Tag Archives: virtual teams

External Communication

External Communication Done Virtually

by Mark Sivy

Effective unambiguous external communication is essential to the operation of a virtual business organization. Chances are that the means of external communication are more conventional than for internal communication (see previous post) and usually involve email exchanges or phone conversations. Virtual organization leaders engage in a variety of face-to-face external interactions, including one-on-one conversations, private group meetings, and corporate and industry events. Some types of communication to consider are general external communication, client communication, organization representation, feedback and input, and marketing.

Groupsourcing

General External Communications

Even though internal staff may receive training and mentoring to engage in intentional and meaningful communications, the individuals who are outside of the organization may not. This means that special attention must be given by leaders to ensure proper reception and perception of both outgoing and incoming messages. Prepared leaders make sure that communication plans are in order and that staff understand their responsibilities.

Client Communications

virtual communicationGiven client diversity, issues with communications will result from having too many options for communication or lack of productive communication. Usually the task for a client is to determine with whom or what they are to communicate, whether it be someone at a home office, a sales representative, and automated response system, or through an online text message system. It’s the organizations challenge to ensure that the processes are streamlined and the clients receive the attention they need and deserve.

Organization Representation

Organization staff and leaders are involved in an assortment of meetings, conferences, committees, and other external gatherings relative to their schools. Depending upon the function, these could include their peers, vendors, stakeholders, members of the media, government officials, special interest groups, and investors. Some of these events are in-person and must then be maintained through virtual communication, while others are strictly born and nurtured through digital means.

Feedback and Input

Virtual businesses often use outward facing surveys, opinion polls, assessments, and evaluations for the purpose of enhancing their operations and offerings. The data can acquired from different sources, such as customers, market specialist, advisory groups, and product testers.

virtual messaging

Marketing and Branding

Virtual organizations must promote themselves to remain viable. Successfully branding a company and marketing its solutions and products digitally requires more that preparing a trendy website. There are needs for legal and social considerations, creation of accurate product images, development of brand recognition, establishing a client base, maintaining a positive public image, making announcements and press releases, and pushing out other forms of communication.

To do all of this properly, there must be substantial market research and trend monitoring. Additionally, there must be measures to ensure that the intention of organization communication matches its perception by clients and the public. For instance, the American Dairy Association’s huge success with its campaign “Got Milk?” prompted them to expand advertising to Mexico. It was soon brought to their attention that the Spanish translation read “Are you lactating?” To learn more about improving your advertising communication, check this out.

So What Can We Do?

After having been involved for many years with virtual communication with work teams and clients, here are some pieced of advice to keep in mind:

  • It’s all about trust and team building – you have to develop these over time.
  • Create communication standards, including response times, strategies and expectations.
  • Empower those who you are communicating with. This is done in part by setting the tone of trust and expectations.
  • Remember to compensate for the lack of nonverbal visual cues.
  • Be aware of time zone differences.
  • Schedule synchronous meeting times well in advance, including sending out discussion points.
  • Keep communications focused on the topic. This is particularly a challenge with synchronous meetings where conversations can wander.
  • Be aware of and respect cultural diversity.
  • For synchronous meetings remember to speak slowly, don’t multitask, pause and listen to understand, don’t interrupt, and set aside time for developing relationships.

Reflection Point – “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~George Bernard Shaw

Internal Communication

Internal Communication at the Virtual Organization

by Mark Sivy

As the leader of a virtual organization or virtual team, attention to communication between co-located and geographically separated individuals requires a heightened level of importance and skill. In a recent study I performed on leaders of virtual organizations, the participants’ continual return to the communication topic throughout the interview process highlighted communication as one of the most essential and influential components of their leadership. The data analysis revealed two differentiated areas of communication – internal and external.

