A Conceptual Framework For The Successful Management Of Physically Distributed Collaborative Business Networks And Highly Mobile Virtual Teams
By Ken Thompson and Robin Good
If you would like a detailed overview of bioteams you can request a free copy of the 33-page Bioteaming Manifesto here.
As enterprises gradually decentralize their operations and new networked business ecosystems start to find their way into profitable niche marketplaces, virtual, networked business teams gradually emerge as the wave of the future.
To be successful, virtual, networked business teams need a strategic framework in which to operate. They also need good planning and in-depth project analysis, effective and accessible technologies, constant coaching, systematic fine-tuning, feedback processes and the full understanding that their success cannot be determined by a pre-designated set of communication technologies by itself.
But, until now, projects supported by virtual business teams have not been brought back major successes. Virtual teams are having major problems and managing their progress has been a superlative challenge for most. Organizations face for the first time the need to analyze and comprehend which are the key obstacles to the successful management of effective online collaborative business networks. Though the answer is not simple, the solution is to be found in examples that are closer to us than we have yet realized.
Virtual collaboration for networked business teams is a complex and challenging activity in which there are major important components to be accounted for.
Virtual business teams DO NOT operate like traditional physical teams, as their requirements reflect a whole new way of communicating, working collaboratively, sharing information and mutually supporting other team members. The new technologies and approaches required to achieve this are completely alien to most of our present organizational culture. And this is why they fail.
Cooperative processes are not the automatic results of implementing collaborative, real-time communication technologies, but the result of a carefully designed and systematically maintained virtual team development plan.
For those of you who have already exposed themselves to the positive advantages made available by the use of cutting-edge communication and collaboration technologies, this should sound as a familiar melody. How many times have you been witness to technologically-based collaboration projects that have miserably failed? Why is there so much disjoint between technology potential and the productive use that business team members make of them?
If the solution is not in the technology enabling such networked business teams to easily interoperate, where is it then?
Who are Virtual Teams?
- Corporate (Cross Functional) Teams
involving a collection of staff from different functions including IT and Key Business Functions.
- Collaborative Businesses Networks
involve groups of between 10 and 20 businesses (usually SMEs) who have come together to operate as a “collective” in areas such as business development and product development. The incentive for team success is very high for all team members with the prize being new contracts with bigger customers and higher margins.
- Collaborative Supply Chains
generally centre round a major customer/OEM and a number of its suppliers. They are similar to collaborative business networks in the commitment to work collaboratively and to share risks and rewards within the supply chain. Where they differ is that the main source of power is with the major customer who is the purchaser of all products from the other players. The major customer can mandate and encourage technology usage to a certain extent.
- Interdepartmental Government Teams
are where a number of central or local government departments such as healthcare, economic development and education come together for a specific project. For example local councils developing a co-ordinated response to emergency planning or a central government department working with local government agencies to roll-out a national programme into a region.
- Corporate (Cross Functional) Teams
Other traits that characterize highly networked virtual business teams are:
- Inter-departmental and often inter-company
- Inter- disciplinary with a mix of skills and professions from different functions
- Project-based – formed to deliver a specific project by a specific deadline
(rather than management or best practice sharing-oriented)
- Highly Mobile
- “Political” with the need to manage the expectations of multiple stakeholders
- High profile/high risk – engaged in strategic/creative work which is higher risk and more challenging than the typical work assignment
- Multi-location – not based in a single location
- Mixed Involvement of full-time and part-time players – typically a small inner core of full-timers complemented by a larger outer core of part-time reviewers and specialists
What problems do Virtual Teams face?
- Technology adoption – learning new technology tools, especially when these diverge greatly from familiar metaphors and interfaces.
- Changing habits – adopting new ways of working, sharing and co-operating among project team members requires open-mindedness, patience and structure. It just doesn’t happen automatically.
- Accountability issues – remaining committed and responsible for assignments and responsibilities may require analysis and reframing of how people share information about their work and how they can introduce a systemic high-level of transparency in it.
- Team mobilisation – the ability to maintain all of the team highly motivated and tightly involved is a critical factor is virtual team success.
- Overfocus on Technology and Process instead of achievement of results.
- Complexity – multiple enterprises, multiple working locations, busy manager/director/owners , mixed relationship histories, hidden agendas, technology illiteracy, etc.
- Limited access – limited access to technology or the Internet infrastructure.
- High mobility – working in many locations (including their cars!) and may only be able to meet physically once or twice a month.
- Balance of power – traditional hierarchies or collaborative cooperation? How to shift from the old to the new?
- Multicultural Issues – Business-related cultural issues.
Which Is The Path To Successful Virtual Teams?
