Virtual Team Critical Success Factors

Deborah L. Duarte and Nancy Tennant Snyder

In today's business environment, organizations adapt quickly or die. Gaining competitive advantage in a global environment means continually reshaping the organization to maximize strengths, address threats, and increase speed.1 The use of teams has become a common way of doing this.2 The formation of teams can draw talent quickly from different functions, locations, and organizations. The goal is to leverage intellectual capital and apply it as quickly as possible. The methods that organizations use to manage this process can mean the difference between success and failure.

Consider the example of a team in a global firm that produces durable goods. This product-development team, with members from around the world, had just completed the development of a new product. When the team unveiled the product to the senior staff of the organization, it included a description of the way the team worked. The presentation showed an icon of an airplane with the entire team of 22 people traveling from country to country. The team members had continually moved from site to site for activities, such as status reviews, design meetings, and prototyping sessions. The cost of the travel was tremendous, not only for hotels and airline tickets, but also in terms of the human cost of being away from home and the lost work time and productivity.

Contrast this with the experiences of teams in organizations such as Hewlett Packard, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), John Brown Engineers & Construction, DEC, and Rank Hovis.3 These organizations also form world-class teams to quickly address customer problems, develop products, and deliver services, but these teams often operate virtually, without the physical limitations of distance, time, and organizational boundaries. They use electronic collaboration technologies and other techniques to lower travel and facility costs, reduce project schedules, and improve decision-making time and communication.4 For many teams, traveling and having continual face-to-face meetings is not the most efficient or effective way of working.

Organizations that do not use virtual teams effectively may be fighting an uphill battle in a global, competitive, and rapidly changing environment. Organizations that will succeed in the next millennium have found new ways of working across boundaries through systems, processes, technology, and people.

Understanding how to work in or lead a virtual team is becoming a fundamental competence for people in many organizations. Virtual teams often are formed as a reaction to a business requirement or as a result of programs, such as telecommuting, that introduce new ways of working.5

It is not uncommon to talk with people who lead or work in virtual teams who do not have a great deal of experience working on teams in a colocated environment. Most of the large consulting firms (Accenture, formerly Andersen Consulting, is one primary example) do a large majority of their work virtually. Consultants who join these firms may never have the opportunity to work in or lead a traditional team in a colocated environment. They are immediately placed in situations that are more virtual than traditional. IBM has an entire unit in which employees telecommute, so new hires may never have a chance to work in a traditional office setting.6

People who lead and work in virtual teams need to have special skills, including an understanding of human dynamics, knowledge of how to manage across functional areas and national cultures, and the ability to use communication technologies as their primary means of communicating and collaborating.

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