This blog post examines aspects related to internal communication, which were categorized as being general internal communication, headquarter employee communication, and at-a-distance employee communication. Almost all study responses involved at-a-distance and electronic forms of communication through emails, phone calls, online meetings, learning management systems, and instant and text messaging. The leaders involved in the study said communicating through these various media presented challenges in terms of ensuring that they were done correctly, clearly, and effectively. If these criteria were met, the leaders indicated that contemporary methods of electronic communications were seen to be advantageous over previous in-person ones. The participant also cited face-to-face conversations as well, typically when employees were within short walking distance of each other such as in and adjacent office or cubicle.

virtual commmunication

General Communication

The means of and approaches to communication in a virtual organization are different than in a traditional one. In a traditional setting, general internal communications are often done according to a daily schedule, are commonly unidirectional, and are often asynchronously viewed, heard, and given response. The majority of the participants felt communication that occurs in a virtual organization is more immediate, dynamic, frequent, and closer to real-time than in a traditional physical setting. The leaders were able to leverage at-a-distance electronic communication in a manner that promoted the overall importance of communication, the need for clarity of communication, the unique uses of communication, and the value that communication has to the school team and community. The media used for internal communication were varied and depended upon the geographic relationship of those who were in contact and the purpose of the communication.

Most leaders alluded to the fact that there is a heightened sense of importance placed on communication within a virtual organization due to the geographic distances between staff. One profound comment that sums up the feeling of many was, “Communication, communication, communication. I don’t think we can communicate enough.”

Headquarter Employee Communication

The leaders reported communicating with co-located staff in a variety of ways that were purpose specific. There were standing times set for face-to-face meetings with all headquarters staff, with these typically happening on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis. Many of the leaders supplemented these meetings with the use of online meeting systems to connect with those staff who were unable to attend in-person.

online meeting systemThe participants also used various means to communicate with those staff that they were more dependent upon and had to speak with more frequently. Each relationship developed a favored form of communication. Being dependent upon proximity, time, and purpose, the common avenues of interaction would involve walking to an office to talk, calling someone by phone, sending an email, using an online meeting system, or using instant messaging. Even in a common physical setting, the sense from the leaders was that the availability of these at-a-distance electronic communication often allowed more responsive and frequent communication and a greater openness than they experienced with in-person discussions.

At-a-Distance Employee Communication

Communications with these employees involved some sort of electronic medium, most commonly email, instant messaging, and content sharing via intranet. When compared to a single location organization, there were more frequent and more random communications with employees, both individually and as teams. Some leaders noted that at-a-distance communication increased the amount of communication between employees, thus creating a greater sense of support and team effort.

Instant MessagingMany study participants described communication strategies as being based on the importance of the messages and types of information. The leaders wanted to manage communication in a manner that reduced the burden on employees to keep up with the volume of communications. Messaging systems were used for quick input from an individual, content management systems typically served as a repository for both reference materials and current information. Emails were often used as a means for personal and team communication or specific requests.

Reflection Point – “To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” ~ Tony Robbins

Virtual Team Leadership

Virtual Team Leadership – Excel in Today’s Organization

by Mark Sivy

Virtual Leadership

Virtual LeadershipVirtual team leadership skills are a useful, if not necessary, asset that many leaders may overlook developing or may not effectively execute. The increased globalization of people, services and economic activity that is being facilitated by the rapid development of Internet communication and collaboration technologies has led to an exponential increase in the need for functional virtual teams and organizations (Caulat, 2006; Zhang, Fjermestad, & Tremaine, 2005). This encroachment of virtual activities into the workplace and markets necessitates that leaders understand and embrace it.

Perceptions of Leaders

Boje and Rhodes (2005) stated that due to mass media, leaders and leadership that are not directly seen can become virtualized and the virtual leader becomes a construct in the minds of those who follow or are impacted by the leader. To employees, clients, teachers, students, and other virtual community members who do not encounter a leader face-to-face, the leader takes on a distinct character based upon the information they receive. The online leader’s persona is created from the individual perceptions and interpretations of virtually exhibited leader variables such as mannerisms, gestures, tones, words, actions, reactions, and styles. For this reason, it is important for leaders to mitigate misperceptions and incorrect beliefs by being careful, clear, intentional and communicative.

