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Themes and theories for working in virtual project teams
Themes and theories for working in virtual project teams

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1 Why work together virtually?

People have the capacity for thought, and from this can learn and develop so that they can gain knowledge and create artefacts. Individuals have cognitive abilities. By combining with other people, the capacity for knowledge and development is increased as knowledge is distributed across the group. Sharing and building knowledge can take place either formally or informally. The industrial revolution in Britain saw the change from small-scale working to large, factory-based production. The types of skills required and the pattern of work also changed. While working in groups has always been a feature of human interaction, this was one of the earliest instances of technology and group working coming together. The significance of working together is that more can be achieved than by individuals working on their own.

This course makes a distinction between a team, a group and a community of practice. However, much of what you will learn about collaboration in a team in a virtual environment can also be appropriate to the more informal interactions implied by the use of the terms ‘group’ and ‘communities of practice’.

Working in teams implies that goals and roles are defined. This articulation of responsibilities gives structure. The team is organised so that more can be achieved than in less formal settings.

There are many variations between a team in which all members are physically collocated and a completely virtual team. Even collocated teams may use electronic communication and members may not be physically present all of the time. In looking at communication between team members, whether in a collocated or virtual team, it can be helpful to distinguish between synchronous and asynchronous interactions. Whereas synchronous interactions happen at the same time, asynchronous interactions are separated in time.

While we shall focus on project teams, much of the theory also applies to operational teams and to communities of practice.

Activity 1

In a collocated team, why might a team member not be physically present? How could electronic communication be of benefit in this case, whatever the reason?


The team member may be on holiday or may be ill, so the absence could be planned or unplanned but they are not available to the team. If at a conference, trade show or at a customer site, the team member’s absence may be planned and they might still be available to communicate with the team. Unexpected absences might be for an unplanned call-out to a customer site. Alternatively, members may be able to work from home, so could be active on team tasks even if not physically present or could work flexitime, so may be present when other team members are not. An individual may work on more than one team at once, so sometimes may be working on other responsibilities in another location.

Electronic communication may enable those who are actively working on team tasks, even if not physically present, to contribute immediately. Those who are absent may be able to see the electronic communication that took place when they were not available and either make a later contribution or just catch-up with the information. You may have thought of other reasons and other benefits too.