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Managing virtual project teams
Managing virtual project teams

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2.1 Awareness

Project team members need to gain awareness of each other: to know what each has done, is doing and is going to do, and have an understanding of the current status of the work that they share.

A person working alone on a task has ‘situation awareness’ of the task. For example, a person working on a document is aware of what it is they are writing, what its purpose is, what form it should finally take, the place they are within it, when it needs to be completed and whether that timescale can be achieved. They are aware of the tools they are using and their physical environment, the workspace. They are also aware of their own level of commitment to the overall task, and have a sense of their own capability to carry out the task successfully. These different aspects of awareness allow the author to make decisions about what needs to be done next, enabling the task to proceed.

Awareness in collocated team working

When people work together on a task, another dimension is added. The collaboration itself is a task, and each person’s share of the work is to some extent dependent on the work of others. So, the individual situation awareness has to grow to include both the original task and the collaboration, and becomes a shared situation awareness.

Collaborators who are collocated are likely to have a natural awareness of each other, each other’s work and the workspace where the task and the team are located. Such awareness, or shared understanding, is achieved by conscious and unconscious observation, by verbal communication and by non-verbal cues. The resultant understanding of who is present and what they are doing provides the context for each participant’s own activity. This context is used to evaluate individual actions against group goals and allows the management of collaborative work (Dourish and Bellotti, 1992).

In addition, familiarity engendered by awareness can make possible the creation of mutual confidence, trust and group identity. In the same way that self-awareness provides an individual with an understanding of their own commitment, mood and capability, shared awareness provides the same awareness of their team colleagues.

Awareness in remote team working

Where collaboration takes place at a distance, the different aspects of awareness discussed above become problematic. The ability of the participants to obtain the information they need is limited by their distance and the capabilities of their means of communication. It therefore becomes necessary to decide what information to make available and how to present that information to allow collaborators the awareness that they need. In doing this the need for awareness needs to be balanced with the need for a level of privacy for each individual. One way of allowing for this level of privacy (which is likely to differ from individual to individual) is to allow users some control over the amount of information about themselves that is made available to others.

Awareness of the workspace is not confined to the current context of work, where the workspace is the meeting itself and any shared artefact, such as a whiteboard, that is used in that meeting. Collaborators need to make use of existing knowledge and information to carry out their work. They also often need to preserve the knowledge and information that they generate to lead to more knowledge and information and completion of work. To do this they must share a persistent workspace, a knowledge repository, which may be a directory of files that holds the work to date and data that supports that work, possibly held in databases. A knowledge repository is part of the ‘organisational memory’ of the group, and the management of that memory requires a recording and archiving of work, data, knowledge and experience to allow the development of a project over time. Team members must have a shared awareness of the knowledge repositories they intend to use, and a common understanding of the meaning of the stored data and the relationships that participants have with parts of that data. For instance, they might need to know who generated it, who can change it, who is working on it, and who has access to it.

An example of the problem of lack of awareness can be found in the ownership of a shared resource, such as a wiki. Does the fact that people work together on a document mean that they all have equal ownership of that document and can do what they like with it, such as change it? Or are there levels of ownership, with some people having read-only access and others having write-access, for example, and how does everyone know what these ownership rules are? This example relates to the self-confidence of team members and their perception of their own influence and importance within the project. The project manager can influence effective teamwork by being conscious of levels of awareness and of the ways that team members perceive their position and, where necessary, bolster their perceptions or provide missing information.