International Virtual Teams - Pam Estes Brewer - E-Book

International Virtual Teams E-Book

Pam Estes Brewer

40,99 €


Dr. Brewer presents a complete guide to international virtual team communication with the most up-to-date research developments in the engineering workplace on a global scale, and a problem-solving approach to using and communicating in virtual teams. * Presents guidelines heavily based on empirical data * Application of virtual team communication guidelines to the field of engineering * Provides strategies and sample projects for teaching

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International Virtual Teams

Engineering Global Success

Pam Estes Brewer

Mercer University Macon, Georgia

IEEE PCS Professional Engineering Communication Series

Copyright © 2015 by The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey. All rights reserved Published simultaneously in Canada

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ISBN: 978-1-118-33900-8

To my family You are the everything


A Note from the Series Editor




1: The Critical Role of Global Virtual Teams

1.1 Unique Features of This Book

1.2 Growth in International Virtual Workplaces

1.3 The International Nature of Virtual Teams

1.4 The Value of Information

1.5 Foundations of Global Virtual Team Theory

1.6 Global Virtual Team Basics

1.7 Targeted Benefits of Global Virtual Teams

1.8 Challenges of Global Virtual Teams

1.9 Connecting Global Engineering Talent

1.10 Engineering Successes and Failures

1.11 A Look Ahead


2: Virtual Team Basics

2.1 Defining and Describing Virtual Teams

2.2 Virtual Teams as Intercultures

2.3 Characteristics of Virtual Teams

2.4 Constructing the Virtual Workplace

2.5 The Transfer of Meaningful Information

2.6 Characteristics of Successful Virtual Teams

2.7 Challenges to Virtual Teams

2.8 Summary


3: Cultural Preparation for Virtual Teams

3.1 Defining Culture

3.2 Alternative Perspectives on Culture

3.3 Levels of Consciousness

3.4 Language As a Barrier to Communication

3.5 Face-to-Face Intercultural Communication Theory

3.6 Common Challenges to Intercultural Face-To-Face Communication

3.7 A New Interculture—Online Virtual Teams

3.8 Working Through Filters

3.9 Common Challenges to Global Virtual Communication

3.10 Success Strategies for Working Across Cultures Online

3.11 Summary


4: Patterns That Challenge the Effectiveness of Global Virtual Teams

4.1 Broad Patterns of Communication That Are Common to Most Global Virtual Teams

4.2 Organizational/Technological Patterns of Virtual Team Communication

4.3 Individual Patterns of Virtual Team Communication

4.4 Information Sharing—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.5 Understanding the Other Person and Culture—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.6 Use of Language—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.7 Trust/Credibility—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.8 Navigating Time Zones—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.9 Working with Technology—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.10 Managing Haste/Errors—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.11 Using Tone—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.12 Working with Directness—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.13 Working with Social Distance—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.14 Using Social Communication—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.15 Navigating Boundaries—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.16 Delivering Criticism—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.17 Netiquette—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.18 Personnel Issues—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.19 Working Through Misattribution—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.20 Working Through Lack of Response—Challenges and Success Strategies

