From email to groupware and the wireless Web, advances in information technology make it easier to disseminate information within an enterprise and make it possible for far-flung employees to work together efficiently. Organizations now can form teams with little regard for the physical location of the members and even take advantage of time differences to extend service hours and push jobs to completion sooner.
And a number of studies indicate that virtual teams (teams in which most members cannot regularly meet face to face) embrace technology quickly and use it to disseminate information more efficiently than traditional teams.
But a recently published research paper by scholars at Stanford's Graduate School of Business and two other universities suggests that virtual teams may extract an unexpected price: People who add their hard-won knowledge to a common pool may become alienated from the organization and even fear that they are sowing the seeds for their own replacement.
After all, says Stanford's Margaret Neale, if your knowledge — not to mention the tricks and tips it has taken years to learn — is deposited in a database for all to access, does the organization still need you? "It's a real fear," says Neale. "Technology has the potential to destabilize the relationship between organizations and employees."
Also a serious concern: Employees working in virtual teams are, to a certain extent, isolated from their colleagues. Although they may have contact with other employees of their organizations, they don't spend much time with them. In this situation, the virtual worker loses opportunities to learn from his or her closest colleagues. In effect, there's a double penalty. The virtual worker perceives herself as giving away her knowledge but not having the chance to "replenish her own reservoir of knowledge," and thus feels even more vulnerable, says Neale.
Neale, the Business School's John G. McCoy-Banc One Corporation Professor of Organizations and Dispute Resolution, collaborated with Terri L. Griffith of the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University and John E. Sawyer of the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware. Their paper, "Virtualness and Knowledge in Teams: Managing the Love Triangle of Organizations, Individuals, and Information Technology," was published in the MIS Quarterly in June 2003.
Unlike much of their earlier work, the Love Triangle paper is not based directly on experimental work. Instead, it is based on years of study (sometimes separately, sometimes together) of virtual teams, including fieldwork, by the authors.
To better understand the researchers' argument, it's important to realize that there is more than one kind of team and more than one kind of knowledge.
A purely virtual team is one whose members never (or almost never) meet. A traditional team works in the same office or building and often meets face to face. And a hybrid team might consist of a few remote employees and a majority of employees based in the home office, or a team that works separately some of the time and together the rest. Since the lines separating each type of team are somewhat blurry, the researchers often speak of teams as being "more virtual" or "less virtual"; and their research shows that hybrid teams now make up the majority of organizational teams.
Because they are the most geographically diverse, teams that are more virtual may be able to draw upon a wider variety of information sources. Team members from similar backgrounds or social networks tend to have redundant sources of knowledge, while virtual team members (who tend to be from different backgrounds or networks) tend to be more complementary.
Individual knowledge, the researchers say, lies on a continuum from explicit knowledge, which is knowledge that can be expressed very concretely; through implicit knowledge, which is known but hard to explain; to tacit knowledge, which is developed through experience and social contact. By its nature, tacit knowledge is very difficult to transfer.
Because virtual teams use technology well, they are likely to share explicit knowledge with the rest of the organization better than traditional teams. But tacit knowledge is difficult to share without direct contact, which means that virtual team members will have a harder time sharing their tacit knowledge with teammates and learning from their team members. And that leads to isolation and frustration.
Identifying a problem is easier than fixing it. But the researchers recommend a number of strategies to improve knowledge transfer with virtual teams, including:
- Verbalize rules, terminology, and descriptions.
- Give team members access to tools that support highly interdependent work, such as advanced groupware or video conferencing.
- Make it easier for virtual team members to learn from colleagues on other teams and other organizations; for example, setting up mentoring programs, or encouraging team members to attend conferences.
- Develop cross-team groups focused on particular skills that will keep isolated team members exposed to knowledge from the rest of the organization.