Emory Report
January 23, 2006
Volume 58, Number 16


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January 23, 2006
Technology as a tool, not an anchor, for global business

by diana drake

In many cases, technology does more than make communication better—it makes it possible. Take, for instance, a global project to implement company-wide a large software package.

These days, communication tools as simple as e-mail and as complex as collaborative integrated development environments support such large-scale projects without team members ever needing to board an airplane. Technology is truly a wonder—but it can also be an impediment, tripping up the most seamless of projects with unanticipated collaboration breakdowns.

When that happens, Dominic Thomas wants team leaders and project managers to help their teams make more effective use of information and communication technologies. Thomas, visiting assistant professor of decision and information analysis in Goizueta Business School, along with co-authors Robert Bostrom and Marianne Gouge, is helping managers and team leaders understand how to better use technology communication in a virtual team in his paper, “Making Knowledge Work Successful in Virtual Teams via Technology Facilitation.”

“A lot of these big projects fail, and I wanted to know why,” Thomas said. “Some indicators are that the teams are unable to work together; they’re unable to solve small problems, and those small problems lead to all kinds of consequences, sometimes even the collapse of a project. I wanted to find out, in an active sense, what leaders can do in the middle of a project to make things go right.”

Thomas and his team set out to capture moments of interaction breakdown and what was done to fix them in order to analyze their elements and isolate the specific interventions leaders were making. They conducted interviews with 13 practicing virtual team leaders or project managers with experience in more than 20 organizations.

“Intentionally, I wanted them to be some of the best project managers,” notes Thomas, who checked references and resumes of his interviewees. “Then I structured two-hour interviews using critical incident technique, which guides them through a process of recall, focusing on when breakdowns or improvement efforts were undertaken during projects—when the leader took action to improve team interaction.”

While Thomas did find some projects that did not have collaboration breakdown, most of them did experience such a breakdown. In fact, interviewees reported numerous work stoppages resulting from technology-use problems. Thomas and his colleagues collected data on 52 incidents of technology facilitation in 30 projects.

“Most of the time,” he said, “it was only when problems occurred that the leaders were doing something to improve interaction and involve the technology of communication.”

In one case, Thomas said, a leader came into an ailing project involving multiple organizations, including some offshore. The new leader spent time assessing the situation, identifying the following change triggers: tool inadequacies (too much reliance on e-mail), information visibility problems (shared task information could not be accessed easily), internal group structure problems (dispersion and team size made e-mail unworkable as the main information-sharing device), and cooperation problems (conflicts arising from private communications between members that should have been shared and differing views on task information).

The leader’s biggest technology change was to block use of the project-management tool and centralize all task information in a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet was placed in a shared team space, where all members could view it at any time and update their portions.

Thomas said his findings revealed that, first and foremost, businesses should consider how they integrate communication technologies and develop a technological tool kit that fits project needs. In his research, Thomas came across members of the same team who had very different perceptions of the role e-mail should play in their project; one used it strictly for file transfer, while another saw it as a means of chatting.

“These most comfortable technologies can become troublesome because people have different perceptions of them,” Thomas said. “Delineating the tool kit and explaining how it’s going to be used helps, especially when different cultures are involved.”

Thomas also underscores the need for a “virtual water cooler” in large technology-driven projects. “People want to chat. They want to get to know the people they work with to some to degree. They need that outlet,” Thomas said. “Tools like instant messaging, in particular, were used by some leaders very effectively as a virtual water cooler. This can help a lot with trust in interpersonal relationships. When trust in relationships breaks down, it can short circuit the work across all contexts.”

Overall, says Thomas, virtual team leaders need to set a framework for ongoing communication improvement and be prepared for what is often an inevitable collaboration breakdown.

“With virtual projects, you have more volatility and you don’t have enough time to get to know people. You have more groups coming and going frequently,” he said.

“As a result, breakdowns happen. In the virtual world, some preparation will help keep that from happening and help address it more effectively when it does occur so that the loss of productivity doesn’t last as long and cause the project to fail.”

This article first appeared in Knowledge@Emory, Goizueta Business School’s electronic newsletter, and is reprinted with permission.