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The complexities of virtual teams

VirginiaCathroFeatureThe use of global virtual teams (GVTs) is an everyday practice within international business, thanks to digital options that connect people in real time.

However, virtuality can be complex when a team is highly culturally diverse, geographically dispersed, working in different time zones and, as is often the case, working to deadlines.

Add to that the fact that people have varying levels of competency in the ever-growing range of digital platforms available, and it is easy to see that members’ collective communication skills can either make or break the team.

One person who knows this well is University of Otago Business School management lecturer Virginia Cathro, who has managed global teams of university students with diverse cultural backgrounds competing in two international business competitions:

• Global Enterprise Experience (GEE), where students work in international virtual teams, developing a business plan proposal for an entrepreneurial venture that benefits society.
• Virtual Teams in International Business (VIBU), which is a global on-line business simulation, where teams operate their own simulated companies in real time.

Team members learn to collaborate across cultures, time zones, world views, and levels of wealth and poverty – but their success relies heavily on virtual communication competencies, which are the communication skills required by those working in a virtual team.

These experiences are embedded in Management papers.

In Ms Cathro’s experience, communication competency is particularly relevant in the current environment of “fast and furious” technological change, which offers many choices of ways to connect team members and to support group decision-making. “We are in constant change – for instance, “WhatsApp” is my students’ preferred conferencing software over “Skype” now, and who knows what it will be next year.”

While the students she works with are undoubtedly tech-savvy, they tend to assume that each of their fellow team members, who are spread around the world, is competent across all of the various communication platforms that are available and coming on-stream. This is often not the case – skills vary, and it can be difficult to communicate technical detail across multiple languages and imperfect communication platforms.

“I therefore have to quickly and effectively assess what each person brings to the table, and what competencies they need to develop so the team can perform. I know from experience that improving this measurement process is key.”

The research

While it is already well established that GVTs need good intercultural and virtual competencies to succeed, in reality, understanding of this issue is challenged by an abundance of models and measures.

Ms Cathro is studying Intercultural Communication Competence (ICC) in GVTs, focusing on whether “interculturally competent” team members and team leaders generate better results, understanding the nature of “intercultural competence” on virtual processes, and investigating how “intercultural competence” can be enhanced in a GVT.

She has bought together valuable data from her student teams over time, including surveys and participants’ reflections on their experiences, to identify specific competencies that are important for virtual teams.

This is already helping to better understand and develop the skills that members of virtual teams need to perform effectively, which can equally be applied to business and learning – both for students and for the increasing number of academics working from virtual settings in global collaborations.

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