4.21 The Impact of Cross-Cultural Miscommunication

4.22 Summary


5: How to Prevent, Identify, and Resolve Miscommunication in Virtual Teams

5.1 The Prevalence of Miscommunication in Virtual Teams

5.2 Strategies to Prevent Miscommunication

5.3 Strategies to Identify Miscommunication

5.4 Strategies to Resolve Miscommunication

5.5 Beware of Some Solution Strategies

5.6 A Comparison of Solution Strategies

5.7 Summary


6: Technology and Global Virtual Teams

6.1 The Filtering Effects of Technology

6.2 Technology and Speed

6.3 Technology and Culture

6.4 Technology Use in Engineering Virtual Teams

6.5 Assessing Technology Needs for the Global Virtual Team

6.6 Modes of Technology and Related Affordances

6.7 Success Strategies for Building Virtual Team Technology Infrastructures

6.8 Summary


7: Establishing Successful Global Virtual Teams

7.1 The Basics of Metacommunication

7.2 The Strategic Significance of Metacommunication

7.3 Naming the Metacommunication Process

7.4 Implementing Metacommunication

7.5 Steps for Establishing New Global Virtual Teams

7.6 Summary


8: Evaluating and Maintaining Effective Global Virtual Teams

8.1 Characteristics of Highly Functioning Global Virtual Teams

8.2 Evaluating Existing Virtual Teams

8.3 Tools for Maintaining Highly Functioning Global Virtual Teams

8.4 A Beginning Look at Training Resources

8.5 Summary


9: Designing Training for Global Virtual Team Communication

9.1 Importance of Global Virtual Team Preparation

9.2 Current State of Global Virtual Team Education and Training

9.3 Benefits of Improving Education and Training

9.4 Instructional Design for Global Virtual Team Preparation

9.5 Adaptable Experiential Project Module

9.6 Common Lessons Learned

9.7 Sample Project Designs

9.8 Summary


A: Methods Used in Study A (Survey on Using International Virtual Teams in Engineering)

A.1 Research Focus

A.2 Participants

A.3 Data Collection Methods

A.4 Research Timeline

B: Methods Used in Study B (Case Study Research of International Virtual Teams)

B.1 Research Questions

B.2 Participants

B.3 Data Collection Methods

B.4 Research Timeline






List of Tables

Chapter 1

Table 1.1

Chapter 2

Table 2.1

Chapter 3

Table 3.1

Table 3.2

Table 3.3

Chapter 4

Table 4.1

Chapter 5

Table 5.1

Table 5.2

Chapter 6

Table 6.1

Table 6.2

Table 6.3

Table 6.4

Chapter 8

Table 8.1

Table 8.2

Chapter 9

Table 9.1

List of Illustrations

Chapter 3

Figure 3.1 English is used most often in international virtual teams as the common language. Though over 70% of total survey participants came from outside the United States, English is still identified as the most often used language for business. Based on 153 survey responses.

Figure 3.2 Some organizations have language requirements for hiring and some do not. Language is a significant consideration in the staffing of engineering organizations. These results are based on 149 survey responses of engineering professionals.

Figure 3.3 The place where engineering professionals work does not necessarily reflect their home culture. Though 33% of survey participants work most often from the United States, 70% of total survey responses were provided by professionals whose native culture was not the US; these numbers were gathered from 252 survey responses.

Figure 3.4 Engineering professionals clearly understand the impact of communication problems in virtual teams. They perceive significantly more impact on teams' success from international communication challenges as compared to domestic. Numbers were gathered from 138 responses.

Figure 3.5 Multiple factors cause miscommunication in international virtual workplaces. The factors presented in this diagram do not imply exclusivity; rather, they indicate emphasis.

Chapter 4

Figure 4.1 Virtual teams do have communication problems. When asked if they experience on-the-job problems in virtual teams, a wide majority responded that they did. Thus, having an awareness of what those problems might be and how to troubleshoot them is essential.

Figure 4.2 Virtual teams have specific communication challenges. My study revealed that critical communication incidents most often fell into one of these categories. From this data, we can see that much of engineering communication is heavily reliant on the “intangibles” of trust and relationship building. This set of numbers came out of surveys within five organizational categories and is based on 148 survey responses.

Figure 4.3 Problematic factors vary widely in global virtual teams. Here we see the identified issues that most often cause problem in virtual teams, gathered from surveys of 148 engineering professionals.

Figure 4.4 Miscommunication patterns are often attributed to issues of international communication barriers. These percentages reflect perceptions of engineering professionals. When asked, 45% of 134 participants said “yes,” they do experience miscommunication as a direct result of communicating internationally. As well, 36% of the same group responded “no”; they do not experience miscommunication as a result of communicating internationally. Nineteen percent did not know.