Virtual Team

Challenges

Being perceived in a desired way can be made more intimidating by the fact that the virtual environment can be subject to the following unique barriers and challenges that have been identified by leaders of virtual teams (DeRosa 2009):

  1. Having infrequent face-to-face contact as a team
  2. Lacking necessary resources
  3. Building a collaborative atmosphere
  4. Lacking time to focus on leading the team
  5. Evolving and shifting team and organizational priorities
  6. Having more work than the team can handle
  7. Managing poor performers
  8. Experiencing situations in which team members can dedicate only a portion of their time to the team (p. 10)

These challenges are not insurmountable and can be addressed by developing leaders to have the necessary capacities and capabilities to perform effectively in their specific environment and conditions.

Virtual Teams

Just as with different face-to-face work structures and environments, there are specific best practices and techniques that can be more or less effective in a virtual setting. Duarte and Tennant-Snyder (1999) recognize seven basic types of unique virtual teams with members who work across distance, time, and organizational boundaries. These team types are:

  1. Networked teams – diffuse, fluid, and sometimes dissociated members collaborate to achieve a common goal
  2. Parallel teams – a short-term working team with a distinct membership which makes recommendations concerning a special function or task
  3. Project or product development teams – a decision-making team which exists for a defined period of time to produce a specific outcome
  4. Work or production teams – these are usually recognized as organizational units which have a specific regular and ongoing work function
  5. Service teams – these consist of multiple teams which function to provide around-the-clock operations
  6. Management teams – members are located globally but work collaboratively to lead an organization
  7. Action teams – members of these teams provide immediate responses when needed, often in emergency situations or short-term times of need (pp. 2-5)

Team

It’s important regardless of the type of team that virtual team members are aware of, are prepared for, and understand the challenges that each situation and work dynamic presents. It is the leader’s responsibility to identify the type of teams they have, need, or want and to proceed accordingly.

Reflection Point – “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” ~ Babe Ruth

 

References

Boje, D. & Rhodes, C. (2005). The virtual leader construct: The mass mediatization and simulation of transformational leadership. Leadership, 1, 407-428.

Caulat, G. (2006, August). Virtual leadership. The Ashridge Journal.

DeRosa, D. (2009). Virtual success: The keys to effectiveness in leading from a distance. Leadership in Action, 28(6), 9-11.

Duarte, D. & Tennant-Snyder, N. (1999). Mastering virtual teams: Strategies, tools, and techniques that succeed.

Zhang, S., Fjermestad, J., & Tremaine, M. (2005). Leadership styles in virtual team context: Limitations, solutions and propositions. Proceeding of the 38th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

Most of Us Practice Virtual Operations

The New Age of Virtual Organization Operations

by Mark Sivy

Most of us probably haven’t thought much about being in an era where virtual organization operations play a major role in daily activities, but it does and we’re involved with it. So what examples exist for these types of operations? To explore this we need to first identify what constitutes virtual organization operations.

A Perspective on Virtual Organization Operations

Here’s where it might get a bit tricky since technically virtual organization operations have existed since individuals have communicated and coordinated efforts while being at different locations. To narrow this topic down, I’ll focus on “near real-time” interactions that occur at-a-distance. Prior to the advent of electronics, some of these early methods have been through the use of mirrors (heliographs), smoke signals, drums, and flags (semaphore). As we moved into the 19th Century, organizations began using electronically-mediated services that were being invented, including the telegraph, fax machine, and telephone. Coming into the 20th Century, virtual operations were facilitated with the advent of radio, television, and eventually the Internet.

