In November 2010 IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook Roundtable did something quite unique when they hosted business discussion with a group of students and faculty from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. What made this meeting so unique was the fact that the meeting was held at IBM’s Systems EduCenter Island which is located in the virtual world of Second Life. (Gandhi 2010)
Second Life is a virtual world created by Philip Rosedale where users can create an avatar and navigate through a virtual world of the users creating. From the dark and seedy to the nice and orderly, all of our earthly traits seem to carry over into this virtual world. Not exactly the type of place you would imagine hosting a symposium amongst business leaders and scholars, but that is just what they did. In doing so they highlighted some of the advantages and disadvantages of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) in the virtual workforce.
In this paper I will review the top three advantages and disadvantages of CMC as it relates to virtualization in the workplace. In so doing I will show that the benefits of CMC and virtualization outweigh the disadvantages and that companies should explore how virtualization can create efficiencies that would be desirable to any business plan.
First let’s take a look at what are often described as some of the disadvantages of virtualization in the workspace.
Just recently Keith Ferrazzi, author of "Never Eat Alone" and "Who’s Got Your Back" sat down with the Harvard Business Review to discuss his experience with CMC and virtualization. During the interview, Ferrazzi brings up one of the greatest disadvantages of virtual teams and that is the lack of informal and impromptu learning that happens in the physical workspace; the conversation at the water cooler or happy hour with the boss disappears in a virtual setting.
This informal socialization plays an important role in our traditional work environment. When Ferrazzi himself faced some challenges with his own company’s virtual work environment he asked himself “…where is the informal learning, informal collaboration?” (Ferrazzi 2012) I think we can all agree that a significant amount of learning transpires in these impromptu interactions. Without these social opportunities, virtual teams will struggle to create strong relationships.
Miscommunication / Non-verbal Cues
It should come as no surprise that one of the biggest risks faced amongst virtual teams is miscommunication. This is not only due to the inherent challenges of cross cultural communications but also the challenges set forth by the media itself. We see this in the lack of non-verbal cues in the virtual world and the challenge this poses. It is easy to underestimate the impact of nonverbal communication until one enters into a world devoid of these cues. In such a world it becomes important for one to learn how to digitally express emotions.
I suppose emoticons can take the place of some non-verbal forms of communication, but even then it requires that the individual must allow you to see that emotion. Certain emotions are simply easier to hide in a virtual world.
According to Daniel Levy in his book “Group Dynamics for Teams” all teams begin by going through certain stages of development; one of which is group socialization. Levy states that “…developing the group is important. Time must be spent developing social relations and socializing new members, establishing goals and norms, and defining the project.” (Levy
2011) I think the lack of social interaction can be a disadvantage to the effectiveness of virtual teams.
The three disadvantages to virtual teams listed above are certainly important to consider, but so too must we look at the benefits of virtualization in order to conduct an adequate analysis on the virtues of virtualization.
One of the biggest benefits of the virtual office is the ability to join together the best resources to accomplish a task irrespective of their location. This allows for amazing collaboration amongst individuals that before would have been limited based on geography. As Professor Charles Steinfield from Michigan State University noted in his paper on virtual teams “Firms can gain increased flexibility as teams with the proper expertise can be formed quickly without regard to any member’s physical location.” (Steinfield n.d.) This type of structure can have huge impact on a company’s speed to market and ultimately its bottom line.
New Product Development
One very important benefit to team virtualization can be found in the area of new product development. Having a diverse
set of opinions can be very valuable when products are released to wider global marketplace. This diversification of perspective can lead a product to be released much more successfully than it otherwise would.
In addition, companies can rely more on their workforce for market analysis versus paying large consulting fees for global product surveys and such. This leads us to arguably the greatest benefit to team virtualization; reduced cost.
Last but not least, we must consider the benefit in reduced overhead and recruiting costs associated with traditional work environments. In the age of technology and with the rise of the knowledge worker it is no longer necessary to have brick and mortar locations to house employees. Now more than ever technology allows companies to forgo the expense of multimillion dollar campuses. Instead companies are benefiting not only from the willingness but the desire for their employees to work remotely. Gone are the days of sitting in traffic to get to your office an hour late to sit in front of your computer. Now employees only need to walk down the hall to their home office to start their workday.
Also, companies no longer have to foot the bill to relocate hard to find talent to their city or state, instead they can pursue the talent they seek from anywhere in the world. These cost savings not only directly impact the bottom line, but more often than not they also provide a selling point to potential employees. By attracting the best talent possible companies will maximize their payroll dollars.
Although not conclusive my research shows the advantages of virtual work environments outweigh the disadvantages. For one, I feel that technical advancements such as collaboration software and virtual meeting spaces will allow for more rapid virtual team development and greater relationship building techniques. As these frameworks become more prevalent, we will adapt to the new ways of communicating.
I feel we are currently only scratching the service with regards to the benefits of working in virtual teams. The fact that technology exists to gather the best and brightest on a moment’s notice to tackle the most challenging problems should excite everyone. The ability to leverage a literal world of knowledge has never been so accessible.
Ferrazzi, Keithh, interview by Angelia Herrin. How Virtual Teams Can Outperform Traditional Teams Harvard Business Review, (October 9, 2012).
Gandhi, Shruti. IBM.com. Dcember 2010. http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/opensource/library/os-social-secondlife/#resources (accessed November 15, 2012).
Levy, Daniel. Group Dynamics for Teams. Tousand Oaks: Sage, 2011.
Steinfield, Charles. "Virtual Teams and Group Collaboration Technologies:Challenges in Supporting Distributed Groups." Computer Supported Collaboration Research, Instruction and Outreach at MSU. n.d. http://www.cscw.msu.edu/papers/virtualteams_prepub.pdf (accessed November 15, 2012).