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Multinational organizations increasingly accomplish their work through teams that span both local and global boundaries—functions, identity, organizational borders, geographic distance, temporal distance, and culture. Global team performance largely depends on their effectiveness in selecting an appropriate mix of coordination processes—mechanistic, organic, or cognitive—that bridge the particular boundaries present in their teams.
Global teams—defined as interdependent groups whose members are located in more than one country and who interact primarily through electronic communication media—have become increasingly important to multinational firms as a means of organizing work across boundaries of task types, geography, time, and culture. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than one half of medium to large companies report using some form of virtual teams, often globally, with approximately half the total U.S. workforce involved in a virtual team. Global teams are popular because they combine the benefits of collocated work teams (those whose members work in the same place, often at the same time)—skill diversity, flexibility, differential knowledge, and mutual goal orientation—with advantages of virtual environments such as cost savings, proximity to clients, and temporally continuous project work. For instance, global teams are prevalent in software companies such as Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM. In many software projects undertaken by these companies, the critical tasks can be accomplished using project management tools that allow simultaneous document editing, discussions, and multiple simultaneous inputs into work processes. Thus, team members can contribute from any place in the world where they have appropriate software and online access, allowing teams of programmers to work across borders, oceans, and the international dateline in order to deliver their product.
For all their potential advantages, the risks associated with global teams must also be considered. Geography, culture, and time add barriers beyond those of collocated teams. In fact, there is some evidence that face-to-face interaction is more effective for highly intricate tasks. One example of this is a Big 3 automotive manufacturer based in the United States who recently attempted a global team automotive project, realizing too late the lack of synchronicity in engineering protocols across the countries involved. This resulted not only in wasted work hours and turnover of key staff members, but also in a loss of market-entry opportunity and brand equity as compared to rival Asian manufacturers. Firms using global teams must therefore plan against the loss of financial resources, competitive advantage, market opportunity, and key personnel. They must develop means of mitigating risk, orienting each global team’s tasks, members, and environments toward the fulfillment of their organizational strategy.
To achieve success, firms must determine the appropriate coordination processes for managing the variable facets associated with members, tasks, and global boundaries. The global teams must then enact these coordination processes, balancing short- and long-term considerations, industry trends, and available communication technologies. This research-paper first describes team tasks and, then, overviews the boundaries faced by global teams—functional differences, social identity, organizational borders, geographic distance, temporal distance, and culture. We then describe and assess the suitability of coordination processes, and describing how well coordinated global teams can help to structure effective transnational organizations. Coordination of task and process occurs through both organic and mechanistic means including communication, human resource management practices, and team knowledge structures ultimately influencing performance at the individual, team, and organizational levels.
Team Task Characteristics
Understanding the nature of the task at hand is a critical prerequisite to attempting coordination across internal and external team boundaries for both collocated and global teams. Tasks assigned to teams should represent a connection between team members and the strategy of the larger organization. Tasks vary in complexity as well as in the way in which team members must interact to perform them, and they can be classified into one of four varieties: generation, negotiation, choice, and execution.
One aspect of a team’s task is the level of task complexity. Task complexity can be described in three parts: its components, dynamism, and coordination needed. Components of a task must be clearly specified, understood, and recorded—a fact more apparent within a global team than in a collocated team due to the separation of global members. There may be more components as well, due to the increase in member environments as compared to a collocated team. For example, numerous business press articles describe the changes that Nokia, a telecommunications provider specializing in mobile phones, made in its global operations at the turn of the century. Nokia’s teams, tasked with bringing the new products up to speed, had an increasing number of components to consider—the new G3 telecommunications network, the increased number of locations and associated supply chains, and the varied interests of the local markets. The teams had difficulty with this task, and Nokia faltered in their efforts to get to market quickly, in part due to their baseline experience with fewer components.
The next aspect of task complexity—dynamism—refers to the rate of change in components and conditions. The state and rate of change is exacerbated by the global environment, such that timing becomes critical as members work around the clock and across time zones. Additionally, as in the Nokia teams example, each local area is subject to fluctuations in the economy, market demands, and other conditions. Finally, coordination of the task components becomes more difficult as global boundaries are added to a team’s context. Team members must find a way to plan, communicate, and build on the work of others across the remaining global boundaries of time, distance, and culture. (We will expand the concept of coordination from dealing with task complexity to the entire global team process in later sections.) Thus, while the inherent structural complexity of a task will not change when it is performed by various members across global boundaries, the coordination complexity associated with the execution of the task will be increased if carried out by global teams.