Virtual organization operations occur when geographically separated members of a team work together in achieving some outcome such as an event, service or product. Any one of these groups can represent a broad pool of shared skills, knowledge and experiences that are networked via digital communication and collaboration technologies. These technologies address the barriers of time and distance, enabling an organization to leverage collective innovation, creativity, and synergy. Virtual Organization Operations

Virtual Organization Operations in Practice

So where does this leave us as practitioners of virtual organization operations? Well, this actually involves a huge range of activities from something as simple as two relatives in different parts of a country talking on the phone planning a family gathering to a corporation’s globally distributed team working together to develop a new product line. Since you’re reading this blog, I would say that it is very likely that within the past 24 hours you’ve engaged in some form of virtual operation whether you’ve placed an online order with Staples or Amazon for merchandise, collaborated on a work document on Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox, or used social media such as Twitter or Google+ to plan a social gathering.

So What’s the Challenge in Virtual Organization Operations?

With all of these common examples of how one might accomplish virtual operations with relative ease, you might be thinking this isn’t rocket science. In part that is correct. Some of the everyday tools that are used for many virtual tasks are linear or have been created for end-user simplicity. However, when it comes to mission critical, dynamic, and interactive virtual organization operations that involve interactions between diverse team members, it becomes much more complex. Working in this type of networked environment requires specialized knowledge and skills that enable people to communicate effectively and function efficiently when separated by geographic distances.

The Challenges in a Nutshell

Body languageMost of us are unknowingly dependent on gaining much of our communicated information and understanding from in-person body language. In a seminal study, Mehrabian and Ferris (1967) discovered that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words stated. So depending on the form of communication, as much as 93% of face-to-face communication content could be lost in communicating with others at-a-distance. We can only partially compensate for this, but it is important that we do, otherwise serious misunderstandings, mistakes, and failure can result.

In a future post, this topic will be explored in more depth using the concepts of presence, emotional intelligence, transactional distance theory, and social constructivism.

Reflection Point – The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said. ~ Peter F. Drucker

 

Reference

MEHRABIAN, A., & FERRIS, S. R. (1967). INFERENCE OF ATTITUDES FROM NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION IN TWO CHANNELS. Journal Of Consulting Psychology, 31(3), 248-252. doi:10.1037/h0024648

Virtual Team Project Feasibility Study

Feasibility Study Outline for Projects Done Virtually

by Mark Sivy

feasibility studyA thorough feasibility analysis provides the necessary information to make decisions concerning the project and much of what is needed to develop a business plan.  One must keep in mind that the study should capture and examine all of the variables facing a concept so that an informed decision can be made concerning the investment of time and resources.

The feasibility study for a project that will be completed through a virtual team, online collaboration, or partners who are at-a-distance typically follows a traditional format, with special attention and modifications being made in certain aspects. Perhaps the most important of these is the level of consideration, care, and thoughtfulness that go into communication. This includes messages that are sent and received, and those that are delivered to virtual teams, individual employees, and stakeholders. (Virtual communication will be discussed in detail in an upcoming post.)

Communication

Below is a suggested table of contents for a feasibility study. It’s followed by a brief description of each element.

Table of Contents

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Introduction
  3. Scope
  4. Terms and Acronyms
  5. Project / Concept Overview
  6. Description of Objectives, Products, and Services
  7. Assumptions
  8. Consequences and Risks
  9. Alternatives
  10. Technology Considerations
  11. Product and Service Market Analysis
  12. Marketing Strategy
  13. Training and Professional Development
  14. Staffing and Organization
  15. Timeline
  16. Benefits
  17. Financial Projections
  18. Findings and Recommendations

1. Executive Summary
The executive summary provides an overview of the content contained in the feasibility study document. This section is written after the rest of the document is completed.

2. Introduction
Describes the reasons for the concept or project and also the intended outcomes from the feasibility study.

scope3. Scope
Describes the scope of the feasibility study as it relates to the project, stakeholders, and those who it will impact. This is sometimes captured in the introduction.