Figure 4.5 Overview of identified patterns of miscommunication in virtual teams. Notice that the three factors in the center of the diagram have been emphasized in all of the research. Thus, as you apply knowledge of the patterns to achieve effective communication, begin with the central patterns and then move out to other patterns as a strategy for refining the effectiveness of your virtual teams.

Chapter 5

Figure 5.1 Engineering professionals have preferred methods for resolving miscommunication. Engineering professionals from around the world (147 responses) ranked their preferred methods of resolving problems based on their experience. Choose from among these methods to create a good mix of tools for your teams.

Figure 5.2 Surprisingly, few companies provide training for virtual teams. Among 154 engineering professionals, 60% report that their companies provide no training to prepare people to work in global virtual teams. Overall, a full 77% of survey participants report that their organizations provide no effective training for working in an environment upon which their companies' success increasingly depends.

Figure 5.3 Solutions used to work through miscommunication differ somewhat between domestic and international contexts. (Note: The factors presented in this diagram do not imply exclusivity; rather they indicate emphasis.) The strategies that professionals most tended to use internationally were different than those they tended to use domestically.

Chapter 6

Figure 6.1 Some technologies are used most often for virtual team work by engineering professionals. Compare these most used technologies to the most useful technologies in Figure 6.2. The most used technologies are not necessarily the most useful technologies according to these professionals. The data displayed in Figures 6.1 and 6.2 indicate that a significant gap exists between the technologies engineering professionals are using and how useful they find them. These numbers were based upon 153 survey responses from engineers around the globe.

Figure 6.2 The most useful technologies for virtual teaming aren't necessarily the preferred ones. Compare to most used technologies in Figure 6.1. The most used technologies are not necessarily the most useful technologies according to these professionals. E-mail was identified as most used and most useful (but to differing degrees), but thereafter, the order of most used and most useful technologies differs. The data displayed in Figures 6.1 and 6.2 indicate that a significant gap exists between the technologies engineering professionals are using and how useful they find them. Based on 149 survey responses.

Figure 6.3 Align task, context, and technology. Seek to align the elements of task, context, and technology in order to choose and use technology most effectively. As part of this process, consider the affordances of a technology that make it effective for various tasks, and how you can achieve goals within specific contexts such as the cultural expectations of your team members.

Figure 6.4 Adjust and contextualize how you align task, context, and technology. Technologies should be chosen by the team to best complement their task and purpose. In creating teams that work better, a willingness to be agile is essential when choosing tools and methods to meet purpose.

Figure 6.5 Not enough organizations have formal technology use guidelines for virtual teams. A surprising 63% of engineering professionals say that their organizations have no formally documented guidelines for how technology should be used in virtual communication.

Figure 6.6 Just over half of surveyed organizations have informal guidelines for technology use in virtual teams. Of those engineering professionals who responded, 58% say their organizations have no informal guidelines for how technology should be used in virtual communication.

Figure 6.7 Plan your process for implementing virtual team technologies. As with any engineering or technical project, a plan is essential for success. This structured approach is based on reliable research and is flexible for use in virtual teams of all kinds.

Chapter 7

Figure 7.1 Virtual team members connect via several means with other people in engineering organizations. These data are based on the responses of 158 survey participants (see Study A at the end of this book). Participants could check multiple categories. Virtual teams are used most heavily within companies and across cultures. The potential diversity within these teams is apparent.

Figure 7.2 This implementation guide for metacommunication can help you plan your team strategies. These steps can be repeated and the order changed as needed.

Figure 7.3 This guide can help you establish new global teams. Adapt it as needed for your context. For example, a highly diverse virtual team may need to spend more time on some steps than a less diverse team.

Chapter 8

Figure 8.1 Signs of virtual team success become cornerstones of future good work. Of the 114 engineering professionals who answered this survey question (see Study A at the end of this book), the benchmark of “goals achieved” garnered the most attention. While engineering professionals most often identified successful completion of organizational tasks as indicators of success, many of them also recognized the importance of communication goals (including flow, rate of problems, and satisfaction) in completing their work well. Seeing successes can influence future projects.

