on mutual respect would apply when the organizational ranks of team members are not equal, such as communication between a project manager, a team member, and a sponsor. However, it is always helpful if both the sender and the receiver involved in the communication recognize the individual style of the other party and make appropriate adjustments for that specific style. This mode is in contrast with traditional teams, where the style of the person with the highest rank automatically prevails.

If at all possible, information technology must help create and maintain a common identity among the virtual team members. However, building of trust and camaraderie, which is one of the essential elements of a productive team, is hindered if team communications do not seem consistent or organized. Therefore, the project manager must put measures in place so that communication among team members is equitable, regular, and predictable. Another important feature is that substantive responses must be solicited from team members in order to keep everyone involved in all matters of the team.

The virtual team, as a whole, must continually work to establish and foster group identity and a sense of belonging , albeit in a virtual community. The project environment must provide means that can be used to communicate information, personal clues, and job-related data. To that end, the virtual project team members must make an effort to meet regularly in a "virtual space." During these meetings, the team members will have an opportunity to observe (in the virtual sense) one another's behavior and personalities. Sometimes this insight can be formed based on indications of how other team members have behaved in the past. Accordingly, greater gains are possible if information about past interactions is aggregated and shared within a group. These interactions and their information exchange components will make the team members more accountable to one another because they now feel that they know each other personally .

Achieving Project Management Success Using Virtual Teams
Achieving Project Management Success Using Virtual Teams
ISBN: 1932159037
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 75

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