4. Terms and Acronyms
Provides a list of the terms and acronyms used in this document and the definition of each. Working with team members and suppliers who are at-a-distance requires this section to be comprehensive and to provide a clear and common understanding. This is particularly important when members are internationally dispersed or have different cultural backgrounds.

5. Project / Concept Overview
Offers a brief overview of the proposed project or concept. This will serve as a point of reference for the remainder of the document.

6. Description of Objectives, Products and Services
This section provides a more detailed description of the objectives, products and/or services which are being considered as part of the feasibility study. The purpose of this section is to provide detailed descriptions of exactly what the organization is considering so this information can be applied to the remaining sections of the document.

7. Assumptions
Determine the project assumptions, such as operational life of the proposed system, maintenance, training, sustainability, and scalability.

8. Consequences and Risks
Includes consequences of not taking action, what delays and risks might occur during work, and what delays and risks can be tolerated.

Risk

9. Alternatives
Describes an alternative(s) to the suggested system and states the reasons why the alternative system(s) was (were) not selected.

10. Technology Considerations
This section should explain any considerations the organization must make with regards to technology, including hardware, software, infrastructure, skills, and interfaces. Technology may be developed or implemented internally or contracted through a service provider. This must consider the needs of the virtual organization and technologies that facilitate virtual collaboration and teamwork.

11. Market Analysis
This section provides and assessment of the existing domestic and overseas markets. It will describe who makes up the target market, who the competitors are, how products and services will be distributed, why users might select the products and services and how the market may change in the future.

12. Marketing Strategy
This section provides an analysis of the market and a description of the marketing process. This includes considerations such as a global competitor analysis, differentiating the organization and outcomes from competitors, determining who the marketing will target, and what types of marketing will be used.

13. Training and Professional Development
This is usually not included as a dedicated element in a traditional feasibility study, but in the instance of virtual undertaking it is a crucial component. Realistically, most leaders and team members are inadequately prepared for at-a-distance operations and this is a common reason why many virtual efforts meet with unexpected difficulties, cost overruns, or failure.

14. Staffing and Organization
This examines the people who are needed to implement an idea, including skills, backgrounds, and knowledge. At this point it is also necessary to consider the international nature of the undertaking, including differences in time zones, languages, and cultures. There will also need to be a plan for integrating additional staff and responsibilities into existing organization structures and staff.

15. Timeline
This section will provide an overview schedule, which serves as a guideline and includes major milestones and estimated time frames.

16. Benefits
It is important that the feasibility study captures the most important outcomes of the products and/or services that are being considered as well as how they may benefit the organization, workforce, end-users, and clients.

Finances17. Financial Projections
This section provides a description of start-up costs, operating costs, revenue projections and profitability.

18. Outcomes and Recommendations
This section will summarize the outcomes of the feasibility study and explain what course of action is recommended. This section may include advantages and disadvantages of doing the project and suggestion to enhance project success.

Every feasibility study has its own character and should be formatted accordingly. For other ideas on performing a feasibility study, there are many good web-based resources such as the Together Works discussion, HUD template and Wikipedia information.

Reflection Point – An absolute can only be given in an intuition, while all the rest has to do with analysis. ~Henri Bergson

Online Group Organizers

Online Group Organizers

by Mark Sivy

Why Would I Use One?

These web-based tools enable coordinators, leaders, and self-motivated individuals to create communities of volunteers, staff, or like-minded people that are organized and managed online, but who connect and interact in-person (or online for that matter). Organizing one of these events is an excellent way to establish yourself or an organization as the “go-to” expert in a given profession or business.

Online Group Options

There are several players in this field, but I find GroupSpaces, BigTent, and Meetup to be the most appealing. GroupSpaces offers free and paid plans, BigTent is free, and Meetup is paid only. Similar services are GroupLoop, SureToMeet, Wild Apricot, MemberClicks, and Meetin.org.

