International Virtual Teams: Engineering Global Success—A Review


October 2016

International Virtual Teams: Engineering Global Success—A Review Schemes

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services

It’s commonplace today for information developers to work on international virtual teams. Writers work with engineering and software developers worldwide. They work with other writers who may be located on three or four different continents and in myriad time zones. Team members come from a wide variety of cultures and speak many languages. And those engaged in international virtual information development are acutely aware that managing virtual teams presents challenges.

Information development managers themselves are often responsible for managing the training, work, and evaluation of information developers across the globe. Organizations view international virtual teams as essential to their success.

Pam Estes Brewer, Associate Professor of Technical Communication at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, has written a tour de force on International Virtual Teams. Her 2015 book with that title is published by The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and John Wiley & Sons. Not only is her work based on an expansive review of research on virtual teams, but is augmented by her own research on virtual engineering teams. Her book is filled with examples, case studies, and practical recommendations for ensuring that international virtual teams are successful.

Virtual teams are those teams that do their work “across distances facilitated by technology as opposed to doing much of their work in face-to-face contexts.” International virtual teams not only work across great distances but also across cultures and languages. They present challenges that are in many ways entirely different from the challenges faced by local teams. And, Brewer argues, organizations rarely provide the training and support needed to help make the virtual and the international teams successful.

The statistics quoted by Brewer are impressive:

  • “Eighty percent of the workforce uses meetings that involve off-site workers.
  • Global virtual teams enable organizations to bring better products and services to market faster.
  • Organizations indicate, on average, that 27% of their employees work virtually.
  • Forty-six percent of surveyed European executives use virtual teams to improve communication and collaboration within their organizations.
  • One in three people who works in European IT and telecommunications companies spends 80% or more of his/her time working virtually.
  • Fifty-six percent of surveyed executives identify the most significant challenge to virtual teams as miscommunication resulting from differences in cultures and language.”

What most organizations apparently fail to recognize is that virtual teams work exactly like face-to-face teams. Managers and team members use their experience with local teamwork to make assumptions about virtual teams, often resulting in problems and miscommunications.

Even simple assumptions about the meaning of “soon” can throw a virtual team into real disarray, as we regularly hear from information-development managers. Does “soon” mean tomorrow or next week or in an hour? Without well-established rules of the game, “soon” might mean anything.

Brewer thoroughly reviews the challenges facing virtual teams, especially international virtual teams. For example, challenges include shared expectations of using technology, interpretations of languages, perceptions of time, differences in establishing leadership roles, and problems gaining trust. In each of these situations and more, she provides detailed examples that illustrate the problems and suggest possible ways to overcome them.

She notes, for example, the difficulty of working across time zones. Not only must team members know the time zones in each member’s area, they must also respect the “rhythms of the day.” That means when people begin work, when they take breaks or stop for lunch, when they do certain kinds of work, and when they are most easily available.

In tackling the issues of cultural differences, Brewer describes the construction of an interculture, referring to an online space where every team member is an immigrant. A successful interculture, developed by the team members, helps ensure the success of the enterprise. She outlines key success factors for working across cultures online, including deliberately encouraging a virtual team to develop an interculture. Even planning for differences in holidays and understanding what constitutes work days will affect a virtual team’s success.

I am especially impressed by Brewer’s process for establishing successful global virtual teams. She describes the importance of metacommunication, which means communicating about communication. She outlines a seven-step metacommunication process that she believes is essential for the success of a global virtual team:

  1. Be sure that substantial metacommunication takes place before the team’s work begins.
  2. Provide a definition and examples of metacommunication for participants.
  3. Provide a starting list of significant topics for metacommunication.
  4. Provide information on the value of metacommunication. Be sure the team members know that the leadership values this process.
  5. Allow adequate time for metacommunication.
  6. Encourage team members to analyze and informally document their norms for communication.
  7. Inform team members that they can revisit the norms anytime they like, and that metacommunication will be a tool for ongoing use.

Typical topics might include discussions about what team members expect in online politeness. What actions would the team members consider to be rude? How might someone on the team criticize someone else? How should people respond to criticism? What technology do team members prefer to use for what purposes? Is Instant Messaging alright, or does everyone prefer more formal email? What are everyone’s expectations about time? How quickly does someone have to respond to a question or concern? What makes something urgent?

After reading International Virtual Teams, I’ve already made up my mind to handle any virtual team more deliberately and carefully. I’ve worked with teams in my own practice that have proven difficult to manage virtually. Setting expectations through a careful discussion of metacommunication might help correct some looming problems.

I strongly recommend Pam Brewer’s work for every information-development manager and for team members. She includes a chapter on developing a training program, acknowledging that most of the organizations she studied have little or no training. Of particular value is the metacommunication worksheet that provides team members with a starting point for a crucial discussion. By adopting the recommendations in International Virtual Teams, you will help your virtual teams be successful. CIDMIconNewsletter