The manner of interaction between team members necessary to perform a given task is of critical importance. Tasks can be classified, according to a scheme popularized by Steiner, as additive (member efforts are summed as in a tug of war), compensatory (average as in 360 performance appraisal), disjunctive (best of many inputs is chosen), conjunctive (every member’s contributions are needed as in many cross-functional tasks), or discretionary (members determine the relationship of inputs to final product; Steiner, 1972). Of these types, only additive interaction would not be a good fit to our definition of a global team. This is not an arbitrary declaration; while global organizations certainly may develop products sequentially across geographic domains, this is a different process than one that demands reciprocal interactions across team members. From a resource perspective, it would not be cost efficient to employ global teams for purely sequential or additive tasks, while lower costs may allow the use of collocated teams on similar tasks.
Finally, tasks are geared toward particular purposes. McGrath’s “task circumplex” divides team tasks into four purposes: generation and negotiation, each of which is subdivided into conceptual and behavioral tasks, and choice and execution, each of which is divided further into conflictive and cooperative tasks (McGrath, 1984, 1991). Conceptual generation tasks involve creativity, as in the production of ideas, while behavioral generation is more about making specific plans and planning. Some research suggests that global teams may be better at idea generation, as the separation through distance and time removes natural barriers that may inhibit members of a collocated team from speaking—limited speaking opportunities and intimidation by others’ ideas—while the communications technology enables all global team members to see every member’s input. Additionally, the varied environments for each global team member may encourage consideration of novel inputs. Teams engage in negotiation tasks both conceptually by sharing viewpoints and behaviorally by outlining their preferred approach to particular issues. Negotiation in global teams may reduce interpersonal friction, as members have time to carefully consider each viewpoint expressed, but such teams also may suffer misunderstandings through their relatively lean communication modes.
Tasks that require choices to be made may be intellective, if there is an apparently correct solution (resolved through cooperation or discovery), while choices with no correct solution are termed decision-making tasks and involve some form of process conflict. Other tasks call for something to be completed or executed. Executing psychomotor team tasks requires cooperation between members, while competitive tasks are likely to involve functional and interpersonal conflict as factions jockey for the power to execute in their own manner.
All teams—collocated, virtual, and global—must face the challenges associated varying task characteristics. Next, we discuss the various boundaries that detract from a team’s ability to address its tasks in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
Global Team Boundaries
Ideally, organizations use teams to address tasks only when employees can be more effective in achieving desired results by working interdependently rather than through their separate efforts. This value-added effect of working collectively is known as “synergy,” which refers to an increase in outcome beyond simple additive effects. For example, the debate among members of a cross-functional product development team, which results in a qualitatively better product than the individuals could have produced sequentially (e.g., if the product was moved from team member to member with no opportunity for reciprocation as on an assembly line), is synergistic. Synergy may be inhibited by what we refer to as “boundaries”—imaginary lines that mark limits of cooperative work within or external to a team. Many boundaries are present in teams, whether collocated teams (whose members share the same physical location at the same time) or global. Together these boundaries may cause the team efforts to be of lesser quality or quantity than the individual employees could have achieved separately, a phenomenon referred to as “process loss.” Some of these boundaries such as excessive cohesiveness (which may lead to socializing at the expense of work-related activity) are typically mitigated by characteristics of global teams such as geographic distance. However, these characteristics are themselves boundaries for the global teams, for instance, hindering the amount of trust needed to have meaningful interaction. In other words, while collocated team members may develop social ties that encourage trusting relationships, sometimes leading to excessive social interaction, global teams may lack the minimal interaction necessary to get the job done if they are not able or encouraged to use coordinating process and mechanisms to bridge global boundaries. As such, global team boundaries not only include many of the same boundaries associated with collocated teams but also add boundaries particular to the global context. This has important practical implications; an accomplished collocated team cannot be automatically expected to duplicate this success if its members are no longer able to interact in the same way. Similarly, organizations that wish to use global teams to complete distributed tasks must develop tools and processes that will enable teams to succeed.
We cluster global team boundaries into six major categories: functional differences, social identity, organizational borders, geographic distance, temporal distance, and cultural attributes. Although it is useful to describe these categories in terms of their general impact, one must remember that the extent to which a boundary exists for a particular team or situation depends on the local variation present—for instance, while a given country’s population may exhibit a tendency toward risk taking, the individual citizens of that country who serve on a global team may vary considerably along the risk continuum. We refer to the variation associated with the task, process, and global team boundaries as “dependencies,” which must be assessed for a given situation to understand the boundaries. Finally, it should be noted that the presence of just one or perhaps more of these boundaries in a team context does not automatically indicate that team to be a global team as we define it. Each boundary in isolation could apply to a range of teams; for instance, a team could have geographic distance within the same time zone and culture, while a collocated team could have members from different cultures. The first two boundaries in especial—functional differences and social identity—may typically be found in nearly every type of team.