Figure 8.2 Perceptions of “reasonable response time” can vary quite a bit. As a general rule, engineering professionals expect responses within 12–48 hours though they acknowledge that preferred response time depends on the situation. (Note: If a participant cited a general time preference but also said that the time was context-dependent, both answers were counted.)

Chapter 9

Figure 9.1 Deploy this flexible module for constructing global virtual team projects. This figure (adapted from [6]) outlines the major steps to consider when constructing an experiential project for global virtual teams; these steps allow you to design the project based on your own context.

Figure 9.2 Among 276 surveyed engineering professionals, 37 languages emerged as work languages. Such diversity indicates the large range of languages that may be present in global virtual teams. Each language is identified only once on the map, though many speakers in different parts of the world may have cited it.



Table of Contents



































































































































































































































A Note from the Series Editor

The IEEE Professional Communication Society (PCS), with Wiley-IEEE Press, continues its book series titled Professional Engineering Communication with Pam Estes Brewer's new book International Virtual Teams: Engineering Global Success. Any organization, any company, and any class that uses distributed teams will find a treasure trove of information and insight with Brewer's observations, research, and recommendations.

I work with quite a few practicing engineers, and I teach undergraduate and graduate level students in a college of engineering, as well. And as I thought about it, I struggled to think of one—even one—of those people who had not worked on a virtual team, international or otherwise. Teams are now distributed across time zones, borders, and language barriers. Even on campus, students are continually working in teams, and much of that work is done online without being in the same room. Open access, free online workspaces allow for levels of collaboration that I could not have imagined even five years ago.

With these new tools, and with the expectations from employers, clients, colleagues, and instructors alike, the word “team” can become problematic, as it often feels like people are working in groups (without much thought to interactions) rather than teams (where interaction and expectations are more transparent and planned). As Brewer unearths in her studies and surveys, precious little is being done within companies to prepare employees to function at high levels when working on such teams, no matter if they are in the same room or across the globe. At universities, students are plopped into groups and are expected to work like a team with little or no guidance from their instructors/mentors on how teams actually achieve good work habits.

Thus, a book like Brewer's can help shed some light on how to function well in teams (international and otherwise) and how to do so in virtual environments. Necessarily, this book is about “big” ideas of functionality; it is not a how-to for working inside specific, branded software suites because those will change in the blink of an eye. Rather, Brewer walks us through how to think about our options, maximize the potential when working online, choosing the best tool kits, and realizing how to see what works and what needs to be tweaked.

When this book series began, we were looking for an author who produces a book about such issues, and here it is. The series has a mandate to explore areas of communication practices and application as applied to the engineering, technical, and scientific professions. Including the realms of business, governmental agencies, academia, and other areas, this series has and will continue to develop perspectives about the state of communication issues and potential solutions when at all possible.

While theory has its place (in this book and this series), we always look to be a source where recommendations for action and activity can be found. All of the books in the fast-growing Professional Engineering Communication series keep a steady eye on the applicable while acknowledging the contributions that analysis, research, and theory can provide to these efforts. You will see Brewer's active synthesis between on-site realities and research coming together. There is a strong commitment from the Professional Communication Society of IEEE and Wiley to produce a set of information and resources that can be carried directly into engineering firms, technology organizations, and academia alike.

For the series, we work with this philosophy: at the core of engineering, science, and technical work is problem solving and discovery. These tasks require, at all levels, talented and agile communication practices. We need to effectively gather, vet, analyze, synthesize, control, and produce communication pieces in order for any meaningful work to get done. This book contributes deeply to that vision for the series.