What is needed to make virtual business teams immediately effective is a strategic support framework composed of:
* a holistic, organic approach to the management and planning of virtual teams
* strategic analysis of the environment, project goals, and team role and composition ahead of technology and processes
* a “roadmap” to the successful incubation and maturing of a team and its members as an increasingly competent exploiter of support technology, practices and processes
* investment in Internet-based technologies
* a technology-based communication toolkit which includes web-based services for all of the typical virtual team support needs.
The ideal solution framework suggests making a systematic pragmatical reference to five key interdependent components of a successful virtual business team – each of which must be set-up correctly and then kept in constant equilibrium as the team evolves and produces results. These are:
1. Shared Team Understanding
2. New Processes and Practices
3. Ongoing Team Coaching
4. Holistic approach to Team Support Technology
5. True understanding of the dynamic nature of networked business teams
1) Shared Team Understanding
There are a number of key ideas, principles and rules that any successful virtual team needs to personalize and absorb in full. Its full understanding and team-wide acceptance are key factors in determining a team success:
1. Outcomes – Sponsors, Customers, outcomes and leading indicators
2. Environment & Risks – Management of key external players who impact team success
3. Ground Rules – non-negotiable and unacceptable team member behaviors
4. Team Capabilities – Experience and skills – required and available
5. Member Exchanges – what each member want outs and will put in
6. Team Structures – Leaders, Members, Critical Roles and Member-Types
7. Behavior Dilemmas – what new core team behaviours must be adopted
2) New processes and practices
Business virtual teams need to adopt and understand new work practices, sharing attitudes and communication modes to effectively empower the team they are part of. To achieve this the use of short workshops is highly beneficial especially in the initial phases of virtual team development and assembly.
Through this approach glaring gaps and issues within the team can be identified and resolved right at the start.
Collaboration between team members is just one of three equally critical domains of team collaboration. The others are:
* Member to member – team collaboration
* member-to-organisation – enabling the team to draw effectively on the resources of the parent organisations and integrating corporate IT applications via different and complementary technologies (e.g.: XML, Data Integration, Web-Services and Web-scraping technologies, etc.)
* member-to-marketplace – covering, for example, communication and collaboration with customer support staff via some kind of customer support technology.
3) On-going team coaching facility
Just like a sports team a business team needs a coach so virtual teams do. The virtual team coach is a critically important component in helping the team find its identity and best way of operating. The virtual team coach is responsible for:
* successfully introducing new technologies and working practices
* facilitating successful online virtual team meetings
* helping the team progress along the agreed developmental road map
* developing virtual team leadership
Like everyone else on such a team, the coach too needs to be extremely effective in carrying out his mandate by using the web, online collaboration technologies and the phone.
4) Holistic approach to Team Support Technology
Provided you have a clear blueprint for what is that it needs to be achieved by the Virtual Team, the best technology to use is not the one with the best feature set but the one you already have installed and every team member is able to use.
So wherever possible it is better to integrate an organization’s existing technology (intranet, extranet, team room, portal….) into the team support environment rather than scouting for the ultimate solution among new collaboration technologies. You may also need to plug some gaps but generally adding to, rather than replacing existing technology infrastructure is the proper way to go.
5) True understanding of the dynamic nature of networked business teams
A networked business team is a living thing.
Often we treat our teams mechanistically like a clock – though we sense that such oper-rational management will not always bear great fruits.
Interpretation of the team as a whole, living entity, allows more insightful selection of the best course of action. The virtual team is in itself a super-organism and as such it needs to be treated in ways that enhance and support its complex and interconnected nature. If you can see the virtual team as a whole, and not as the mere aggregation of the individual parts that make it up, you may discover how much more productive, reliable and efficient a virtual team can be.
10 Key Issues To Address To Create A Successful Virtual Business Team
A virtually networked business team which is trying to be more effective using virtual technology needs different working practices.
These may be often novel and unfamiliar to most teams members and need careful introduction and support. Some of these are:
1. Trust Building
2. Open Communications
4. Conflict Management policies
5. Virtual Decision Making process
6. Virtual Meeting Practices
7. Personal Collaboration Strategy
8. Collaborative Document Editing – Techniques for planning, developing and reviewing collaborative documents
9. Multicultural integration – Tools and methods for harnessing the different dominant business cultures within the team as an asset rather than a weakness
10. Virtual Brainstorming Workflow
11. Self-Managed Teams – Techniques for create a “self-managed team” style
On top of this, a critical point is that technology must be planned to support the whole environment with which the virtual team interacts with.
The road ahead: Bioteams
Nature’s most successful teams employ many of the above principles by genetic design.
Such spectacularly successful “bioteams” include ants, bees, big cat hunting packs, bird flocks, bacteria, dolphins, living cells and many types of micro-organisms.
