Jan Klein

on Globally Dispersed Teams

By David Cameron
June 2, 2003

As corporate IT networks become more robust and high-bandwidth Internet connections universal, it is no longer necessary for members of a company team to always share a single workplace. Consequently, globally dispersed teams (GDT), that is, teams whose members are not co-located, are gaining popularity.

But the blessings from these disseminated corporate structures are certainly mixed, as Jan Klein, senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, is quick to point out. On May 2, 2003, Klein gave a webcast entitled “Globally Dispersed Teams,” part of an ongoing series of online seminars for LFM and SDM alumni. In this presentation Klein presented results of a five-year study that both analyzes the limitations of globally dispersed teams while suggesting ways to maximize their efficiency.

Problems with Dispersed Teams

According to Klein, all too often there is a “tug of war” between the global-corporate-organizational perspective and the local-site perspective. Unfortunately, most research focuses on the individual teams, their structures, processes, and IT. While that’s necessary, it’s not sufficient. “This is a systems issue and we can’t look at it only from a micro level,” says Klein.

Teams members dispersed in local sites away from corporate headquarters face a number of disadvantages. They can’t work around organizational issues as easily as co-located teams can, simply because they lack the “face” time. And when team members are physically dispersed, local priorites often exert more influence than the larger organizational pressures.

Local managers tend to feel accountable first and foremost to the local site, rather than the overall organization. As a result, team members who are evaluated based on solely local contributions are often rewarded for work that may serve the immediate needs of the local site while not benefiting the organization at large. “There can be a negative correlation between global team effectiveness and positive individual team member performance evaluation,” says Klein.

While dispersed teams often comprise a variety of cultures, the home-headquarters culture tends to dominate. As a result, more often than not, many headquarters-centric decisions are made, which can further alienate dispersed team members.

Technology is often viewed as the solution to many of these problems, but paradoxically, it can create as many conflicts as it mitigates. Effectiveness of, for example, e-mails or webcasts is often compromised by the quality of local infrastructures. Also, “People often assume that others use technology the same way that they do,” says Klein, leading to further misunderstandings.Remote workers also feel isolated. Corporate structures often show a lack of sensitivity to culture, language, and time differences. Finally, teams members in remote locations who participate in virtual meetings and teleconferences tend to multitask during these meetings, especially when the rest of the group can’t notice their behavior. This results in a decrease of what Klein terms “mind share,” meaning the amount of attention a team member focuses on the GDT activities. Says Klein, “Multitasking during team meetings leads to redundant discussions which in turn leads to more multi tasking.”—a vicious cycle of inefficiency.

Maximizing Efficiency of Dispersed Teams

Fortunately, Klein’s research has also shown that globally dispersed teams can work very effectively within the larger corporate structure as long as companies are willing to be proactive in the following ways:

  • Align local and global objectives and priorities
  • Clarify each team member’s role and purpose for being part of the virtual team
  • Create shared accountability to team processes and protocols
  • Shift work to more asynchronous interaction to add more value to meetings
  • Encourage frequent and continuous communications between team members, such as frequent emails, instant messaging, etc.
  • Make assumptions and personal agendas explicit
  • Provide a human link in the virtual environment.

This last point may sound like an oxymoron. However, research has shown that the most effective globally dispersed teams always have a solid human link in the virtual environment, an individual who will frequently call or visit remote sites.

“You simply can’t get away from the human touch,” says Klein. Not everyone has to jump on the plane, but if teams contain a variety of cultures, having key individuals who know the various agendas of their employees and who can personally call on them really maximizes the mind share of the whole team. “Sure, it’s an added cost, but companies can’t afford not to do it.”