Traci Nathans-Kelly

Series Editor


The Global Context for Virtual Teams: Re-thinking Collaboration in the Modern Workplace

Twenty years ago, people thought of the workplace in terms of brick and mortar structures bound to specific, geographic locations. It was a time when collaborating on projects meant individuals met in a particular, physical place to exchange ideas, develop schedules, and assign tasks. It was a context in which factors of distance greatly dictated who could participate in group projects, how, and when. Under these restrictions, involvement in international projects was a relatively rare process generally reserved for a small number of individuals fortunate enough to work for larger, multinational organizations.

And then came the age of the Internet, and all of that changed . . .

Today, employees working for almost any organization can participate in international projects and collaborate with overseas colleagues frequently and regularly. Today, global Internet access means an organization that has any sort of online presence is inherently in contact with a greater, international audience—whether intended or not. In fact, the modern business climate is such that organizations almost need to think globally and focus internationally to remain competitive. Failure to do so brings with it the risk of being beaten out by a competitor that could be located, literally, anywhere on earth. And as global online access continues to increase, this situation will only become more prevalent—and the need to think internationally more imperative.

Within this context, the nature—and the idea—of teams has changed dramatically. Gone is the notion that factors of physical proximity dictate who can—and cannot—participate in work groups, development teams, or project activities. In fact, converging economic, technological, and geopolitical factors have led to a new model for work and a different understanding of the workplace. Today is the age of the international virtual team. And as communication technologies evolve and global online access spreads, participating in such teams will increasingly become a part of the average individual's work routine.

As with all things new, this situation brings with it different rates of adoption during a period of trial and error. It is a time when individuals and organizations explore expectations and approaches for using various media to reach out to and collaborate with colleagues, coworkers, and even clients located in different nations and regions. During this period, there is much to lose, not only in terms of time and money, but also in terms of opportunity. For this reason, resources that provide strategies for working effectively in and successfully managing globally-distributed virtual teams can be invaluable.

International Virtual Teams: Engineering Global Success is such a resource.

By presenting a focused examination of the new nature of work in online contexts, International Virtual Teams provides one of the first systematic and in-depth analyses of globally-distributed working groups that collaborate via web-based media. In so doing, this text can serve as an ideal roadmap for navigating this new environment in an informed manner that contributes to our understanding of and use of these relatively new entities. The analyses, ideas, and approaches covered in International Virtual Teams, moreover, offer insights that can be applied to the effective creation, use, and administration of global virtual teams in a variety of contexts—corporate, governmental, educational, civic, and social.

The more barriers between the physical and the virtual world continue to blur and blend, the more participation in groups and teams will involve the straddling of those two spheres. To do so in an informed manner will be the key to success. International Virtual Teams provides us with the means needed to unlock the potential of this new context. In so doing, it provides us with a mechanism for thinking of and participating in human interactions in original and exciting ways. It also provides us with a guide for exploring the new nature of human interaction, new concepts of group dynamics, and the ever-evolving idea of the workplace in the age of global interconnectedness.

And so, the journey begins…

Kirk St.Amant

Professor of Technical and Professional Communication

and of International Studies

East Carolina University

Greenville, NC


A virtual team is one that does much of its work across distances facilitated by technology. As Kirk St.Amant notes in the foreword to this book, we are now working in the Age of the International Virtual Team. These cross-cultural teams provide the scaffolding for the communication of engineering professionals worldwide—within and between organizations of all kinds. The success of many organizations depends on the success of these teams.

While international virtual teams have much in common with face-to-face teams, they also have some significant differences. These differences are due in large part to virtual team members' working at a distance across cultures and to communication being moderated by technologies. Serious challenges exist in this context: (1) international virtual teams support much of global workflow; (2) international virtual teams differ in many of their characteristics from face-to-face teams; and (3) very few organizations provide any formal, effective training to prepare their people to work in these teams. The potential for challenges presented by this three-part context is not difficult to discern: organizations have a heavy investment in a type of communication for which many engineering professionals are not well prepared.

