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September 30, 2010 Vol. 3, Issue 9


Virtual teams are a permanent part of the landscape for complex projects. How do we learn to thrive in this environment?

Virtual teams are nothing new at NASA. Early projects like Apollo and Viking featured vast teams distributed around the country at the agency’s field centers and partners in industry and academia. The difference today is that many teams are global, spanning oceans and continents. Teams are also more fragmented than in the past. Thirty years ago, a complex project might have included teams in California, Virginia, Florida, and Massachusetts. Now projects include teams and individuals connected by the Internet and cell phones working from any number of locations. International teams pose additional cultural, institutional and legal challenges (e.g., ITAR restrictions on information sharing). The majority of NASA’s missions now include some sort of international partnership or involvement.

There’s no doubt that virtual teams pose challenges. Just scheduling teleconferences can be difficult when a team spans 10 time zones. Cultural differences add another level of complexity to the mix. I once heard from a European colleague that Americans like to engage in small talk first before getting down to business, whereas in his culture people take care of business first and save the small talk for last. It’s an anecdotal example, but one that hints at the kinds of subtle differences that international teams deal with every day.

Microsoft’s research group has been studying virtual teams for years and identified some common difficulties that they confront. One of the difficulties that remote team members face is maintaining awareness of what their colleagues are doing. Without the benefit of informal communications such as “water cooler conversations,” remote team members miss out on the continuous flow of updates that become part of the shared experience and knowledge base of collocated team members.

At the same time, virtual work enables teams to gather expertise that is untethered from geography. This promotes cognitive diversity, which researchers such as Scott Page have shown is critical to outstanding team performance. Virtual teaming arrangements also offer flexibilities for workers, making it easier to attract talented performers.

Given that this is the context of projects today, how can we enhance our ability to connect to one another when face-to-face encounters are limited by geography and travel budgets?

One technical solution that Microsoft’s research unit has recently employed is an “embodied social proxy,” also jokingly referred to as “crazy webcam remote cart thing.” The principle is simple: a two-way webcam device provides continuous videoconferencing availability to connect remote team members with a hub of colleagues in a home base location. The Microsoft pilot project relies on sturdy, reliable technologies in an effort to make virtual contact through the webcam as common as phone calls or email. It is not far-fetched to expect that proxies of one sort or another will become increasingly common in our work environments.

A key to adapting to this new way of working is to learn in the same modality in which we work. When the Academy first started, nearly all of our courses took participants away from their home centers to Wallops Island, where training took place in an isolated classroom environment. While traditional training is still an important part of how we convey essential knowledge and skills, we are also developing new offerings in technology-enabled learning that will bring the experience of training closer into line with the experience of working at NASA. Since we already work virtually, our training strategies need to include learning in a virtual environment as well.

I will be writing more in the months ahead about the Academy’s technology-enabled learning as we roll out virtual courses and learning opportunities. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had a positive virtual learning experience. With so many virtual learning tools and methods available today, it seems clear that the future will allow for increasing customization rather than one-size-fits-all solutions.

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