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Knowledge Management and Virtual Teams

The concept of the virtual team is not clearly defined, and it often overlaps with notions of the virtual or networked organization, the virtual workplace, virtual communities, electronic commerce and certain forms of teleworking. Team membership may be relatively stable (e.g. in an established sales team) or change on a regular basis (e.g. in project teams). Its members may be drawn from the same organization, (e.g. production planners and production operatives) or from several different organizations, (e.g. when projects involve consultants or external assessors). As we are also considering DCW where teams are temporally and/or physically distributed, further distinctions can be made based on physical proximity, (i.e. whether or not team members are co-located and can interact face-to-face or are geographically separated) and on work-cycle synchronicity, (i.e. whether or not members interact in the same or different time periods) as shown below.

Dimensions of virtual teams from Effective Virtual Teams Through Communities of Practice
From Effective Virtual Teams Through Communities of Practice

In this lecture we will attempt to simplify this situation by only considering one type of group: a project or task focused team (See Task Groups and Communities Compared for a more detailed discussion of this distinction.)

The main goal for a 'task' group is to fulfill a task (e.g. to deliver a product or service). Once the task has been completed, the group can be dissolved (although the same group can be re-formed around a new task). A task group is a formal group that, in most cases, is created in a top down fashion by the management of an organization. The organization or hierarchical structure of task groups usually parallels existing organizational hierarchies. The successful completion of the task (or repeated success in a series of tasks) is usually rewarded financially or by promotion. For task groups the membership is simply the people that are needed to complete the task (although task definition may be dependent on the people that are able to participate).

Based on our previous discussion of KM and DCW, one might expect the needs of distributed task based teams to be met solely by managing the hard knowledge that they need to complete their task. However, studies of such teams indicate that this is not the case

For a task group, the task usually provides the initial motivation to work together over time and space. However, in order to keep working together and/or to make working together a success more is needed. A team is more than a group of individuals working in isolation. A balance of dealing with factual content, relationships and the coordination of a central process is required. Social aspects such as a shared social context, a feeling of trust and a human interest in each other need to be balanced against the more process orientated aspects such as the planning of work and the scheduling of activities to maximize the overall performance of the group.

Aspects of such 'real life' working are often underestimated when introducing the technologies needed to support virtual working. If people work together using technology, the functionality of the technology often places an undue emphasis on a single central process such as the task or content management; peripheral processes, like social interaction are under-emphasized. Research has shown that groups that pay attention to social processes, have higher levels of satisfaction and produce better results.

For example, closely coupled (hot) working is often a feature of traditional co-located team work. Typical examples of such work might be creative 'brain storming' sessions or meetings to decide a strategy. When groups are co-located interaction and co-presence is not a problem. However when the work becomes temporally or geographically distributed, what is meant by 'presence' can be problematical, as can the mediating effects of the technologies used to communicate.

One solution that has been proposed to solve this problem is to use technology, such as videoconferencing or avatars, to simulate co-presence, i.e. to create a 'telepresence' or a 'virtual presence'. However, although significant technological advances have been made, many so called virtual teams still find that this type of work is most effectively performed in face to face meetings where the issue of trust and the ambiguity that surrounds identity in the virtual world are most easily overcome.



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