Machine Design

Keeping distributed teams connected

Today's design-engineering teams often include partners, suppliers, and contractors, all of which are distributed globally.

Thomas W. Smith
Dept. of Engineering Professional
Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison

These far-flung, virtual teams also are suffering "brain drain" because of retirements. In many cases, it is no longer possible to manage projects based on knowledge residing with individual workers and shared through personal relationships.

In response, industry is moving toward a more formal work organization, where knowledge is deliberately captured and organized. Communications are structured for effectiveness and for efficiency across cultures and time zones. Understandably, this is a difficult process and nowhere near completion. When virtual teams falter, it is convenient to blame the technology. The fact is, virtual teams fail for the same reasons colocated teams do: lack of a coherent vision, a weak charter, and lack of shared project-management processes.

It is also convenient to assume all team members inherently know how to use available communication tools. This is simply not the case, though it is straightforward to assemble a communication platform. A basic platform may include — in addition to team members' laptops or workstations and the networks that tie them together — e-mail, audio-conferencing, a shared drive, and a shared calendar. Such systems are well within the reach of most organizations.

More advanced platforms may add Weblogs or discussion boards and sophisticated Web conferencing, as well as true project-management tools.

Acquiring communications technology is the easy part — improving team processes is much harder. Toward that goal, a group of engineering executives recently benchmarked the process maturity level of their companies' virtual teams and communications functions against a software process-maturity model.

Most described their teams as operating somewhere between level one, the initial level, where processes are disorganized, even chaotic, and success is likely to depend on individual efforts; and level two, the repeatable level, where basic project-management techniques are established.

Few thought they were operating at level three, the defined level, where the organization has developed its own standard virtual-team process, much less at level four or five, which represents managed and then optimal levels where processes constantly improve through monitored feedback. The fallout from operating at lower levels of maturity is inefficiency, errors, and employee stress.

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