Collaboration, defined as "the collective work of two or more individuals where the work is undertaken with a sense of shared purpose and direction that is attentive, responsive, and adaptive to the environment", is a robust tool for getting things done, creating change, and extending resources to their furthest imaginable limits. More and more, organizations are relying on collaborative work to integrate and align their human resources, better tap into the external environment, adapt a flexible stance, and ultimately achieve a competitive advantage in the fast-paced global marketplace.
We are witnessing a conscious transformation of the structures, values, and business practices that drive contemporary organizations to encourage and support collaboration on many levels. A collaborative organization supports both informal and formal forms of collaboration, uses teams to accomplish work when needed, and is designed to support collaboration. Broader still is what has been referred to as a collaborative work system (CWS), defined as systems "in which a conscious effort has been made to create structures and institutionalize values and practices that enable individuals and groups to effectively work together to achieve strategic goals and business results".
A CWS may range from a colocated team to a global, multiorganizational strategic alliance. Collaboration knows no boundaries. The terrain of the contemporary workplace is now characterized by independent knowledge workers who are collaborating together across the globe. Indeed, one of the major challenges facing organizations is how to connect these knowledge workers, regardless of distance, time zone, or national culture, to form temporary or permanent business alliances, formalized virtual corporations or virtual teams, or more informal virtual working relationships and knowledge exchange systems such as virtual communities.
By using a myriad of new technologies, companies have found ways for people to work together on essential tasks while staying put. Knowledge of virtual communication tools like e-mail, online chat, instant messaging, and Web conferencing is quickly becoming necessary for workers. Thus, the very meaning of collaboration has been extended, and such efforts are referred to as virtual collaboration. Virtual collaboration is about achieving the organization's desired results by focusing on goals and actions that could not be accomplished by working alone. Virtual collaboration occurs when people who are not colocated use communication technologies to work together and facilitate getting the job done. In sum, virtual collaboration is the process through which virtual teams get work done.
Like any conventional team, a virtual team consists of a group of people who interact to complete interdependent tasks and work toward a common goal. But instead of meeting in the same office, the team members work in different places, often at home, and in different time zones. They may never meet their coworkers face-to-face. Virtual teams are typically project- or task-focused groups. Team membership may be relatively stable (such as an established sales team) or may change on a regular basis (such as a project team). Members may be drawn from the same organization or several different organizations (for example, projects that involve external consultants or evaluators or strategic business pursuits sought by partnering organizations). Further distinctions can be made concerning physical proximity (whether the team members are colocated) and by work cycle synchronicity (whether the team members are in the same time zones).
In a virtual team, the task itself usually provides the initial motivation to work together across time and space. However, in order to keep working together successfully, more is often needed. A virtual team is more than a collection of individuals working in isolation. Virtual team members depend on one another to fulfill a common goal. As such, they need to be connected on both a task and interpersonal level because challenges in working virtually emerge in both domains. Task-related demands such as the planning and scheduling of work need to be balanced against interpersonal aspects such as a shared social context, expressions of trust, and a genuinely human interest in one another in order to maximize the overall performance of the team. Virtual teams often tend to evolve incrementally over time rather than spring into existence intentionally and fully formed. However, whether one consciously chooses to be part of a virtual team or finds oneself joining in a more informal way, the team is likely to exist for one or more of the following purposes:
• To engage individuals on the team with the best skills and expertise for the work, regardless of where those individuals are physically located
• To ensure twenty-four-hour coverage on a service, problem, or task by team members working across time zones
• To reduce office overhead by hav ing team members work from home
• To adapt an as-needed approach to scheduling human resources in order to save time or money, or both
Working on a virtual team may sound simple enough until one realizes that geographically dispersed members wholly dependent on technology make true collaboration, a difficult undertaking in any circumstance, all the more challenging. Many progressive companies have provided their workers with the technological capabilities to collaborate virtually, but they may not be aware of the training and support needed in areas such as decision making, communication skills, cultural awareness, and virtual meeting facilitation. Many have touted the upsurge of collaborative technologies that have made virtual collaboration possible around the globe—and with good reason: the business results of virtual collaboration can be dramatic.
However, before face-to-face interpersonal interaction is abandoned altogether, it is crucial to consider the challenges in setting up and sustaining effective virtual teams. From the work of these authors, six major challenges of virtual teams have been identified: distance, time, technology, culture, trust, and leadership. The first three—distance, time, and technology—are defining characteristics or givens of virtual teams. Distance and time represent discrete (measurable), bounded conditions that are dissolved through technology. The last three—culture, trust, and leadership—are created and sustained by the virtual team itself. Culture or cultural differences may impede or propel forward virtual team success and occur at many levels concurrently (such as nationally, at corporate headquarters, and within dispersed units of a particular organization).
Trust and leadership, and their more negative derivatives, are present or absent in varying degrees and forms (for example, distrust) in brick-and-mortar and virtual organizations alike and can be considered dynamic, organizational, cultural realities. In virtual teams, distance, time, and technology are necessary but not sufficient for high performance. An awareness of cultural differences and potential connections among members, as well as commitment to development over time of member trust and leadership capability, are the real building blocks to high-performance virtual teams.