by Michael Doheny for KCP Dynamics
Leadership is the use of power and influence for the purpose of attaining a goal while maximizing the utility and satisfaction of followers. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) Systems are a set of business software modules gathered together to enable a business to manage and execute their daily activities.
Virtual teams are groups of geographically dispersed members ‘glued’ together by technology for the purposes of achieving single or multiple tasks. The following literature review will explore each of these topics and endeavor to illustrate use complexities and dependencies of leadership theory in virtual teams and the implementation of global ERP systems.
Powell, Piccoli, and Ives (2004) review current literature for virtual teams and define a virtual team as a group or groups of geographically or time dispersed workers brought together by technology for the purpose of accomplishing one or more jobs. The teams are often brought together for a single purpose and disband once the objective has been met. Global virtual teams have received much attention and been the subject of research due to their composition characteristics of members living in varied countries and having cultural diversification.
Various designs of virtual teams include different levels of Face-to-Face (FtF) interactions, planning and activities. Co-located or conventional teams have generally been found to outperform their virtual colleagues in their communication and planning abilities. To this end there are some who believe periodic FtF collaboration among virtual team members is a requirement to build a successful team. In the case of global ERP implementations a major factor for success is bringing the virtual team together from the project kick-off to scheduled meetings to coincide with key milestones and deliverables.
Studies of cultural difference and it effect on global virtual teams have found that although there are common language and cultural differences the main challenges are from within some countries ethnically diverse cultural rather an extra-continental cultural differences.
Powell, et al (2004) finds the lack of technical expertise is a more important factor than existent technical expertise in virtual teams. The inability to cope with technical issues was shown to have a detrimental effect on team member satisfaction. High levels of trust have been observed in teams where technological challenges have been presented and overcome.
Early and consistent team member training has shown to have a positive impact on virtual team operation. It has also been found to foster trust, teamwork, commitment, and individual satisfaction.
The nature of virtual teams is such that they are more task-focused and less social. Face-to-Face communications early in the formation of virtual teams have shown to have a more positive impact over the project than later or no Face-to-Face meetings. As a consequence early face to face meetings should focus to some degree on relationship and team building. From a cultural standpoint, an experiment showed some Belgian students were interested in socializing early on while American students preferred to wait until the end if time permitted.
The development of trust in virtual teams is challenging because of the difficulties for team members to assess trustworthiness in the absence of meeting their associates. Due to the limited life-cycle of virtual teams trust needs to be developed relatively fast. Powell (2004) found there was an ability to develop trust in virtual teams by following a swift trust model.
Members following the swift trust model assume high level of trustworthiness from the outset and look for confirming or contradictory behavior from their teammates. Early face to face meetings intensified the ability of virtual teams to assume and confirm or contradict trust levels.
Communication is central to any virtual team. Especially in global virtual teams communication is a challenge. Many teams span multiple time zones and it is not uncommon for some team members to be leaving for the day when others are just beginning. It is especially important for these virtual teams to develop a common time frame in which to work. This may mean some team members at either end of a time spectrum adjust their work schedules to accommodate a certain time period in which all members have some common time together.
Nonverbal communication is important to traditional co-located teams and is in short supply in virtual teams. Fortunately there is technology allowing high density video conferencing to present the opportunity for virtual teams to experience non-verbal interaction. Studies of predictable and consistent communications in virtual teams have shown a higher development of trust and achievement where inconsistent and unpredictable communication has proven detrimental.
Walvoord, Redden, Elliot, & Coovert (2008) study the challenges of communications and review means and methods for a leader to communicate with their virtual followers. Earlier definition of virtual team leaders resulted in the term e-Leadership. By extension, virtual team members might be referred to as e-followers. E-Leadership requires the execution of their duties principally through technologically assisted communication tools. Walvoord, et al (2008) discusses the important role leaders play in the development of effective communication practices and introduce the concept of multiple communication or communication mode repertoire.
The authors illustrate the importance of consistent and efficient use of communication technology to a limited number and availability to avoid distraction and cerebral burnout. The ability of e-followers to execute the plan(s) of their e-leader can be difficult if their only means of communication is through voice or text. Virtual team members do not have the ability to see facial expressions or body language the same as co-located or traditional team members. Voice inflections or tonality is lost in email or other written communication. Commander’s Intent is a premise used by leaders in the military to empower their followers to make decisions. It consists of four processes: formulation, communication, interpretation, and implementation.
A leader may not be fully aware of their follower’s communication availability during the formulation process. It is important for the devices and technology to be sufficient for the e-Leader to present their objective and when critical decision points are known and understood by their e-followers. Co-located team members enjoy the benefit of being able to interpret facial expressions, gestures, and tone.
E-Leaders are better served utilizing video conferencing and other visual communication technology to their e-followers. Virtual teams are often faced with unanticipated events. The ability of e-followers to interpret information from e-leaders has been shown to be more effective when the information is displayed graphically rather than contextually. Effective technology systems are crucial for virtual teams. It ensures they can function effectively thereby capitalizing on e-leadership and empowering e-followers.
In conclusion, implementing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems is a complex undertaking prone to failure under ordinary circumstances. Adding the complexity of geographically dispersed, multi-cultural, and sometimes technologically challenged virtual teams members and the successful implementation might be considered by some a herculean task for a leader. Some of the literature reviewed has shown that a well-designed team, executing a properly defined plan, utilizing current technology by a leader possessing the necessary skills has the ability to successfully implement a global ERP system. Further research should be conducted to assess the combination of these factors in a single or multi-corporate IT plan. There are for sure some multi-national organizations which are currently in the process of planning or executing a global ERP implementation which, if could be studied, would further the research in this area.