A real need for 'virtual teams'
Employers are all too aware that it is important to control costs and think creatively, but they can be slow off the mark in both respects. Just consider the number of air miles that executives clock up to attend routine meetings around the region. Or notice how brainstorming sessions tend to rely on the same people around the same table as a main source of new ideas.
Such scenarios, though, can quickly change, according to Adam Kingl, director of learning solutions for executive education at the London Business School (LBS). 'Virtual teamwork' is the way forward, and Generation Y members, in particular, are using the concept to transform long-held assumptions about work patterns and business practice.
'They see things differently,' says Kingl. 'For example, they don't assume a conversation has to be verbal, in real time, or synchronous. They are used to discussion boards and online meeting rooms created for a purpose, where tools can be added as needed to achieve objectives.'
For senior executives, such methods may be unfamiliar. But to perform effectively in a global economy, companies must be able to draw on ideas and expertise from around the world, actively encouraging diverse viewpoints and making it easy to give input on specific projects.
Kingl has seen the advantages of virtual teamwork in LBS research with companies and emerging leaders. Using a technology platform to 'meet', rather than the usual face-to-face format, was found to enhance innovation and elicit more diverse solutions. Participants from different countries, cultures and functions were more prepared to question standard assumptions. And once the ground rules were clear, contributors answered more quickly than in a traditional forum and felt freer to be creative.
'When discussing virtual teamwork, people get hung up on the technology,' Kingl says. 'It simply has to be fit for purpose. First, decide who you would like on the team, and then what applications are needed to exchange comments and information - attachments, voting capability and so on.'
The basic principles of any teamwork still apply. However, Kingl offers certain tips for making the virtual format work well.
For instance, a well thought-out 'igniting' question helps kickstart the discussion and encourages original ideas. It should give a clear focus and ask for specific types of contribution. There should be a clear timeframe for input, say 48 hours, allowing each person to participate during working hours in their own time zone. The leader, or co-ordinator, should be ready to delete irrelevancies and direct attention to the best contributions, or 'nuggets'. And it is important to make the most of a medium that lets everyone have a say, and not to let a few voices dominate.
'You want people who may log in and comment on more than one occasion,' Kingl says. 'This way, you create dialogue and get the interplay and reaction that leads to new solutions. If people feel part of the discussion, they will continue to be engaged.'
He adds that virtual teamwork, while an essential tool for 21st century business, is not seen as a substitute for face-to-face encounters. It is an adjunct, a refinement and, in certain cases, a definite cost saver.
Working with the LBS emerging leaders group, Kingl saw one obvious barrier to more widespread use of virtual teams: the need to change the habits and perceptions of older, less tech-savvy executives.
Fortunately, an in-house project to recast the school's vision and values highlighted the potential benefits. The virtual conversation not only generated innovative ideas, but it has also created 'actual behavioural change' among faculty staff.
'It showed me this way of working will have a profound impact on business,' says Kingl.