These professionals need processes and tools to help them effectively create, maintain, and use international virtual teams. The content of this book can help. It provides a rich set of processes and tools for creating, maintaining, and using international virtual teams. It is specifically written for an audience of global engineering professionals, novice to expert. Because of the focus on global engineering professionals, processes and tools are explained in detail with the assumption that the starting level of knowledge will range greatly across the globe. Included in this audience of “engineering professionals” are practicing engineers, managers, educators and trainers, human resource professionals, military service officers, and students.

The processes and tools presented here are based on extensive primary and secondary research as well as the author's experience in virtual teaming. Perhaps most notably, over 70% of participants in the primary research projects are international engineering professionals who work outside the United States. You can have confidence in the discussions, methods, and ideas presented here because they are based on evidence from three sources:

a survey of engineering professionals

seven case studies of professionals who work in virtual workplaces

information gathered and analyzed by many researchers in virtual communication

Basing the information in this book on empirical data and my original research means that I bring you reliable information that is focused on the most current international engineering practice.

Most of these engineering professionals are overworked and short of time; thus, this book delivers communication strategies based on how engineering professionals really work in virtual teams. This practical guide includes case studies, strategies for success, and reports from the workplace as well as current trends, problems, and solutions. Two of the most powerful tools presented in these chapters are metacommunication and patterns.

Use the strategies in these pages to create, manage, participate in, and train others to work in effective international virtual teams. With these strategies, your organization will be able to respond successfully to inevitable changes in communication technologies and the global marketplace. Ultimately, effective virtual teams are able to collaborate in ways that bring success to their organizations.

Pam Estes Brewer

Mercer University

Macon, Georgia

Please note:The definitions provided throughout this book are used as noted to provide a common and usable understanding of concepts that are important to working in global virtual teams. Many of these terms have complex definitions that vary with application.


This book is the culmination of good work by a great many people.

I wish to extend my thanks to Traci Nathans-Kelly, my series editor. This is a better book due to her ideas. Thanks, too, to Wiley-IEEE and Mary Hatcher for their support of my work and the work of this series on professional communication. And though I don't know all of the reviewers who worked behind the scenes, thank you Elizabeth Buchanan et al.

While working on this book, I moved from one good school to another—Appalachian State University to Mercer University. I have colleagues to thank at both institutions. Thanks to Nita Matzen, Alanah Mitchell, Rob Sanders, Paul Wallace, and Dave Wood for the opportunities to collaborate across disciplines. These colleagues work outside the box, a necessity for knowledge creation in an interdisciplinary age. Thanks also to Tony Calamai and Jim Fogelquist, and the Office of Research.

My new professional family in the Mercer University School of Engineering has been generous with their support. Thanks so much to Helen Grady and Susan Codone. And a special thanks to George Hayhoe who offered his expertise as a technical editor. He remains one of the best editors with whom I have ever worked.

Over the course of many years, I have worked with international colleagues and students on virtual team projects for the classroom. Each and every one of them opens a classroom to the world of experience. This is no small task. Thanks to Yi-chuan (Jane) Hsieh, Li-Hwa Hung, Annie Martirosyan, Jiann-fa Yan, and Matthew Rockall. I appreciate also the help of Jesse Lutabingwa for opening international opportunities. Among the students who have worked with me, let me thank Matt Prater, my research assistant at Appalachian State, and Aaron Brantley, a Mercer University student who gave me the idea for the cover art.

It seems that whenever I reach out to colleagues, their generosity amazes me. Thanks to colleagues who contributed success strategies and other expert elements to this book: Craig Baehr, Ed Brewer, Kit Brown-Hoekstra, Terry Holmes, Nita Matzen, Alanah Mitchell, Charlotte Robidoux, and Kirk St.Amant. And thanks to my many colleagues in the Society for Technical Communication.

Finally, I'd like to acknowledge the many engineering and communication professionals who participated in my research studies. Your experience contributes greatly to the practical strategies presented in this book.

