April 22, 2003
Management challenge: Getting real results from virtual teams
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. As technology and the post-9/11 world have encouraged virtual teams in organizations, a Purdue University professor's research shows that managers face new challenges in effectively managing real people and processes.
"Early research on virtual teams addressed a fundamental question: Does the medium matter?" writes Bradley J. Alge, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources at the Krannert School of Management. "Our study addresses an important follow-up question: When does the medium matter?"
The answer, said Alge, depends upon the nature of the question for which an answer is being sought and the relationships of the team members to whom the question is being posed.
Alge and co-researchers Carolyn Wiethoff (Indiana University) and Howard J. Klein (Ohio State University) explored the question of communication effectiveness of teams and found two critical elements: whether team members have had previous experience together and/or whether they expect to work together in the future.
The study, "When Does the Medium Matter? Knowledge-building Experiences and Opportunities in Decision-making Teams," will be published in the academic journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
The researchers divided 198 upper-class undergraduates into 66 three-person laboratory teams with two projects.
"We asked face-to-face and virtual teams to deal with two kinds of tasks of varying interdependence," Alge said. "One was a brainstorming exercise in which individual team members exchanged ideas on how to improve security on campus. The other was a high interdependence task with team members playing the roles of division managers charged with working together to allocate scarce resources."
What Alge and his colleagues found was that virtual teams worked better on the brainstorming exercise. Face-to-face teams did better at the negotiation exercise.
Alge's research also established that face-to-face teams communicate better initially, during the early stages of a project, but that as teams gain experience, virtual teams can communicate openly and share information as effectively as face-to-face teams.
The research suggests that a manager who wants to put a working group together for a long, complex project should choose a team whose members are in the same location or initially invest the resources to give team members an opportunity to get to know each other. Then, as teams become more experienced and familiar with each other and the technology, they can exchange ideas more effectively using "lean" Internet media that lack the non-verbal communication, social cues and nuances that exist in face-to-face interactions.
Alge, whose research focuses on the implications of new media, such as the Internet, in human relations, is quick to point out the value of electronic media tools.
"The Internet and virtual teams allow a manager to integrate employees' different schedules, time zones and cultures," he said. "Virtual teams will certainly grow in the post-9/11 business world as companies realign away from big cities and air travel."
There are other advantages that lean, virtual communication brings to the decision-making process.
"There can be an advantage to anonymity and evaluating messages without any preconceptions about the messenger's race, gender, age or predispositions," Alge said.
At the same time, managers should be aware of the limitations of virtual communication.
"There are more potential distortions in virtual communication," Alge said. "Seemingly simple e-mail, for example, is dangerous and can be a colossal failure when managers use it inappropriately. As we saw with the space shuttle accident, important e-mail messages may have been overlooked that could have prevented the disaster."
Alge said managers must answer two important questions: When is the appropriate time to communicate virtually, and what are the appropriate tasks that will ensure the benefits of virtual communication are realized?"
There was an anomaly in the research, which Alge calls a "disconnect," between communication effectiveness and effective decision making.
"Surprisingly, even though the teams that anticipated a future together shared the most information, they didn't make particularly better decisions in complex, interdependent situations," he said.
"It would be premature, based on our study alone, though, to claim that experienced teams need only lean media. Future research should explore the possibility that for ongoing teams confronted with novel situations, the best approach may be a balance of face-to-face and virtual interaction."
Additional research is worth doing, he said, because most managers are still learning on the job to manage both the people and the electronic tools of the contemporary workplace.
Writer: Mike Lillich, (765) 494-2077, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: Bradley J. Alge, (765) 494-4483, email@example.com
Carolyn Wiethoff, (812) 855-2706, firstname.lastname@example.org
Howard J. Klein, (614) 292-0719, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; firstname.lastname@example.org
When Does the Medium Matter? Knowledge-building Experiences
Bradley J. Alge, Carolyn Wiethoff and Howard J. Klein
The purpose of this investigation was to examine whether temporal scope the extent to which teams have a past or expect to have a future together affects face-to-face and computer-mediated teams' ability to communicate effectively and make high quality decisions. Results indicated that media differences existed for teams lacking a history, with face-to-face teams exhibiting higher openness/trust and information sharing than computer-mediated teams. However, computer-mediated teams with a history were able to eliminate these differences. These findings did not extend to team-member exchange (TMX). Although face-to-face teams exhibited higher TMX compared to computer-mediated teams, the interaction of temporal scope and communication media was not significant. In addition, openness/trust and TMX were positively associated with decision-making effectiveness when task interdependence was high, but were unrelated to decision-making effectiveness when task interdependence was low.