Functional difference boundaries are present when more than one area of expertise or organizational functional is represented on a team such as marketing, engineering, and manufacturing. Research indicates that functional diversity may be linked to both positive and negative performance effects, primarily through its influence on other team processes such as task conflict when unmatched functional perspectives are brought to bear on the same problem. On the other hand, functional variety is often a precursor to innovation and learning in that combining disparate functional information can lead to new insights. Some level of functional overlap is necessary to facilitate interaction among team members. In any case, bridging functional boundaries to coordinate work can be very difficult.
Identity boundaries are present among team members in two distinct modes. First, often, various members’ senses of self are not centered on the same social entity—their beliefs about themselves could be anchored in their organization, in their occupational group, or in some aspect of their personal life. Each member or possibly a subset of the team with a shared social identity will classify themselves and others on an in-group or out-group basis, often leading to increased social distance and less interaction among factions. A second, related, type of social identity boundary occurs when individual members are unable to dedicate themselves fully to the team due to their association with multiple social entities. Such members may be working on multiple projects with multiple teams or may hold affiliations to larger organizational structures in which their teams are nested. It is common for team members to be involved in more than one project, team, or organizational unit at a time, making it difficult for them to define their many identities. Members may also have started a new project before finishing the current one, or the project they are working on may be part of a larger project that has complex interdependencies. These multiple identities and memberships can create strong loyalties, alliances, or adversity with other teams in and outside of the organization. For example, a testing engineer may have been assigned to a software development project, but this developer may have stronger alliances with members of his or her software testing team. Finally, identity boundaries may often delineate who is “in” and who is “out” based on prior work experience working together or how much time members commit to the team when working in multiple projects.
Organizational boundaries are present in a team when its members hail from multiple organizations. Firms are increasingly utilizing interorganizational arrangements such as outsourcing, joint ventures, partnerships, and alliances to meet their goals without having to develop expensive and sometimes temporary internal competencies. Differences in organizational affiliations can reduce shared understanding of context and can inhibit a group’s ability to develop a shared sense of purpose. For example, a field study investigated the effect of social context on appropriation of communication technology by contrasting how two news organizations used electronic messaging. The study found that groups that were similar with respect to functional structure, task process, technology, communication mode, and tenure—but that had different social contexts with respect to communication climate, management philosophy, and cooperation—had similar patterns of face-to-face and electronic messaging interaction within their group but very different patterns across groups. This led to different levels of communication and performance effectiveness. Issues often arise for groups whose members come from different organizations because they are less likely to share common ground and experiences and they may disagree about how to allocate the group’s resources. For example, conflict can arise if members from one organization receive higher pay, better accommodations, or more administrative support than members from other organizations receive.
Geographic boundaries are more easily defined, as may be thought of as primarily physical separation among team members. However, this separation goes beyond a mere measure of mileage; other factors come into play: ease and availability of transportation, travel time, and number of locations. Furthermore, geographic distance is often thought of as a binary condition—a team is either collocated or distant because once team members are physically separated and even small distances will dramatically reduce the frequency of interaction. The research literature has linked geographic boundaries with many effects on team efforts. For instance, geographic distance has been associated with lower efficiency in completing tasks, less trust among team members, and impairment of negotiation tasks. At the same time, such separation can lead to more innovative solutions. Additionally, it has been demonstrated that team members learn more from distant expertise than from those members in closer proximity. The reasons for this are not always clear; it could be helped by an increase in ideas present in the distinct environments of each member. Perhaps it is also a function of discounting the expertise of those who are already familiar—as noted in the Christian Bible, “A prophet is not without honor save in his own country,” or as consultants often intone, “Traveling two states over makes you an expert!”
The boundary effects of time are not unique to global teams, but the factor becomes increasingly involved in the team’s work as along a continuum from collocated, virtual, and global teams. Temporal boundaries include things like differences in time zones, holidays, and work schedules. Time effects may be simple barriers, as when time zone differences hinder team members from immediately or conveniently interacting, but their potential for detrimental effects increases as the shared working hours among team members shrinks while access to resources and markets decreases. Some global teams may actually benefit from these temporal effects, while others suffer from them.
