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As Virtual Teaming Arrives, Discipline Still an Essential

by Alf Nucifora

It occurs to me that the dramatic decline in business travel that has been evident this year cannot be attributed solely to economic cutbacks. Something else is obviously at play and that something is the growth and acceptance of virtual teaming.

Virtual work has arrived. eCapability, the force of globalization and the easy availability of groupware (e-mail, teleconferencing, threaded discussions, etc.), now makes virtual teaming both desirable and inevitable. In their latest book, The Discipline of Teams, authors Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith bring teaming into the world of the Internet. Says Katzenbach, "Teams now find themselves working across geographies because it's possible to do it." That's the good news. The bad news is that virtual teaming is more complicated than it appears to be. As Katzenbach notes, "It's not about supportedness, togetherness and communication, it's about discipline. Without the discipline, you don't get the high performance."

Easy to Enunciate, Hard to Do

As Katzenbach and Smith outlined in a recent Forbes.com article, there are a number of important requirements in making virtual teams work successfully:

Performance Purpose: It is not just about sharing information and communications; you don't need a virtual team to achieve that. Instead, the goal must be something specific or important to the organization, e.g., designing a new product.

Specific Objectives: These have to be specifically defined, either quantitatively or qualitatively. The team must be in a position to know what constitutes success. Says Katzenbach, "You have to know when you get there."

Need for Commitment: The team must have a united level of commitment to a purpose and to a common working approach.

Work Rules: The team has to agree how to work together (e.g., the role of part-time members) and how it will be managed. In traditional group environments, various working approaches can apply, but none delivers much real value other than learning how to communicate with each other and work effectively together. Why? Because quite often there is nothing at risk in the teaming process.

Problems with leadership also exist. In the single leader performance unit, the most common approach, the leadership role stays with one experienced individual and it never shifts. Team members pick the leader in question to be the boss. In the real time scenario, there is always a leader, but the leadership role shifts depending upon the need of the moment. The best person automatically rises to the occasion and takes command in a given situation, not by consensus but by acknowledged need of the team. This form of team dynamic, which has to be learned through training, is best exemplified by the US Marines; very disciplined and trained in such a way that even Lance Corporal Jones can lead the group if he has to. It is this leadership style that the best virtual teams aspire to.

Organizational Rules: Katzenbach and Smith suggest getting the group together, not only to confirm performance purpose and goals but to get to know one another; no skimping on face-to-face meetings just to save time. Divide tasks and goals into individual vs. collective work products. Match skills and perspectives in ways that take full advantage of the personalities as well as the skills. And agree on Netiquette. Is some good-natured flaming okay? Are there time limits for responding to ideas and suggestions? If group members are not participating, how should the group respond?

The Benefit and The Downside

As experience at companies like the French-Italian semi-conductor giant STMicroelectronics and American Express (Human Resources) has shown, virtual teaming allows an organization to assign the right people to the task at hand, not those who are closest to hand. The best minds can be assigned to the task without having people run for airplanes, sleep in hotels, and destroy their family life. The company saves money, the job gets done faster and the fact that team interaction need not take place in real time gives its members an opportunity to ponder and prepare their responses.

On the downside, there can be no substitute for face-to-face or eyeball-to-eyeball collaboration. Note Katzenbach and Smith, "e-Mail and threaded discussions for all their virtues cannot simulate a firm friendly handshake, can't grin disarmingly and pat a colleague on a shoulder. Humans don't communicate by words alone." And, they note, "teaming only works with small groups yet technology makes it too easy to keep adding members to the team."

Virtual teaming is here to stay. It's a concept that makes sense for the times. But a warning is warranted. The virtual world is understandably enamored with technology but, unfortunately, not with discipline. Yet, for virtual teaming to work, the need is for more than bonding and consensus. In addition to hard work, it demands a rigorous mindset. Apply the discipline and virtual teaming delivers speed, innovation, competitive advantage and a synergism that can be achieved with maximum efficiency and at a minimum cost.

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