Improving virtual teams with enterprise social computing – plan or evolve?

Working in virtual teams is a growing phenomenon and most business executives are positive about the benefits of working this way. Respondents to our survey agree that virtual working allows them to collaborate with colleagues across the organisation, it gives them access to a global talent pool and it improves their organisation’s competitiveness.

As more tools have become available (often at low, or no, cost), virtual working has evolved as the natural way for organisations to carry out tasks and business processes. However, little planning has gone into how these tools should be used and how they will be used by different cultures or even across the gender divide.

But as these technologies become more prevalent, more thought will be needed on how best to adapt an organisation to work more effectively using these technologies. Historically, meeting in person at the launch of a project or when a conflict arises has been an important means of resolving issues. But face-to-face meetings are not always practical or cost-effective. It is therefore imperative that teams agree on clear rules for communication from the start. Managers then need to “hyper-communicate” with the team, constantly verifying what has been understood and carefully monitoring the entire communications process. Doing so will dispel many misunderstandings—many, but not all.

There has been so more thought, researched and written about virtual teams (and related topics, like collaboration, knowledge management, etc) of the years but according to this research report from The Economist Intelligence Unit, virtual teams have emerged with very little thought or support.

That emergence may or may not be a good thing in itself, but the net effect is that virtual teams probably aren’t as effective as they could be. Looking at the tools being used – primarily email, voice and Webconferencing – the newer social tools rank poorly. Based on my own experiences of being part of different virtual teams over the years and more recently working with Headshift, I can tell you that there is huge potential to improve how virtual teams function using enterprise social computing.

But when we look at this from the perspective of the debate about the value of Enterprise 2.0, I think there is an even more important lesson here: these technologies will be used, but you have a choice – plan to use them well, or keep your fingers crossed that people will work it out for themselves.

BTW Being part of a virtual team doesn’t mean you never meet people face-to-face. If you are in Sydney this Thursday morning, come and join us for an early coffee to discuss Enterprise 2.0, virtual teams and more.

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