They all share a small set of common key traits that allow them to be so successful as teams.
Unless, we are able to transpose and implement such traits in our modern day, people-based business teams, we will remain frustrated with the issues and limits that have long castrated our attempts in this direction.
Most of the characterizing traits of successful bioteams may appear to be completely foreign to the way business teams are organised today. This should not surprise or discourage efforts geared to introduce them in business environments.
Bioteams critical traits have been determined by the evolutionary path of nature and by immense amount of experimentation and trials that bioteams have carried out before finding their ideal co-operative formula.
Such bioteams traits may only appear strange to the technologist or to the inexperienced team coach, simply because, over the last 50 years we have got used to organising our business teams in a rather mechanistic way. But this need not be the only way to do it.
Bioteams show that a holistic, organic approach to team co-operation is so much more effective than any amount of rule-setting and technology investment a company can make.
So, what are the key traits that characterize successful bioteams?
1. Successful bioteams have ORGANIC BOUNDARIES (“POROUS MEMBRANES“). The boundary defines the space in which the bioteam processes operate (its doing) and these processes in turn generate and maintain the boundary (its being). The porous nature of the boundary allows bioteams to be open to energy and resources but closed to poisons and parasites .
2. Successful bioteams exhibit a high-level of SELF-ORGANISATION – for example, each role is not defined in terms of activities or results but only by its impact on the other team roles. 
3. Successful bioteams demonstrate a high-degree of MEMBER AUTONOMY. Self-sufficiency and full independence of each individual team member is a must. This allows for the growth of a ‘self-managed’ team operation rather than a ‘command and control’ structure. Team members do not require orders to act. What they need is only timely access to the right information. 
4. Successful bioteams have a highly effective COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM that facilitates teamwork (doing different things at the same time), groupwork (doing different things at different times) an crowdwork (same things at the same time). Bioteams also utilise indirect communication, such as scent trails, much more than direct communications. [1, 13]
5. Successful bioteams show ACTION BIAS – bioteam members have a natural tendency to take immediate action in response to certain types of information or context stimuli with very little “thinking” about it based on a set of simple rules. 
6. Successful bioteams operate across the THREE COMMUNICATION LEVELS of a mini social community/ecosystem:”Member to Member”, “Member to Environment” and “Member to Host Community”. 
7. Successful bioteams Engage with their External Environment through a pair of EXTERNAL TEAM PROCESSES – Foraging (for food) and Co-Evolution (for resources and alliances). [15, 27]
8. Successful bioteams manage four interdependent INTERNAL TEAM PROCESSES – Replication/recruitment (for new members), Training/coaching (for new capabilities), Maintenance (for new infrastructure) & Review (for value production). 
9. Successful bioteams organise themselves around a very specific NETWORKED RELATIONSHIP STRUCTURE involving weakly linked networks of strongly linked sub-teams. The strong links ensure things get done – the weak link ensure connections to the bigger network. [14,16]
10. Successful bioteams refine their available responses through LIVE EXPERIMENTATION – with the best responses becoming encoded for future use. This encoding is not influenced by strategy or planning – but only by acting in the environment. Counter-intuitively if enough team members follow simple rules in a consistent fashion complex results can be produced. Amazingly research proves that these “swarm intelligence” strategies often turn-out to be as effective as human algorithms in solving complex route planning problems such as “The Travelling Salesman”.[7, 12]
11. Successful bioteams let MAJOR CHANGES EMERGE UNPREDICTABLY. This kind of change, involving the team moving to another level, usually emerges as a result of external perturbations. Small inputs can produce disproportionately large changes and large inputs may produce little or no apparent changes. The team is more than the sum of its individual members – for example, ant colonies are often described as “Superorganisms”. [4, 20]
12. Successful bioteams evolve through a specific DEVELOPMENT CYCLE made up of three distinct stages – Birth, Expansion and Replication. A team is at its most vulnerable and can die at each of the three stages. In Ant colonies this equates to the queen picking the wrong nest location, giving birth to the wrong first set of founding workers or failing to mate successfully. 
Whilst these traits are critical to the success of bioteams, they are not in themselves, sufficient to drive the collaborative of a human team to success.
Human bioteams need also worthy goals, values, trust and exchanges – to catalyze their energies toward a cohesive focus.
Having highlighted the issues and complexity surrounding virtually networked business teams, it should now be clear that the success of these teams is not simply based on the choice of a specific technology.
Success is rather determined by how they organise and co-operate to use such technologies in the most effective ways.
Today, most business teams learn this the hard way, while with just enough preparation, guidance and coaching, becoming a successful networked business team can become an every day reality for any organization serious and determined enough to pursue this goal in a systematic way.
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