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Communications of the ACM

Global Applications of Collaborative Technology

Building A Global Learning Community

Groups of managers from around the world come together via the Internet to learn general management principles and to work on projects of relevance to their companies. The participants are located in 26 different countries and nine time zones. They work together in small teams, using a variety of collaborative technologies available to support their work together. We studied 24 of these teams over a period of eight months, observing their communication, taking measures of their performance, and asking them about their perceptions of technology use and their experiences in long-distance collaboration. Our research suggests several important ingredients to the success of global learning teams.

A mix of asynchronous and synchronous tools is vital to team success. Relatively speaking, asynchronous tools are more critical for team coordination. Team members in our study placed high importance on electronic discussion boards and email, followed by audioconferencing and chat room technologies. Asynchronous communication tools are vital when cultural and geographic distances are great and worker mobility is high. For example, an effective use of asynchronous tools is to schedule and follow up on team meetings. Shared team work spaces, such as group discussion boards, are useful for reporting on the status of work activities, posting questions, setting deadlines, and holding general conversations for all to see. Although simultaneous conferencing and/or chat technologies are important, we found the asynchronous nature of group discussion and email technologies are even more important to teams separated by cultural distances and multiple time zones. Group discussion spaces, in particular, allow relatively easy review of group knowledge. Participants with language differences, or those with less expertise relative to others, can take time to develop their postings and review those of others. In this way, teams can build a base of common knowledge.

Multicultural, cross-organizational, mobile work teams bring immense diversity to online communities. Successful global learning teams treat diversity as a source of strength rather than as a barrier to be overcome. Team members have different skills, experiences, and perspectives that can benefit fellow team members. Cultural and organizational diversity, in particular, allow for better insight and idea generation than would come from traditional settings where team members tend to share similar cultural heritage and work history. After many months of virtual work, the participants in our research frequently noted team diversity as a major strength or area of effectiveness contributing to their team's effectiveness.

Leveraging diversity requires attitudes and behaviors that enable the team to understand and apply their different resources to learning tasks. Successful teams convey a sense of team spirit in their everyday communications with one another. Higher performing teams use nicknames to refer to their team ("We are chargers!"), thus building camaraderie online. They also post public comments to openly express their positive feelings about one another ("I feel fortunate to work with such a great group."). A major challenge of distributed, multicultural groups is to maintain a sense of "we" despite geographic separation and individual differences. Successful teams take the time to visibly build a sense of positive group identity.

Closely related to building group identity is forming trust within the team. Trust is communicated through sharing personal emotions and expression of belief in others' competencies. Trust channels the energy of group members toward reaching goals and serves to motivate group processes and performance. We found that higher performing teams are willing to use group discussion spaces for sharing personal information with one another (for example, events in their work lives or families). In this way they build friendship ties and a sense of mutual understanding and respect. Although they may voice conflict over task-related matters, they stop short of using electronic forums to criticize each other or complain about the team. Positive emotions expressed online help build trust. Negative feelings are best expressed and resolved via other means.

Table. Technology preferences of 24 global learning teams.

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Routines and Focus

Higher performing global learning teams do not necessarily communicate more, or more often, with one another compared to lower performing teams. More important to success is communicating deeply, with focus, and developing routines of communication and task completion. Higher performing teams average fewer posted threads, words, and words-per-posting on group discussion boards. But they post an average of 41% more messages within a given thread of conversation than lower performing teams. They prefer fewer but deeper conversations over several shallow conversational topics. They keep in touch, keep in synch, and keep digging deeper as they discuss important issues.

Successful global learning teams treat diversity as a source of strength rather than as a barrier to be overcome.

Higher performing teams work to synchronize with one another so they can share work tasks in the smoothest possible way. The quarterback method of task management proves useful, whereby project activities are passed from one team member to the next in a round-the-clock manner over a 24-hour period. Passing moves are orchestrated by the team leader (quarterback) for the project. The group discussion space is used like a refrigerator door or countertop of a family kitchen; notes posted here help to "keep the family together" in busy times when group gatherings are difficult to schedule. Communication of time-related information is especially important, such as "time available to work" on a specific task, queries about "how much time" one or another team member can devote to an activity, or "possible times" to hold calls or chats. Of the postings to group discussion boards we examined, 44% included some sort of time-related reference. Time-zone challenges and the fragmented nature of working together across corporate boundaries make time management and focused thinking imperative.

To conclude, technologies and member diversity constitute resources for global learning teams. Teams that use these resources to establish group identity and trust, to develop routines for collaboration, and to engage in deeper communication with one another are most likely to succeed in building an effective online learning community.

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Gerardine DeSanctis ( is a professor in the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, Durham, NC.

Matthew Wright ( is a management consultant at Deloitte Consulting, Atlanta, GA.

Lu Jiang ( is a doctoral student at Duke University, Durham, NC.

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UT1Table. Technology preferences of 24 global learning teams.

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©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/1200  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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