GroupSpacesBigTentMeetup

 

 

 

These providers and others offer a range of basic services that you would want to have such as calendars, file sharing, forums, RSVP’s, and public-facing webpages. Other options where many providers start to differ, and that you may want to consider as decision points, would be photo sharing, event specific services, social media links, subgroups, and file storage.

Setting Up Your Group

Even though each service is slightly different, here are some general points to consider in setting up your group:

  1. Select your area of interest and then do your research to find out what type of individuals might be interested in your group and what topics would attract them.
  2. Have a few photos ready, at least one of you and one that represents your group.
  3. Sign up with your service of choice and create a personal profile.
  4. Search around and see what type of activity is already happening within your area of interest. Search for keywords that relate to your field. Don’t let competing groups control your ambitions. Pursue your interests and be good at it.
  5. Consider that keywords or tags that describe what your group is about or hoping to accomplish.
  6. Craft a clear brief description that explains exactly your group’s purpose, giving potential members a clear idea of who should join and what to expect. If done well, the description will enable people to understand what type of community and conversations you hope to develop.
  7. Create the group, providing the location, name, description, etc.
  8. Select the pricing plan (if available).

Grow Membership

To get more members to join, and if you think you’re ready, schedule your first meeting. Don’t immediately host this event, but rather plan for it to occur about a month after you start your group. Contact friends, associates, and organizations that you think might have an interest in the group. Announce it through your social media and networks.

The First Meeting

Coffee ShopThis means knowing when and where it will be. Usually this is at an open public space such as a coffee shop. Keep the first event simple, serving mainly for introductions and open conversation. Pay close attention, both analyzing the audience and learning individual interests. Make the members feel as a part of the process.

Usual Meeting Format

The members typically meet, network and talk over drinks and light snacks. In certain locations these can be provided through the group or in others they can be purchased onsite by the individual attendees. Often there is an invited guest speaker or a panel discussion to stimulate interest and attendance.

Meeting Venue

The place to meet will depend upon the size of the group. The key is to find someplace free. Most establishments that sell food and beverages will be open to hosting a group of people, but be sure they can provide a dedicated space. Based upon available capacity, set a limit to the number of people who say they will attend and then create a waiting list.

For the Meeting

The day of the meeting, contact the meeting venue to confirm their awareness and that they’re prepared. Bring an attendance list, sign-in sheets, blank name tags and markers. Have people put their name, company, and specialization or title on the name tags.

Ongoing Social Media Connections

facebook-260818_1280In addition to maintaining communication through the online group service, other social media channels can be used to maintain community, networking, and conversations. The choice will depend upon the type of group, whether casual, professional, or somewhere in-between.

Funds

Typically there are costs associated with meetings and other operational expenses. These can be paid by the organizer, sponsors, membership dues, or event fees.

Sponsors

Getting sponsors is a way to help fund meetings and to make them more professional at times. Sponsors can come from within the membership, a local industry or a business.

The Virtual Organization

 

The Virtual Organization Blog

by Mark Sivy

<img src="image.gif" alt="Virtual Organizations" />After many years of leading individuals and teams at-a-distance, overseeing educational and business operations virtually, and communicating online with international educators, business contacts, and colleagues, I decided to temporarily add the challenge of being a doctoral student to that of being a mid-career professional. This decision was based on the personal desire to enhance my knowledge, research skills, and theoretical perspectives in a manner that would augment my practical experience with organization operations, virtual leadership, educational technology, e-learning, and educational leadership. Now that the role of being a student has come to an end, it’s time to regroup and put the added abilities, wisdom, and education to good use.

One way to do that was to create this blog as a means to share what I’ve learned and intend to discover about the virtual organization, including virtual operations, leadership, ecosystems, and communication. At the same time, since I have many other experiences, interests, and curiosities, I decided to launch other blogs as well:

Now that I’ve announced this blog and the others, from here on out they will take on their own character and set sail in their unique directions.

Sailing Ship LR

Reflection Point – I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by; And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.  ~ First stanza of Sea Fever by John Masefield