Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in a team that speaks different languages, eats and sleeps at different times, and has different views on the world and getting things done? A Virtual Networked Team [VNT] includes all the above characteristics, born of a blend of different cultures, business perspectives and motivations and enabled by Knowledge Management approaches.
Globalisation, increased competition, shorter time to market and pressure to innovate are some of the drivers for organisations to adopt a knowledge-based culture. One of the consequences of this is the need to change organisational structures and behaviour: creating VNT's for specific purposes is one way of achieving the necessary organisational change. This brief article aims to explore VNT's as a viable form of organisational structure for enterprises committed to adopting a knowledge-based culture and to provide some hints and tips for establishing successful VNT's.
the case for Virtual Networked Teams
Many organisations perceive that they have created virtual teams just by installing email and video conferencing systems. These are great enablers but less effective on their own. This is because you cannot just email or videoconference anyone or everyone in your organisation to start a project. You need the knowledge of who has the competencies, who has the experience, and who will fit into the team (in terms of styles and values, beliefs and behaviours). Whilst improved HR systems can help to identify people with the right skills and competencies, at present they are not sophisticated enough to replace the manager who has a comprehensive network of contacts within the organisation.
A VNT is more than a limited number of people using video conferencing and email to communicate. Video conferencing is an excellent tool for explaining and showing how to solve mechanical problems, which involve high risk and short time scales, over long distances. However, softer and more complex problem solving requires a higher degree of Knowledge Management and often more participants than video conferencing can support at present.
Business Development within Cap Gemini Group is organised by using VNT's. This can vary from developing a new service (e.g. for E-Commerce, Business Intelligence or Knowledge Management) to introducing global market units for a branch of industry. Also the introduction of smaller initiatives is often carried out by this new way of working.
E.g. the new journal on Knowledge Management was put together by a VNT. The idea was conceived and developed over two meetings of a Cap Gemini Natural Work Team, a Natural Work Team being the label for a VNT within Cap Gemini. Once the concept had been agreed face-to-face, the short-list of authors and articles, project definition and funding was agreed via emails and telephone calls between the Editor, the Natural Work Team facilitator and the Journal's sponsor. So what's so unusual about this? For a start, the speed and ease with which the project was initiated was due to the working relationships and trust, which had matured between the project team members. VNT's can only be effective if some face-to-face meetings have occurred, views exchanged and ideas generated. Without this, there will be no sense of purpose, no sense of striving to attain common goals, no willingness to share knowledge and a high risk of failure.
One of the key characteristics of a VNT is its ability to draw on each member's links to other networks both within the organisation and with the external environment, which can result in a greater cross-fertilisation of ideas and more innovative thinking. Diagram 2 shows the relationship diagram for a Cap Gemini Natural Work Team. Note that in classical General Systems Theory, the thinking was that the system boundary clearly separates the system from its environment; consequently, in a systems map or relationship diagram, systems in the environment should never overlap with the organisation. Now that we are seeing a blurring of the organisational boundary, caused by alliances and market demand, a better model is to represent these external systems overlapping the traditional system boundary to represent the interaction between the two environments.
How is this managed? There is no manager in the traditional sense. Instead, the VNT has a facilitator whose role is to act as a gatekeeper, broker and catalyst for the community. This role may also be combined with a Knowledge Management responsibility for the VNT to stimulate the capture of best practices and the sharing of experience.
In a successful VNT, knowledge exchange occurs naturally as this forms the conversation between people working in different locations. Cap Gemini is planning to launch a new tool, The Virtual Office to facilitate the establishment of even more VNT's within the organisation as we move forward with our vision for Knowledge Management within the organisation.
Do's and Don'ts for successful Virtual Networked Teams
DO Ensure that there is a sponsor for the VNT who has a global reputation within the organisation.
Involve enthusiastic people. Those who want to participate in the VNT will gain the necessary commitment at their local level to become team members if they are passionate enough about the subject area or problem addressed by the VNT.
Encourage an atmosphere of fun and curiosity. The most innovative solutions will be produced in a supportive rather than a threatening environment.
Communicate! Publicise achievements, recognise individual contributions, make the rest of the organisation curious about what you are doing, keep in touch with each other in the VNT on a regular basis even if there is nothing significant to report.
Actively interact with the external environment e.g. customers, suppliers, universities, competitors and industry gurus and build up your personal network. This will benefit the VNT by providing a richer pool of collective contacts.
Share interesting articles and papers that you find; even if they may not be directly relevant to you, they could stimulate someone else's creativity.
Establish a forum for exchanging ideas and information. A discussion forum on an Intranet is more open than using a fixed email distribution list.
Hold a kick-off meeting to launch the VNT and meet face-to-face 3-4 times each year.
Reconsider performance measurement. It is the capability to deliver, based on competencies, combined with a willingness to share knowledge that will form the basis of individuals assessment: not the number of hours they spend at head office
Implement or update knowledge management processes to ensure that the risk of losing tacit knowledge transfer within the VNT is reduced to a minimum.
Consider how content management will be conducted for the geographically dispersed team. Is the organisation's infrastructure capable of effectively supporting global knowledge access and dissemination.
Use a facilitation style of leadership: autocracy won't work!
Attempt to balance the innovators and adapters in the team.
Remember that multicultural teams consist of many participants who are not native English speakers. Aim for clarity of expression and agree common terms at the start of the mission.
And, speaking of mission, ensure that the critical success factors are defined for the VNT and that everyone involved knows what they are.
DON'T Overstructure things. Project managers will raise their hands in horror at this statement. VNT's are organic rather than mechanistic and overstructuring will kill the opportunity for tacit knowledge exchange and stifle creativity.
Make the VNT a permanent structure: the lifespan should be long enough only to achieve the goals. Typically, a VNT tackling global issues may last between 3-5 years.
Expect to document everything. Instead, ensure that the communications map is maintained, charters defined, progress bulletins created and at the end, case studies and project profiles written up.
Expect to have a common view on all aspects of the mission. Divergent views should be encouraged and articulated if innovation is to occur.
USE VNT'S IF... To conclude, VNT's are good for projects with a high intellectual capital/thinking content, increasing knowledge sharing for business benefit in geographically dispersed organisations and bringing together people with a similar problem to solve. The benefit is less re-invention of the wheel and more consistency of approach across the organisation.
DON'T USE VNT'S IF... On the other hand, VNT's are not good for organisations with hierarchical structures and rigid central control, permanent working or Rapid Application Development -it s better to bring the team physically together to pressure cook the results for this situation.
Using a team approach, supported by appropriate technology and Knowledge Management practices, the advantage of a VNT is the ability to create and refine ideas and solutions without the requirement for continuous face-to-face interaction. The best results will be obtained by bringing the team members together at the start to establish a sense of community. Then you can communicate and operate in the virtual world from London to Tokyo, Singapore to San Francisco and Paris to New York.
Julie Coleclough is involved with business development for Applied Knowledge Management in Cap Gemini. She facilitates the (Virtual Networked) Business Development Team for Applied Knowledge Management and is a lead tutor for Applied Knowledge Management at the Cap Gemini University.