Temporal effects often account for many of the negative effects typically associated with geographic dispersion —the problem does not have to do with distance per se but with the fact that geographically dispersed teams must often interact asynchronously (members providing inputs and feedback at different times) more often than collocated teams must. While most geographically dispersed teams do a substantial amount of their collaborative work asynchronously (e.g., e-mail, wikis, shared data repositories, etc.), the difference with time separated teams is that as the time separation increases, or conversely, as the work time overlap decreases, the choice of whether to interact synchronously or asynchronously becomes restricted by the available time overlap. In extreme cases (e.g., California and India), the work time overlap is essentially zero and teams need to adjust their work hours to overlap for same time meetings or conversations. This can easily be seen by comparing geographically distributed teams to collocated but highly mobile teams whose members interact mostly asynchronously but by choice. While time boundaries also force team members to interact through electronic media, time separation brings about the added challenge of having to pay close attention to timing issues. To begin with, time separation is not only about time zones, but also about differences in holidays, weekdays, work schedules, and vacation schedules, among other things. For example, one study documented the case of a global team in which members were only available to meet synchronously 50 days in the year because of these differences, and during these 50 days, team members still had differences in time zones, reducing the window of available meeting time to only a few hours per year!
On the other hand, time differences can be beneficial when tasks are routine, certain, or well planned. Time zones have been used effectively to develop programs or provide technical support 24 hours a day in what has been called “follow-the-sun” work. However, there are very few documented sustained successful experiences of this collaboration mode for highly interdependent tasks. It has been argued that the reason for this is that time separation reduces delay costs (i.e., the benefit is that one site can work when the other one sleeps), but it also increases communication and delay costs when miscommunication needs to be repaired (i.e., the cost is that one site has to wait until the other one wakes up to communicate). So tasks in which the timing of activities can be programmed with some certainty (e.g., coding of small programs) or those that are not too sensitive to timing issues (e.g., IT support centers) have substantial benefits in reduced delay costs, while tasks that are more equivocal and uncertain, which require substantial interaction, have substantial costs.
Overall, even small time differences can have substantial influence such as in one documented field study of software teams in which a 1-hour time difference between two countries reduced the overlapping working hours by more than 4 hours—2 hours at the beginning and end of the day, 2 hours during lunch time, and additional time because some team members in the earlier time zone often arrived early to work and left early. But these differences can be exacerbated by other temporal context factors (e.g., differences in holidays, differences in vacation schedules, etc.) or mitigated by other factors (e.g., members shift their work schedules, sites have liaison members in both sites with full overlap, etc.).
Generally, though, as the work time overlap is reduced due to time zone or other temporal differences, coordination challenges grow rapidly as more nonoverlapping hours mean reduced communication—members may choose to send messages asynchronously through less rich media (e.g., e-mail), waiting for the overlap for a reply; they may wait until the next overlapping period to communicate synchronously; or they may choose not to communicate at all. Overall, time separation is beneficial when tasks are routine and certain and when the timing of their activities are well organized and teams can effectively use task programming mechanisms to manage key task dependencies. Time separation is detrimental when tasks are nonroutine and uncertain and when they contain tightly coupled dependencies, which require frequent interactive communication to coordinate. The positive or negative effects of time separation on coordination are amplified as the work time overlap between sites is reduced.
This final boundary category—culture—accounts for much of the distinction between global teams and other virtual teams. Culture, defined as a country’s socially held system of values, beliefs, behavioral norms, symbols, and institutions, creates a boundary in global teams through the varying cultural perspectives of the members. Culture is often described as a set of values or dimensions. For instance, Hofstede’s widely recognized set includes power distance (expected social inequality), individualism-collectivism (loose or tight social bonds), masculinity-femininity (expression of competitive or nurturing traits), uncertainty avoidance (preference for structured or unstructured situations), and long-term versus short-term orientation (live for today or think about the future; Hofstede & Bond, 1984). Additionally, other dimensions identified include high context versus low context (conveying meaning through either situational cues or more directly through words), monochronic versus polychromic time (precise versus multidimensional and personal), and proxemics (feeling of appropriate interpersonal space).
Values are the heart or deepest layer of culture. They influence both the expression and interpretation of more concrete indicators of culture—work styles, norms of interaction, expectations of others, and ascribed significance to symbols and artifacts. Differences in such values and norms may hamper the ability for global team members to understand one another’s motivations and intentions, ultimately adding complexity to the task at hand. For instance, team members of very collectivistic, family-oriented cultures may be somewhat offended by a remote member who never seems concerned about the well-being of other team members but who, instead, focuses exclusively on business. Members of high-context cultures may be frustrated by the lack of rich information available through telecommunications technology or may interpret meaning from the communication that a member of a lower context culture did not intend. Other behaviors such as deference to authority—whether it is appropriate to question team members who have higher status, regardless of expertise—can significantly influence how a team tackles a project that demands a full, critical examination.
