Practical issues and lessons for effective virtual teams

Virtual Collaboration – dispatches from the front line

Bioteam's Guest Article by Charlie Bess

Charlie is an EDS Fellow for Electronic Data Systems and is this capacity acts as liaison to the companies Innovation Centre in Redmond and works with the Healthcare Industry group.

He was Chief Technologist for EDS Application Services responsible for much of the software development for EDS' long term clients. He also filled in as the acting VP of portfolio management for applications as the new organization was being formed.

In this article Charlie condenses many years practical experience of leading virtual teams in a globally distributed organization (EDS) and discusses the key lessons such as:

  • avoiding distraction
  • virtual versus 'face to face' meetings
  • operating across different business cultures
  • incentivising knowledge sharing
  • supporting an increasingly mobile workforce

Virtual Collaboration – dispatches from the front line


I contribute to EDS’ Next Big Thing blog. I’ve also lead a virtual community consisting of many of EDS’ lead technologists for a few years. This community was spread across over 20 countries and supported many industries. It’s goal was to share information and solutions as efficiently as possible. My comment to the team was always: “No one cares where the answer came from, as long as it met the need in a timely fashion.” In other words, the community was there to make you look good.

The key tool we used starting out was an up-to-date mail distribution list that everyone could access. We later moved on to tools like eRoom and SharePoint to take advantage of their collaboration features.

The three big issues – maintain focus, effective meetings and respect culture

One thing we learned was that Virtual communities need to be focused, so the information they share does not overwhelm its members with distractions. The community also needs to have a solid kernel that keeps the information flowing and may coordinate regular meetings that are of general interest. Ideally, some portion of the community should meet face-to-face (at least once). After the face-to-face meeting, asynchronous communications seems to flow much more effectively. It can develop totally asynchronously, but it seems to take longer. The cultural issues of the various regions of the world may also need to be considered. For us one region was much more information push (e-mail) oriented than pull (web-site) oriented.

The big challenge is to take collaboration and knowledge sharing seriously

When I think about the world flattening that is underway, one of the critical aspects for virtual communities will be how to get best practice shared across the enterprise in as timely a fashion as possible. Organizations that keep their communications in silos will have a serious handicap to those that allow for collaboration and sharing. The culture of the organization may need to change, and that is a hard nut to crack.

One of the “pig in the python” demographic issues that most organizations will need to deal with in the short term is the baby boom, retiring workforce. I doubt that anyone is expecting the replacement workers to be less productive than the current workforce, and yet that huge experience base will be leaving. Virtual communities and knowledge transfer techniques will play an important role in keeping productivity and quality high. The Internet has shown that these kinds of communities can develop organically, but why take the chance. If we think about it, we may be able to plan the future that we want to have.

Support for mobility and presence is crucial

Another issue for the workforce in many organizations is that they are away from their “normal” work location a significant portion of the time. With the mobile devices available and the soon to be more widely available 3rd generation wireless network, most people should have access to the virtual community wherever they are in the world. Beyond that though, an enterprise will be able to tune its processes to get the right information, to the right person in the right location in the right format at the right time, driving the right result.

Charlie Bess

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