Simon Fowler's Blog

rLiving Day 18: Global Team Dynamics (Relational Proximity)

Posted by Simon on May 19, 2010

IMHO, “Team Interaction Dynamics” should replace “virtual teams” or any notion of a difference between “virtual” and “non-virtual” teams. Unless you’re literally within spitting distance, you’re a virtual team, until you come together again physically in shared space. So the question is, how does a ‘team’ interact,how often and why? How are relationships amongst teams mediated and managed for optimal performance? I want to look at this research and match it against the Relational Proximity model and see how Relational Proximity holds up as an analytical model, and perhaps even a predictive one.

Studying the Effectiveness of Global Virtual Teams. In 2000, Martha Maznevski and Katherine Chudoba published a paper entitled, “Bridging Space Over Time: Global Virtual Team Dynamics and Effectiveness.”[1] Their 21-month study of three ‘virtual’ (i.e. not geographically co-located) teams in a major US producer of technological manufacturing equipment revealed that certain factors distinguished the two successful teams from the one unsuccessful team that was eventually disbanded. They were examined with respect to the dynamics of technology use, choice of media, and group outcomes. This is my summary of a summary by Elizabeth Kelley, “Keys to Effective Virtual Global Teams.”[2].

What made teams effective? What characterised the effective teams had to do with an interplay between task, ‘interaction media choice’ and ‘rhythm’:
– the nature of the task or group (not, “I prefer email”) determined media choice
– if tasks were interdependent they met more frequently
– if tasks were more complex (so the ‘message’ was more complex) they chose richer media
– if the team was composed of greater cultural/professional/national differences they chose richer media
– they prioritized building relationships to enable trust and shared views (this was mostly face-to-face & telephone)
– as trust increased, message complexity decreased, so they changed media choice
– the ‘planned’ meetings were only coordination meetings, regular conference calls, impromptu conference calls
– there was a ‘rhythm’ to their meetings

More about rhythm: “Effective teams also exhibited a strong, repeating temporal pattern to their interaction incidents. The basic rhythm was set by intense face-to-face meetings, with the interaction between meetings defined by a response to previous meetings or anticipation of the next. The researchers characterized the face-to-face meetings as “a heartbeat, rhythmically pumping new life into the team’s processes, before members circulated to different parts of the world and task, returning again at a predictable pace.””

Interpreting findings through Relational Proximity Lens: There’s more to the study, but I’ll take a look at just these findings. Remember, this is what characterized effective teams.

First, noticeable is the absence of learning styles, personality types or personal media preferences as a factor. Kelley’s summary doesn’t mention them. It was an intense 21 month study and I’m sure they would have controlled for those factors or rather picked teams similar enough that styles, types and media preferences wouldn’t vary greatly between teams.

Second, there were three driving factors for interaction media choice a) interdependence of tasks, b) complexity of task, c) level of trust and mutual understanding. In terms of Relational Proximity dimensions, I want to say the nature of the relational Purpose (dimension #5) is the driving factor for appropriate relational Directness (dimension #1). In other words, what they were about and their sense of common agreement on that determined how they chose to interact.

Third, a predictable yet flexible rhythm to their meetings was a major factor in success. The rhythm was determined and adjusted according to a) an upfront decision b) level of mutual trust and shared understanding (esp. in cross-cultural/professional situations) c) previous and expected outcomes. In terms of Relational Proximity, the regularity and future reliability of the meetings (dimension #2, continuity) was determined by their goal (dimension #5, Purpose) and by shared agreement (dimension #4, Parity).

So Relational Proximity is confirmed here to a certain extent. The dimensions have broad definitions and I may be stretching or confusing them a little. ‘Shared views’, for example, is clearly about Purpose/Commonality. But one could argue it’s also about power: agreement requires not forcing your opinion to dominate others, or being will for your opinion to change. I’m not sure if the proximity model has anything to say about task complexity or task interdependence (though the latter implies multiplexity, dimension #3).

Task drives (social) media selection, not the other way around! This study is 10 years old, so it was before the SoMe explosion. But that should only have added media options. It still should be the task at hand that drives media choice, not the other way around. You might ask, “ooooh! what can we do with this new tool?!”, but don’t ever just say, “well, we’re going to have blogs and wikis” without knowing why. Maybe there’s more recent research that builds on this? I know I came across an MIT study in the last couple of years. Can’t find it though. If you know of any on the topic of team interaction dynamics, media choice and the nature of the task/group, let me know. And if you have other thoughts or comments on this research and analysis, I’d love to hear it!

[1] Maznevski, Martha and Katherine Chudoba. “Bridging Space Over Time: Global Virtual Team Dynamics and Effectiveness.” Organization Science; Sep/Oct 2000, Vol. 11 Issue 5, p473-492
[2] Kelley, Elizabeth. “Keys to Effective Virtual Global Teams.” Academy of Management Executive; May 2001, Vol. 15 Issue 2, p132-133

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