Any time the subject of human differences is discussed, cultural or otherwise, it must be remembered that, while large groupings of people may differ on average from other groupings, individuals tend to vary considerably within the groupings. In other words, just because there may be some legitimate differences between cultures does not mean that every member of that culture will hold the same value set— consider each culture as a possible continuum of values, but get to know each person on their own merits. It should also be noted that teams may develop a culture of their own, based on the agreement of members to operate according to specific guidelines or the values of dominant team members. This dominance can be related to organizational authority, expertise, or simply popularity among the team members. Individual members will differ in their deviation from the team norm, and may thus be differentially motivated or able to contribute to the total team effort. Finally, note that language differences may themselves represent a portion of the culture barrier in global teams. Persons from distinct cultures may not only use different words to describe similar concepts but may also hold those concepts to be of greater or lesser importance.
Global Boundaries And Team Coordination
Atos Origin is an information technology company that provides software solutions for Olympic events including Salt Lake City in 2001, Athens in 2004, and Turin in 2006 and is now preparing for the 2008 (Beijing) and 2010 (Vancouver) games. Atos’ Olympic team ranges in size from 15 to over 2,000 members from nearly 40 countries, building in size and complexity as each event approaches. Its members work in teams centered on specific solutions, working across time, geographic distance, and cultural boundaries. Claude Philipps, a systems-integration team leader, ensures that team members use both technology and in-person interaction, when possible, to overcome global boundaries, saying, “It’s more of an imperative to be global, and to be smart about it, than it’s ever been before” (as cited in Kirsner, 2004, p. 85).
The heart of the coordination challenge faced by global teams is the need to bridge multiple internal boundaries in order to manage the dependencies among their task activities. This challenge is increasingly important for organizations seeking to take advantage of the shift to a more global economy, with markets and resources scattered across the globe. In one recent study of a global software development organization, team members were found to have bridged multiple boundaries to do their jobs, including 15 global locations, 19 time zones, and various levels and areas of technical expertise. The presence of functional, identity, organizational, geographic, temporal, and cultural boundaries disrupts the flow of communication among team members, creating two main challenges for team coordination.
First, some coordination processes and systems mechanisms available to collocated team members are not generally available to global team members. For example, some global team members may have never worked face-to-face and may have never met each other, thus making it difficult to develop mutual knowledge. Similarly, task awareness and presence awareness are not likely to be readily available to global teams as compared to collocated teams. Also, global team members cannot meet as frequently and as spontaneously as collocated members.
The second challenge is that the effectiveness of available coordination mechanisms may be influenced by their characteristic internal boundaries. For example, communication via e-mail can be adversely influenced by language boundaries in a team, especially if compounded by language differences between high-context and low-context cultures. Similarly, the effectiveness of e-mail can be severely impaired if there are large time zone differences among team members.
Coordination Theory: Organic And Mechanistic Processes
Team coordination is the process of effectively managing dependencies (interrelationship and variations among factors) associated with the collective pursuit of task activities In global teams, coordination efforts occur among all team resources, both tangible (e.g., members and finances) and intangible (e.g., knowledge), and they may be associated with successful performance outcomes as well as with costs and losses incurred in the process. Coordination efforts among team members may be pooled, sequential, or reciprocal. Pooled dependency results from the need to use the same resource, as when a decision-making group consults the same set of organizational policies, while sequential dependency may be illustrated through an assembly line, where each successive station relies on the previous but not vice versa. Finally, reciprocal dependency exists when two or more entities use the same resource nonsuccessively, as when developing software code among a group of programmers. Whether pooled, sequential, or reciprocal, explicit coordination processes can be mechanistic or organic. In addition, members can also coordinate implicitly through team cognition structures, which helps members understand what others in the team are doing and plan their own activities accordingly, ultimately influencing performance outcomes at individual, team, and organizational levels.
Team members coordinate most routine aspects of the task by implementing and using task-programming mechanisms. Mechanistic systems are relatively structured and stable, following predictable patterns, and they are designed to reduce costs of more routine tasks. Instead, resources are invested up front in preparing systems that may be applied to multiple instances of similar situations and problems. Mechanistic solutions are task oriented and tend to be stable once implemented. For instance, schedules, plans of work, division of labor, and other collaboration tools may be used to routinize organizational tasks such as when structuring a routine task from job analysis data. Some task programming processes are very specific to particular tasks such as configuration management systems used by software organizations to manage concurrent development, workflows, error repairs, and outstanding issues. It is not expected, however, that these tasks are identical in appearance. Rather, they are categorized according to an initial evaluation and, then, broken down into subcomponents and decision points based on preconsidered factors. Coordination, thus, is accomplished through a relatively automatic, stepped process that encompasses both preparation and operation stages.
