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Innovation through virtual teaming

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With the recent wave of technological developments, teams are being used in more and more innovative ways in order to produce optimum results. Whilst traditional methods such as brainstorming and the Delphi technique still have their value, there is a new, virtual approach to group work.

Whether you are a manager, a homemaker, a subordinate, or a student, it is almost impossible to avoid being a member of a team. A survey by the American Society for Quality Control (ASQC) found that two thirds of full-time employees indicated that they participated in teams and 84 per cent participated in more than one team.

The importance of teams

Today's manager leads a global workforce and manages worldwide operations across national boundaries. And when Lawler, Mohrman & Ledford carried out a study among Fortune 500 companies they revealed how employee involvement in teams had a strong positive relationship with several dimensions of organizational and worker effectiveness.

Key benefits of teamwork:

  • More ideas and information are produced
  • Understanding and acceptance among individuals involved is improved
  • There are higher motivation and performance levels
  • Teams offset personal biases and blind spots that hinder the decision process
  • Decisions made are more likely to be more innovative and risk-taking

A key to success with modern teams involves the continual use of information technology to support team activities. Groupware information systems make it possible for a group of collaborating individuals to carry out computer-supported co-operative work.

Innovative ways of better using teams

Groupware has facilitated unprecedented change when looking at how teams function within an organization. It has opened up the doors for new and innovative methods of teamwork, many of which are already in practise today.

Global networks/teams

Many international-based organizations are constantly moving their managers from one foreign subsidiary to another to help them develop a global view and an international network of contacts. For example, Ford Motor Company has a global design network that ties managers and employees together world-wide. This increases the likelihood of speedy, effective problem solving.

"The modern organization is being transformed from a structure built of jobs into a field of work that needs to be done. Individuals no longer take directions from a job description or a supervisor. Signals now come from the changing demands of the project and the team."

Team-based strategic planning

It is common to find teams of line and staff managers with a wide range of ages and cultural backgrounds involved in the strategic planning process today, as it is accepted that a good strategic planning process must allow ideas to surface from anywhere and at any time.


New technologies are changing the traditional, fixed-jobs approach into one which teams perform tasks and the composition of these teams changes as the tasks evolve. Intel, for example, will hire an individual to be a member of a specific project team. The project will change with time and the individual's duties and responsibilities will change with it.

Horizontal corporations

These organizations are characterized by lateral decision processes, horizontal networks, and a strong corporate culture. This concept is currently used by large global firms, such as General Electric, who have an electronics/computer-based orientation.

Virtual corporations

Virtual organizations are usually a temporary group of independent companies formed to exploit a specific opportunity. This method often covers a wide geographical area which makes the use of electronic technology a necessity. Examples of firms using the concept of virtual corporations include Nokia, Nike, Intersolve Group and Apple Computer.

Case studies of virtual teams

Sun Microsystems made the decision to utilize virtual teams to provide a "lean and mean" organization. They consequently integrated these teams into their total operations:

The SunExpress' Customer Order Cycle Team – developed an electronic data interchange system which allows major customers to place their orders online and receive them within three days. By using weekly conferencing calls they finished their work in seven months without ever having met face to face.

SunService's Live Call Transfer Team – had a major impact on customer response time by entirely overhauling and simplifying SunService's call answering process. They introduced an email process and significantly reduced customer response time.

Overall, the virtual team concept has been considered a resounding success. Three aspects of Sun's virtual team projects may point to success for other organizations wishing to utilize virtual teams: executive sponsorship, preparation, and infrastructure.

Management Implications

Are you a manager considering virtual teamwork as a method of innovation? If so, you may face problems in the form of:

  • Loss of contact with management and workers
  • Loss of a culture where vision, mission, and core values of a "hero" play a significant role in success
  • Resistance to the unstructured nature of the virtual organization
  • Lower productivity because of an inability of people to handle the freedom of the virtual environment
  • Miscommunication to be more prominent than ever as more importance is placed on written messages via e-mail and other forms of electronic communication
  • Security problems as a result of data sharing, open lines of communication, and "hacker" intervention
  • Less employee "frankness" and "honesty" in communication because of e-mail file retention and lack of privacy
  • Dissatisfaction with the reward and recognition systems for outstanding performance

Strategic Recommendations

These strategic recommendations will help ensure the success of your virtual team initiative:

  • Virtual teams must be recognized and rewarded for "small wins" or interim goal achievement throughout their existence and/or the evaluation period
  • The entire internal management structure must support the virtual team concept and play a strong sponsorship and facilitative role
  • Education and training concerning the use of virtual teaming must be conducted throughout the internal organization(s)
  • A set of directions and criteria for measuring virtual teaming effectiveness must be prepared and consistently used
  • Virtual teams must be from diverse locations, time zones, functions, companies, etc. to take advantage of the information technology infrastructure
  • Virtual teams must become an organizational tool for speed-up of most processes in order to be classified as success stories
  • Face-to-face socialization meetings are periodically desirable for "contact" and "celebration" among virtual team members
  • Establishing the essential element of trust among virtual teams must receive high priority because of a lack of face-to-face interchange
  • The lack of an actual work site and the resulting mental hurdle this creates for many managers and workers must be overcome through both personnel selection and training system initiatives
  • The key idea of using virtual teaming to take advantage of technology and capitalize on existing "experts" within or across organizations must be constantly emphasized

Although the telecommunication system cannot be a substitute for face-to-face communication, it will facilitate the development of commitments among virtual team members. Information technology definitely has the capability to assist teams in becoming dynamic entities in the new millennium.

The use of information technology may have a greater impact on the team dynamic than the traditional approaches of striving to improve face-to-face interpersonal communication, and therefore improve an organizational commitment to innovation.

This is a précis of an article entitled "Virtual teaming: a strategy for moving your organization into the new millennium" originally published in Industrial Management & Data Systems Volume 100 Number 8.

The authors were Stanley Stough, Sean Eom and James Buckenmyer of the Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau, Missouri, USA