TechWatch: The Role of Technologies in Building Virtual Teams

In the previous issue of Ethix I wrote about the role of information technology in changing the measure of distance, and the way this has created electronic commerce, particularly Web-based businesses. A second major implication of redefining distance is the way people work together.

Virtual Teams

We hear a lot these days about virtual teams; that is, groups of people working together for a common purpose without being physically in the same place. What technology enables this, what problems does this technology solve, and what new problems are created?

Of course, for many years people have worked together without being in the same physical location. Trains, automobiles, and airplanes allowed people to come together for meetings and discussions, while letters, telephones, telegrams, and faxes enabled them to communicate between meetings.

The success of these long distance relationships depended on being able to get by with only occasional communication to keep on track, while the bulk of the work could be done independently. This is no longer adequate for many types of high performance teams, where close and fast interaction is the requirement.

Video Teleconferencing

Video teleconferencing was one of the early proposed solutions for this type of work. People could share work, see each other, and otherwise carry on a meeting much as if they were in the same room. Numerous downsides for this solution have given rise to new technologies.

Perhaps the first major drawback was cost. Companies could have only a few, highly scheduled video conference rooms. The concept that I could work from home and interact with colleagues through a video conference was out of the question. One answer to this is the personal video teleconference on the PC. For the small cost of a video camera mounted on the computer screen, you could link up through a video conference with anyone else similarly equipped.

A second major drawback was the resolution. The jerky movement of the people on the screen, due to limited network bandwidth, created a very unnatural interaction. Compounding this was the poor resolution of the work material being shared. The PC based video interaction compounds the first concern: in addition to poor resolution of the person on the other end of the camera, the display image was very small. “Talking heads” don’t add a great deal to the interaction. On the other hand, if the two collaborators can look at a computer image of the same document, the work being shared can be of very high quality, vastly superior to a typical video conference image. It did limit the shared information to computer based material.

Psychologists studying teams working together electronically observed the least important thing about video conferencing was the video. Voice is vital, as is the shared work piece.


These observations together gave birth to relatively new (within the past several years) tools like NetMeeting from Microsoft. This allows people to work together from many different locations, letting different members of the “virtual team” take control of what is being shown on the various computer screens, keeping all of the movement in sync. Voice quality was initially poor, but this could be overcome by using the phone lines.

Through this type of technology we can now replace a video teleconference with higher quality work sharing, and much lower cost. Newer imaging devices allow the sharing of non computer-based material and can be integrated. The virtual team can work together at relatively low cost with excellent information exchange.

For certain situations, however, video is still desirable even if it is third in importance. Enter the Next Generation Internet (NGI), a very high speed network connecting certain points (primarily universities today).

In a recent demonstration I watched the interaction between people at Stanford and University of Washington participate in a “video conference.” The quality of the images was High Definition TV (HDTV), and the images were being carried in packets over the internet like e-mail. The demonstrators assured us that this was not a dedicated line, but part of other traffic being carried over the network. While this is promising for the future, its widespread deployment at low cost is a ways away.

Another weakness of video conferencing is the material is not persistent: when you leave the room, there is no record of what went on. While you could keep a record of the computer based documentation from a NetMeeting session, going back to it is not like going back to a room with meeting notes and diagrams on the wall.

A more fundamental weakness is that the interaction of a team involves much more than meetings (fortunately!). Building relationships and trust, chance interactions in the hall, and side conversations which lead to new, innovative ideas, are all a fundamental part of what a team does. Most of us have taken a trip to a physical meeting, and recognized later that the most important business outcomes did not happen in the meeting.

Technologists are exploring the way even these interactions and side conversations can by supported by technology. I will mention two examples.

Virtual World

In the world of collaborative computer games, individual participants can explore “virtual worlds,” encountering animated obstacles as well as other players. Computer based representations of the players, called avatars, can encounter and interact with each other in these virtual worlds. I admit I have not participated in such games, but have seen them demonstrated and know of people who are hooked on this type of interaction.

For the business world, researchers are exploring how these virtual worlds could represent the product development areas of the company, for example. In exploring new designs, you could encounter someone in that “room” and have a discussion about particular features of the design. This takes us a bit closer to the serendipity of the real world.

Video Displays

A second way technology captures this interaction is built on video display technology, though not in a meeting session. Teams that are located in multiple physical locations might have video displays in the coffee areas of their buildings. Then you could encounter someone in the coffee room even if you were in Chicago and your colleague in Los Angeles. With the promise of future HDTV quality displays, this could be very realistic and useful.

I can hear some of the objections. Why not simply locate the team in one place? Isn’t this taking technology too far and trying to mimic the real world in an unnatural and costly way? This is, in part, a valid objection which I will return to in a moment. But first I need to make several observations.

In today’s fast-paced business world, few of us have the luxury of being on only one team. A finance person may be on an Integrated Product Team and at the same time be on a finance process improvement team. You can’t be physically co-located with everyone.

Second, a large team which is physically co-located in several buildings, or even multiple floors of the same building, has much less collaboration than one might assume. In a study done at MIT, it was shown that people in the same corridor had technical discussions with colleagues about 25 times per week. This dropped twenty per cent when the people were on the same floor but different corridors. It dropped eighty percent when people were on different floors, to about the same level as if they were in different buildings.

Third, in our era of globalization, product teams may span the globe. It is not practical or cost effective to move everyone to the same location.

In spite of these observations, there are things for a team that are best done face-to-face. Trust building is one example. Business consultant Michael Hammer once observed that video conferences don’t really save travel — you need travel to build and maintain trust. Rather, they speed the process of keeping the team on track between the meetings. They also broaden participation and ownership in the work by bringing more people into a process.

Incidentally, one of the downsides of people working from home was not that detailed work suffered, but that people didn’t know and trust one another. Tom Davenport (CIO Magazine) reported this as a key weakness in some of the early experiments with work at home.

For those people who “telecommute,” this might suggest the importance of coming to the office to hang around the water cooler with colleagues. Maybe this will become recognized as a desired behavior rather than a vice for business.

The “Team Performance Model” (below) is useful in seeing how people work together and what phases af the work require which kind of collaboration and technology.

In other words, the search for the ideal tool is the wrong search.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.