In the preparation stage, first a pool of potential decision scenarios are developed through various means including past experiences, benchmarking competitors, and projection of selected environmental factors. Then, organizing frameworks are developed for examining the current situation, with prescriptive factors to consider, weighted according to their likely influence on the performance outcome. These frameworks are stored in organizational memory structures that may be easily accessed by teams that encounter similar situations. These memory structures may be encoded in procedure manuals, incorporated into team member training, or otherwise instituted as organizational and team policies. For instance, the superintendent of Washington, D.C., schools outlined his structured approach for gathering data and making decisions about school closings with his virtual staff of school administrators—once an incoming winter weather event is identified, each principal reports on factors including snow composition and depth, student transportation modes, road clearance progress, and staff availability. These factors are weighted according to past experience and used to calculate a decision that only the superintendent has authority to modify or reject. In global teams, these decisions rules and procedures are often incorporated into software programs such as project management utilities and are carried through by other technological aids including telecommunications hardware—telephones, e-mail, and video technology.
The next stage of the mechanistic processes is operational—starting when a team faces a situation (a coordination opportunity) and examines it for similarity to any of the preconsidered scenarios. Once a situation is identified as fitting such a category, it is measured according to the factors included in the scenario. A decision is reached through conformity of these factors to preestablished levels, launching a flowchart of activity or decisions with recommended actions based on each factor. Coordination is thus achieved with a minimum use of resources—reducing consideration of extraneous factors, uncertainty in decision authority, team member time, associated financial investment, and market opportunity.
Each team or organization sets parameters for its reliance on mechanistic means for its decisions, with resulting systems ranging from completely mechanistic to having less rigid components. A discretionary span may be included for specific factors including allowance for further investigation if preset specifications are exceeded. Review points are often established, empowering team members to check the validity of a decision path, as with the Washington, DC school superintendent’s final decision authority in the previously mentioned illustration. For example, when McDonald’s sought to expand its fast food franchise into China, its franchise team, drawing members from United States and European bases as well as local Chinese partners, were charged with assessing the operations potential with preset criteria. Considerations included relatively known factors real estate availability, competitor positions, labor costs, and market potential as well as more tailored factors such as local food preferences, mealtime norms, and other cultural aspects. Coordination of the team decision process, therefore, was based on a mechanistic decision scenario, but it included room for elements that were not known at the outset of the process. McDonald’s opened its first People’s Republic of China franchise in 1990 in Shenzhen; today, it operates hundreds of successful franchise stores in China (McDonald’s China, 2007).
In today’s information age, mechanistic coordination is often enabled and achieved through information technologies. Team members increasingly use tools like wikis, blogs, shared calendars, technical Web sites, and communal databases to exchange information and coordinate their work. Specific fields like the medical practice or software development often use sophisticated collaboration tools designed for that field. For example, studies have found that software configuration management systems are excellent mechanistic coordination tools to help multiple software developers work in parallel on multiple versions of very large software without interfering with each other.
Generally speaking, mechanistic coordination processes and tools have a high setup cost—both financially and in terms of learning time. However, once in place, they tend to be very low cost and very effective for coordination, particularly for routine tasks. Because mechanistic programming helps to coordinate the most routine aspects of the task, once the use of these systems are learned and internalized, their effectiveness is less likely to be affected by external or internal team boundaries. In addition, most mechanistic task program systems are designed to be used asynchronously, reducing the inhibition of global boundaries on their operation. For example, global software developers can achieve coordination through software tools like configuration management systems, which developers can access at their convenience. Similarly, coordination in large-scale software development firms can be accomplished through division of labor such as by maximizing dependencies within each site while minimizing dependencies across sites (e.g., keeping the design in one site and the coding in another site). Overall, mechanistic systems can be quite effective in helping teams to coordinate tasks across global boundaries. Some recent research provides evidence that, while mechanistic coordination is generally thought to be less effective for nonroutine tasks, it may actually be beneficial to program and mechanistically coordinate an increasing number of task activities—making tasks more routine—rather than spend resources attempting the difficult task of communicating across global boundaries.
Organic processes, used for less routine aspects of tasks, are flexible, often emergent responses to unpredictable or changing conditions. In contrast to mechanistic coordination, organic coordination usually has relatively little setup
investment. However, its ongoing costs in addressing idiosyncratic and equivocal situations are higher due the need for multiple team members to individually participate in situation assessment, decision making, and intrateam dialogue. Organic processes are often completely spontaneous. For example, studies have shown that a lot of the organic coordination in software tasks happens through spontaneous encounters in public places like water coolers and coffee rooms. At the same time, good teams often anticipate and plan their use of organic coordination means. They may measure how coordination influences outcomes by including which factors are most related to coordination success in their organization and, then, by designing training and support systems to encourage organic responses.
