Virtual cooperation – i.e. working across boundaries within and between organizations using modern information technologies – poses new challenges for companies and organizations.
This type of collaboration differs from traditional teamwork in various important ways. As a result, work processes and human resources have to be adjusted to the new requirements and suitable forms of leadership need to be employed. A case study conducted at Microsoft and O2 was examined in order to document the conditions of virtual cooperation in the past and the present. The findings uncover factors that influence success and failure and provide specific suggestions for improving virtual cooperation.
Environmental factors that enhance the success of virtual cooperation are: First, a matrix-based organization structure in which project work takes place on a large scale increases project management competence. Second, a global orientation towards cultural diversity helps people working with each other and networking. Third, a developed technical orientation enhances the team members’ media competence. Finally, at Microsoft a focus on performance- and goal-oriented standards is positively related to the success of virtual cooperation, leading to generally accepted rules such as high performance expectations, agreements on targets/commitments, active participation and dedication. As a result, there is a strong reporting structure covering the regular exchange of key figures as well as clear, measurable and comprehensible target attainment. At O2, the employees have a strong sense of community and organizational commitment, which has a positive overall affect (e.g. being proud to work for the company).
In virtual teams, performance problems arise primarily due to unclear responsibilities or a low level of commitment. Moreover, acceptance problems can be caused by a low level of professional and social exchange, insufficient skills and intercultural competence, as well as conflicts of interest between the team and the functional department. In particular, inexperienced managers tend to focus on control-oriented leadership strategies which further intensify potential acceptance problems. Experienced managers rely on a broader repertoire of leadership techniques including one-to-one meetings, creating core teams of experienced team members (generalists), and designating regional managers or “deputies” to support subgroups of employees. With regard to communication, it is recommended that communication needs to be better planned and that personal meetings should be incorporated. Overall, the study attaches great importance to face-to-face meetings at the beginning of the teamwork and at different stages of the lifecycle as required. Potential intercultural problems should be addressed before the project work begins, intercultural training sessions should be offered, and practical implementation should be regularly reviewed (by conference calls or meetings).
The case study concludes with a detailed checklist including 42 rules on configuration, the start of cooperation, as well as on the regulation, optimization and ending of virtual cooperation. This enables managers of virtual teams to become familiar with the success factors and provides suggestions on how they can improve management and leadership across the lifecycle of virtual teamwork.