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Communications of the ACM

Global Applications of Collaborative Technology

Global Virtual Teams

Virtual teams linked primarily through advanced computer and telecommunication technologies are far more prevalent in organizations today. Global virtual teams (GVTs) differ from more localized virtual teams in several respects. Indeed, GVT members are dispersed around the world and rarely meet face-to-face, if at all, during the course of a project. In addition, members represent different cultures and speak different languages, and GVTs face particular technological dilemmas around accessibility and compatibility.

We recently conducted in-depth interviews with 18 GVT leaders and members representing large and small firms in the telecommunications, banking, manufacturing, and IT services arenas in Quebec, Canada. Our findings suggest GVTs confront significant challenges over and above more localized virtual teams. Indeed, the principal challenges facing organizations in deploying GVTs involve people and technology (see the accompanying figure).

Cultural diversity represents an enormous challenge for GVTs but also offers potential richness. National and organizational cultures define how people behave in any working context. In a GVT, cultures and management styles often clash. For example, people from different cultures may have different ideas about what constitutes good performance. Communication styles may also differ. Furthermore, notions of accountability can vary according to whether a culture is more collective or more individualistic. GVT leaders should be mindful of these issues and understand their own cultural biases and how they may affect their judgments. Tolerance, empathy, and the desire to discuss potential conflicting situations with an open mind are all necessary for members of a GVT to develop an effective level of synergy.

Our respondents recommended that all members of a GVT be given cultural training at the beginning of a project. Learning about national, organizational, and even functional cultures can be very useful, no matter how experienced the team members. Such training should address issues that might affect team performance such as normal working hours; expected behaviors; expected levels of performance and involvement; how decisions are made; how work will be reviewed and approved; and how to resolve conflicts. Nothing should be taken for granted. The meaning of terms such as accountability, coordination, and collaboration—and how they should be operational within the team—also need to be discussed to ensure all team members share a common understanding. In short, bringing cultural issues to the surface in a positive light can help create a GVT that is enriched, and not paralyzed, by cultural differences.

Language represents a particular difficulty for GVTs. English is the de facto language of most linguistically diverse GVTs. However, while it may be typical to have English as a second language in many countries, it is not the case everywhere. Therefore, the fact that one or more team members must speak in a foreign language can easily impede team performance. Communication barriers become even more severe in an electronic context. For example, it is difficult to fully participate in a teleconference when one does not speak the language fluently. As a result, a team may lose vital ideas and information or take a wrong direction.

Structured communication sessions directed by a formal leader can give every member the time to speak. Tolerance and empathy are necessary to encourage participation in this context. Writing minutes at the end of an oral communication session will help assure all participants understood the same message. Appropriate training in a foreign language (often English) is also highly recommended. Finally, helpful technology such as grammar and spell checkers, as well as language translators, can be integrated into email software to facilitate communication.

In a GVT, there can be wide discrepancies in the participants' technological proficiency. Some team members might be comfortable working with groupware, whiteboards, and videoconferencing, while others might need to be taught how to attach a file to an email message. Since GVT success is dependent on effective communication and knowledge sharing among members, it is essential they feel knowledgeable about and comfortable with the use of various technologies so they can actively participate. Lack of facility in using computer conferencing, for instance, could exacerbate existing tensions between individuals from different cultures. It could also lead to a member's desire not to participate in such meetings because of the media used. As well, differences in IT proficiency can contribute to status variations within a GVT.

To avoid such problems, leaders should provide training and technical support specifically geared to those uncomfortable with computers and other telecommunications technologies. They should also focus on a person's ability to provide content rather than on their skills with technological bells and whistles.

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Technology Issues

It is widely recognized that collaborative technologies provide powerful support in making GVTs a reality. GVT members can be linked through a variety of technologies including traditional ones like phones, fax machines, and email, and more advanced applications such as desktop videoconferencing, collaborative software, intranets, and virtual private networks. However, GVT managers are likely to face unpleasant technological challenges such as hardware/software incompatibility, unreliability, or unavailability, especially connecting people in developing countries. Even narrowband ISDN infrastructure is still not extensively developed within current advanced economies and is expensive to use in some countries.

Therefore, before starting a virtual project, its sponsors, with the help of IT specialists, must make sure the required technologies are accessible and compatible across the various sites and consider the issue of cost and performance. Different countries have different cost structures and bandwidth capacities regarding Internet access and use, and these must be considered in the design of a GVT. In addition, software applications must interface reliably because when systems crash, connections are disrupted, data gets mangled, GVT member efficiency drops, and frustrations flare. People in scattered locations must have reliable channels of communication and equal access to resources to avoid duplication of effort and redundant costs. Underinvesting in technological infrastructure can bring virtual work to a standstill, even though other challenges are fully addressed. GVT leaders must address hardware and software accessibility, reliability, and compatibility issues and ensure that all members' systems have adequate performance.

Underinvesting in technological infrastructure can bring virtual work to a standstill.

Since GVTs have fewer opportunities for face-to-face meetings, choosing the right technology to accomplish a task at the right time becomes a matter of survival. Understanding how and when to use these technologies appropriately is not always obvious and requires considerable trial and error by the GVT leader. One of the major disadvantages of a GVT is the lack of physical interaction, nonverbal cues, and synergies that often accompany face-to-face communications. These deficiencies can raise issues of trust. This study found videoconferences may help alleviate a lack of physical interaction. For example, using a videoconference in an initial meeting allows people to be introduced on a more personal level than if the first introduction is conducted via email or teleconference. However, respondents pointed out that unstructured videoconferences can easily run astray, resulting in reduced confidence in the project's success and a loss of commitment to the project by team members.

The role of the GVT leader is to establish and manage an electronic workplace based on a variety of telecommunication and collaborative systems and tools that support the team's specific needs—needs that change with the particular task at hand. Each medium has strengths and weaknesses and team members need to learn how to master the ones at their disposal. Some media will work for some tasks and not for others. For example, teleconferencing or videoconferencing are much richer than email but require high levels of commitment, flexibility, and discipline on the part of several team members. Indeed, some people might have to get up very early in the morning while others might have to stay up late at night in order to attend e-meetings. Therefore, if e-meetings disturb team members' lives, they should be conducted only if necessary. While technology is fundamental to GVTs, leaders should remember that face-to-face meetings are an alternative. Ironically, one of the specific skills a GVT leader needs to develop is the ability to recognize when a face-to-face meeting must be organized for a project to remain on track.

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GVTs present new and difficult challenges for all members of a team, especially a project leader. Leading a GVT requires more than working on the project's agenda. Both human and technological issues must remain paramount. Team leaders should be mindful of cultural differences, communication, and language barriers, and discrepancies in technological proficiency among team participants and how these make a difference in team effectiveness. Most importantly, they have the prime responsibility for creating an electronic workplace that supports the specific and changing needs of the team while ensuring the required technologies are accessible, reliable, and compatible.

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Line Dubé ( is an associate professor in the Department of Information Technology at HEC Montréal, Canada.

Guy Paré ( is an associate professor in the Department of Information Technology at HEC Montréal, Canada.

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UF1Figure. Key issues in implementing GVTs.

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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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