For instance, the U.S. Coast Guard has imposed a system, Team Coordination Training (TCT), which seeks to improve safety and rescue outcomes through emphasizing the factors beyond simple technical prowess such as communication, situation awareness, and adaptability. Included in TCT’s process view are not just local responders to an incident but are a wider range of affected stakeholders including onshore Coast Guard support, cooperating authorities (domestic and foreign), and a view of the customer that extends to the entire affected community. The Coast Guard credits this increased emphasis on team coordination with a mishap reduction between 50%-66% on its boats and cutters over a period of 6 years (U.S. Coast Guard 7th District Director of Auxiliary West, 2006).
The most typical organic processes involve some form of communication among team members and their supportive networks. Dynamic conditions are dissected, understood, and resolved through dialogue and information sharing via any of a multitude of communication modes: interpersonal or mass delivery; written, audio, or video formats; and face-to-face or indirect system. In order for this communication to be possible, teams must build conduits for information delivery—shared understanding of concepts, affiliation bonds among members, expertise directories, telecommunications devices, or other technological systems. For example, organic processes would be useful during an unanticipated hardware breakdown, when events unfold unpredictably and structured task programming would not adjust, but a lack of prior established communication protocols would make the coordination process very difficult, if not impossible.
It is often suggested that global teams require even more frequent interaction and information exchange, due to the relatively lean communication media used—e-mail, telephone, and even videophone systems often fail to transmit important contextual details, especially when bridging culture divides in addition to geographic and temporal distance. Additionally, it should be noted that teams cycle through stages of development such as Tuckman’s widely recognized forming, storming, norming, and performing stages (Tuckman, 1965). Teams will not necessarily engage in the same coordination strategies at different points of the cycle. Some evidence suggests, for instance, that once engaged in productive activity, higher performing teams communicate less than lower performing teams during the performing stage. This demonstrates that coordination is not simply about the amount of communication, but the effectiveness of the message and the comprehension of those at the receiving end of the process. In other words, coordination through communication is effective to the extent that the communication is needed and is task oriented.
Overall, members of global teams tend to coordinate the less routine aspects of their tasks through communication systems. Such interaction may consume more time and effort than more mechanistic, task-oriented processes, sometimes diverting attention from other critical tasks. For example, a study of global IT project managers found that teams can be very successful when working globally but that this success requires considerable additional time and effort to coordinate things (e.g., working longer hours, frequent traveling, and overdetailed specifications and documents) when working across team boundaries. Beyond simply adding more coordination difficulties individually, an increased number of boundaries may combine to form deeper “fault lines” that hamper team members’ ability to get work done. Generally speaking, team boundaries associated with global teams make it difficult for members to communicate effectively, leading to misunderstandings and reduced mutual knowledge or common ground, and opportunities for informal communication. By their nature, however, such organic processes are needed to coordinate nonroutine demands. As such, global teams should anticipate both the need for communication conduits and build the time and other resources needed into their operational schedules.
Coordination Through Team Cognition
While teams use mechanistic programming and organic processes to coordinate their work, their effectiveness will be limited unless team members understand how to use these task processes and have some common grounding in their communication. For example, new team members must learn an organization’s configuration management system before they can effectively apply in using the organization’s software. Team members who have had similar training or worked on common projects in the past will be likely to share concepts and terminology, thus improving their ability to communicate effectively. In this way, team cognition may enhance the effectiveness of other coordination mechanisms. At the same time, team cognition can help team members coordinate implicitly because they can make accurate assumptions about what others in the team are likely to do. A shared understanding of key aspects of the task—how the team interacts, who knows what, who has done what recently, and how well team members know the task domain and each other’s work contexts—can enhance coordination.
The literature on team cognition suggests that effective team members develop organized shared knowledge about both task and team, which helps them to coordinate implicitly in two ways. First, it can have a direct effect on coordination because any form of shared knowledge helps individuals anticipate other members’ actions and develop explanations about the task more accurately, helping them plan their own actions more effectively with little communication. This form of implicit coordination has been shown to be very effective with fast-paced, real-time teams (e.g., sports teams, military squadrons, and surgical teams) in which there is very little time to communicate. Second, shared knowledge of the task, team, context, and tools makes both organic and mechanistic coordination more effective because members have more common ground and understand how the team should use the mechanisms or processes.
