The MGS Blog

Monday, April 8, 2013

Do virtual teams perform better?

In early 2013 Yahoo hit the tech headlines by changing its workplace policy and placing a ban on teleworking (link). On the other hand the 2013 winners of the DARPA FANG Challenge were a team of three who had never met before collaborating on their proposal (link).

Do virtual teams perform better or worse than collocated teams, or what about teams that meet intermittently or partially? This is a really interesting question.

On the one hand common knowledge understanding (and research) overwhelmingly states that face to face contact is an essential component for effective distributed teamwork. On the other hand, a narrowly focused and relatively sparse body of research has highlighted a number of cases where high performance, multidisciplinary, virtual teams completely outperform in-house teams e.g. (Malhotra, 2001).

J. Mike Smith has also noted the experiences in pharmaceutical R&D projects, where small, distributed, virtual, multidisciplinary teams exceed the performance of the traditional in-house projects (link).

"Performance of the virtual teams within the portfolio companies has not gone unnoticed, as potential partners to the these virtual team portfolio companies have marveled at the work. When presenting results of proof of concept studies to a potential partner, the CEO of a potential partnering company noted “It would take three times as many people and twice as long to achieve these results in my organization”."
What tools, or technological infrastructure enable high performance virtual teams? One way of anticipating or evaluating these tools ahead of their potential adoption in mainstream IT enabled organisations is to assess their development and uptake within the emblematic knowledge intense virtualised digital media production industry, software engineering. The provision of technologies by software developers to support distributed software development has ended up having wider application in mainstream industries. For example source code control systems have been adapted for general versioned document control. The 'comment' feature for source code commits percolated into web pages and Blogs and has ultimately defined the basic functionality of microblogging services like Twitter. Wiki's comprise an entire subculture of the editable web and gave the impetus for the Through The Web (TTW) editing function in all other Content Management Systems (CMSs). SMS originated as an engineered test application on early GSM phones. Feature applications like conversational technology and email, in use since the dawn of the internet, are now general services for wider populations.

Technological Infrastructure

The following products and services represent a snapshot of such key technologies today. In no particular order:

Functional communication services and devices (largely standalone elements)
fixed phone
mobile phone
instant messaging
any CMS
File and document versioning systems (for managing/storing finished product)

High Tech design and visualisation tools

Work-task-systems (largely standalone elements for coordinating, communicating) and/or
Integrated enterprise functional systems (ERP, CRM, Issue Tracking etc)
SNS (social network service) and/or Integrated enterprise communication environments

Reference: Malhotra, A., Majchrzak, A., Carman, R. & Lott, V. (2001) Radial Innovation Without Collocation: A Case Study at Boeing-Rocketdyne. MIS Quarterly, 25, 229-49.
Further reading: article