If it were not for the ease of use of and rapid developments in information technology, virtual projects would not have been pursued as readily. Information technology is the enabler of the global project since its components facilitate the collaboration of the virtual project team members. Common technologies that could be used by virtual teams include Internet portals, e-mail, desktop videoconferencing, and group decision support systems. These tools enable generation of work assignments, on-line review of deliverables, facilitation of task-specific feedback, notification of upcoming tasks and priorities, and collection of day-to-day progress information about the project. Other uses include notifying team members about emerging issues, tracking action items, collecting historical data, developing new project/team metrics, and conducting real-time status updates.
Using the appropriate tools of the information technology, data can be gathered, presented, manipulated, and examined in real time. By virtue of enabling real-time experiences in a dynamic business environment, information technology assists the virtual team to overcome some of the barriers that have been created by time, distance, complexity, and the diversity of participants (Tuman and McMackin, 1997). If the appropriate technology is employed, and if the frequency and mode of communication are carefully planned, information technology might even become an instrument by which virtual project team members make personal human connections.
It is a reality of project implementation that all project teams need to exchange ideas and project data. Information must be shared and managed across the project and through the life cycle of the project. The geographically dispersed team can use a web-based team room, somewhat akin to the war room or team room of the co-located project team. Thus, a web-based team room will capture pertinent project data for use by all project team members. The team room can provide meeting databases and discussion forums that are accessible to all. Approvals can be given and decisions can be made in the team room. Team members can log-in to this easily accessible archive as they start their work each day. Information can be captured and stored in the team room for all team members; thus the global team can work on the project 24 hours a day. Built-in action databases can allow problems or tasks to be identified, assigned, and communicated to the team members. As changes occur in the various components of the project's performance and environment, automatic notifications can be sent to team members. Such project databases can also serve as historical information for use in future projects. Thus, for better or for worse , no longer does a show-and-tell type of status meeting need to be held in which team members report on the progress of their specific tasks. Instead, status information is broadcast through the central databases so that status meetings can become proactive strategy sessions.
However, while technology serves as the enabler of the virtual project, the specific nature of technology might become a source of conflict rather than collaboration. Therefore, team members must strive to reach agreement as to the purpose of each available tool and the procedure for using each tool. Otherwise, the lack of common norms can lead to conflict that could damage working relationships. For example, one team member may feel that e-mail is a tool to be used only for urgent business, while another team member may use it only for documentation of information, fully expecting to save urgent messages for telephone communication. The more diverse the team is, the more important it is to clearly define the technologies that must be used. Naturally, the project or the organization must purchase a sufficient number of the entire agreed-upon suite of hardware/software tools for every member of the project team.
During the early stages of team formation, the team must reach agreements on communication methods , technology to be used, and the tentative communications schedule. Ideally, computer-mediated communication systems could be employed to encourage wider participation and greater candor. However, an inordinately high reliance must not be placed on technology; rather, attention must be paid to the individual differences among the team members during the use of a specific technology. There is a temptation to believe that technologies such as fax, e-mail, and voice mail can substitute for high-touch management (Leonard et al., 1998). Ironically, people who prefer to discuss things in a synchronous fashion sometimes regard text-based tools, like e-mail, fax, and shared databases, as a hassle. Nonetheless, given the right circumstances, these tools can enable the virtual team to align its intent and interpretation within the context of the team culture, the official language, and the organization's business objectives. The participative culture of the team will be fostered substantially if the team members have immediate access to the information that they need to perform their assigned work. Consistency in communications will be enhanced if the team subscribes to predefined formats, a unifying and distinguishable logo, and operational templates. Thus, it may be appropriate to use "lean" technologies, such as e-mail, for simple information exchange. Then, a "rich" type of technology, such as videoconferencing, can be reserved for brainstorming or for conflict resolution sessions (Leonard et al., 1998).
One of the very attractive features of the advanced technology communication tools is that a team member can transfer information to any other team member. Therefore, most items of information that need to be exchanged during the project planning and execution phases can be transmitted almost instantaneously. Project information that would be disseminated includes project requirements descriptions, project planning details, project estimates, project schedules, and project progress details. The project information can also include details of the components of the deliverable , such as engineering drawings, architectural renderings , software files, software test results, the project charter, the team charter, and elements of the project notebook. Since virtual project teams make extensive use of information technology, they can transmit a much larger volume of information compared to the traditional information exchange modes and with greater ease. Therefore, a virtual team charter must explicitly address the prudent transfer of project/company information. The team charter must include procedures that guard against infringement of intellectual property rights, proprietary information, copyrighted information, trademarks, and service marks.
Since the use of e-mail pervades a multitude of facets of almost everyone's life, specific guidelines must be provided to the virtual team members for its proper use. In turn , team members should exercise due diligence in complying with these guidelines, because group dynamics are more difficult to manage in an asynchronous environment of e-mail. Since e-mail will be the primary method of communication among the virtual team members, the ability to write concise and effective e-mail is a critical skill for virtual team members. Thus, it might be desirable to formulate consistent procedures for the appropriate use of e-mail. The following guidelines can be used as a starting point in developing a procedure that promotes effective use of e-mail.
Use of the subject line to convey the purpose
Ways to organize the content of the message in a logical fashion
Methods to highlight important information
Use of return-receipt e-mail
Best methods for including background information
The importance of avoiding acronyms and abbreviations
Ways to avoid a lengthy document trail
Use of upper- and lowercase letters
Appropriate use of all caps in e-mail
The importance of using short words, sentences, and paragraphs
Methods to anticipate, and answer, readers' questions
Methods to ensure a professional presentation of the message
Approaches to ensure the clarity and focus of each message
Ways to write e-mail from the reader's point of view
The importance of translating technical language for nontechnical recipients
The importance of checking grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and punctuation
Sending and/or responding to e-mail
Should different types of e-mail be sent to all team members or to only selected team members?
What are the specific next steps that describe what the sender plans to do and what the receiver should do, including time frames ?
If e-mail is used for communication, and if the original communication is intended for every member of the team, should all team members be copied in the response?
Should team members acknowledge receipt of all e-mail, even if they do not need to specifically respond with action?
If one team member sends an e-mail, can the recipient forward it directly to other team members, or should the recipient request that this be done by the sender?
Can e-mail be forwarded to people outside the project team without the sender's explicit permission?
Are there any specific situations that are inappropriate for e-mail?
Are blind copies appropriate for project information transmission?
If a team member communicates via e-mail, and if the recipient requires some clarification before responding, can a phone call be used?
Alternatively, should all subsequent communication be via e-mail?
How often should e-mail be checked, and when should the sender expect a response?
If someone does not respond in the time period established in the charter, should the sender send a second e-mail, make a phone call, or send a fax?