While the benefits of team cognition have intuitive appeal and widespread research interest, this elusive construct has proven to be very difficult to define and operationalize with precision. Organizing the many team cognition constructs present in the literature is outside the scope of this research-paper, but in the short term, we suggest organizing team cognition constructs through Cooke et al.’s typology, which classifies team knowledge into two types: team mental models and team situation models (Cooke et al., 2000) Team mental models—organized knowledge shared by members about the task and the team—develop slowly as team members train together and interact over time and are important for coordination because any two team members need to have some overlapping knowledge about each other’s task domains in order to understand and better manage the dependencies involved. However, too much shared knowledge can be detrimental when it wastes organizational resources through redundancy or groupthink. Therefore, many tasks optimally require only a small shared knowledge base about the task but, instead, will require a greater shared knowledge of the team. In other words, because individual knowledge is so specialized, knowing what others in the team know and when each reservoir of expertise should be brought to bear to the task becomes very important. These related concepts—variously termed transactive memory, expertise coordination, shared knowledge of the team, and team familiarity—have been found to help performance in software, military, and aviation tasks. Overall, this type of knowledge about team members helps coordination because individuals know where to find expertise and can better anticipate the actions of others.
While shared knowledge is important, it may fall short of helping with very dynamic tasks. More useful is another type of team cognition, team situational awareness, defined as understanding the context of one’s activity as resident within the activities of others. It could be compared to “court sense” when playing basketball—the ball handler is aware of her own dribbling and footwork while simultaneously placing herself within the greater context of teammates and competitors. When working in teams, members not only need individual situation awareness to carry out their task responsibilities, but they also need team situation awareness to work together as a coordinated unit. Team situation awareness, therefore, is essential when members need to coordinate work with tightly coupled interdependencies. This concept has received a lot of attention in military and aviation research with synchronous teams working on real-time tasks (e.g., crew flights), and encompasses three processes within a team context: (a) perception of what is happening with the elements of the system and its environment at any time, (b) comprehension of what they mean, and (c) projection of their status into the near future. As acceptance of this concept grows, substantial efforts are being made among collaboration tool researchers to create electronic tools that provide effective support for aspects of team situation awareness such as task awareness (knowing what has been done, by whom, and when) and presence awareness (knowing who is around—think of your instant messaging icon).
Other tool design researchers have defined several other types of team awareness such as activity awareness (knowing the actions of other team members at any point in time); availability awareness (knowing if other team members are available for interaction); process awareness (knowing which steps need to be taken to move the team process along); perspective awareness (knowing how to make sense of others’ actions); and environmental awareness (knowing about events external to the immediate work space that have implications for the team’s activity).
Awareness is important for coordination in collaborative tasks that contain interdependent activities because it helps individuals shift from individual to shared activities seamlessly and with ease; it helps them anticipate how the task will progress and which actions other team members will undertake; and it helps them make things happen in the right order and at the right time without conflicting with others in the team because members have a better understanding of the sequence of things and the temporal boundaries of their actions. Such chronological awareness improves team member connectedness, helping synchronize task activities and, thus, positively affecting coordination.
Conclusion: Achieving The Appropriate Coordination Mix
From our overview, it is evident that teams use an array of coordination methods—organic or mechanistic processes as well as a class of more recently understood forms of team cognition—to navigate their internal boundaries. A team’s choice of coordination solutions will depend on the nature of the task, its global context (which boundaries are represented and where), the nature of the dependencies present (the various activities necessary to complete the task with the particular set of members and conditions), and the personal preferences and predispositions of team members to coordinate with some mechanisms and not with others. It is important to recognize that each team may select a mix of mechanistic, organic, and cognitive coordination processes that best fit its particular situation. This select may depend on the coordination needs of the task, personal preferences, prior experience, or a variety of other factors. Different teams making different choices may achieve similar levels of coordination using their idiosyncratic mix. For instance, three teams can be highly coordinated, one primarily through intensive and effective communications, another through sound task programming mechanisms, and the other through strong team cognition or through some combination of the three.
As alluded to in the previous example of McDonald’s Chinese franchise operations, not only might teams employ a mix of mechanistic, organic, and cognitive coordination processes appropriate for their tasks, but this mix may change over time and situations. The combination of these coordination processes may be especially powerful when applied to larger groupings. One vivid example of this (at least to this research-paper’s authors, both of us being professors) is an academic conference that organizes thousands of people through mechanistic programming early in the organizing process such as through conference program books and Web sites, yet that triggers on-site organic communication through hallway conversations, postpresentation discussions, and the shared knowledge of specific topics.
Global teams will select a mix of coordination processes—mechanistic, organic, or cognitive—that they deem most effective in bridging the particular boundaries present in their teams. By focusing on coordination of clearly defined boundaries—functional, identity, organizational, geographic distance, temporal distance, and national culture— teams can best utilize their internal resources, promote effective member relationships, and ultimately achieve their fullest potential on the global stage.
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