1The Critical Role of Global Virtual Teams

Virtual teams have become essential units in successful organizations. Where they do not exist, opportunity is lost. Where they are not functioning effectively, opportunity is lost. International virtual teams are the key to some of the biggest successes and failures in the global workplace while organizations learn to operate as complex webs of people. Organizations that successfully employ global virtual teams can access the human resources that allow them to compete internationally.

Core Concept

Because people must work through technology and across cultures, it is important that they understand the new nature of communication as it passes through these filters.

Virtual teams, by definition, do much of their work across distances facilitated by technology as opposed to doing much of their work in face-to-face contexts. They can work across small or large distances and can comprise as few as two team members or as many as can be effectively managed for a specific purpose. Technology facilitates communication at a distance and also acts as a filter through which communication must flow. International boundaries present yet another filter through which communication must flow. Because people must work through technology and across cultures, it is important that they understand the new nature of communication as it passes through these filters.


Virtual team—a team that does much of its work across distances facilitated by technology as opposed to doing much of its work in face-to-face contexts.

Needless to say, along with increased opportunities for success in online communication come increased opportunities for miscommunication. All miscommunication is costly to organizations. Consider the following questions as you assess your organization's current use of global virtual teams:

Do you recognize the value of global virtual teams but find that you do not know how to establish them?

Does your organization use global virtual teams, but you have a sense that they are not working well? Could they be working better?

Do you observe intercultural communication impacting the success of your virtual teams but find yourself unsure how to solve intercultural problems online?

Are you overwhelmed by the number books and articles out there on virtual teams and do not have the time to filter through them?

Would you like to train your people to work effectively in global virtual teams but you do not know how to create or find effective, targeted training?

This book provides essential information on creating and maintaining successful global virtual teams for those who manage, participate in, or train others in global virtual teams. Based on new studies in engineering communication, this book provides processes and principles that can help establish global virtual teams that work, assess your virtual team climate, and maintain the effectiveness of your virtual teams across cultural boundaries.

In addition, this book provides you with the knowledge and tools necessary to understand the variable contexts of global virtual teams, so that your organization is able to respond to inevitable changes in technology and the global marketplace. Ultimately, effective virtual teams are able to collaborate in ways that work within the context of their organizations.

1.1 Unique Features of This Book

The growth in organizational use of virtual teams has resulted in a corresponding growth in the number of books available on the topic. While this book covers basic virtual team theory in order to provide a complete guide to using global virtual teams, it offers additional elements not provided in other texts:

an emphasis on international virtual communication

guidelines that are based heavily on empirical data

the most current data from engineering workplace research where over 70% of responses come from outside the United States, thus providing a global perspective

a problem-solving approach to using and communicating in virtual teams

application of virtual team communication guidelines to the field of engineering

structured approaches to establishing, assessing, and maintaining global virtual teams


Empirical data—data based on observation or experience that has been collected and analyzed systematically.

You can have confidence in the discussions, methods, and ideas about global virtual teams as well, because the information presented in this book is based on evidence from three sources:

a survey of engineering professionals

seven case studies of professionals who work in virtual workplaces

information gathered and analyzed by many researchers in virtual communication

Basing the information in this book on empirical data and my original research means that I bring you reliable information that is focused on the most current international engineering practice. Throughout this book, I refer to data from a 2013 survey of engineering professionals as Study A. The methodology is reported in Appendix A. I refer to data collected in case studies in 2007 and 2008 as Study B. The methodology for this study is reported in Appendix B.

1.2 Growth in International Virtual Workplaces

Virtual teams serve as a foundation for rapid growth in today's marketplace. Relying on technology to deliver communication, virtual teams connect companies globally and enable rapid growth; they are often constructed of employees working across national boundaries. Consider a few statistics that track global growth of the economy:

The number of internet users worldwide now numbers over 2 billion which is over 34.3% of the world's population [1], with Internet usage growing significantly in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North America, Latin America/Caribbean, and Oceana/Australia. Asia has the highest total number of Internet users with 44.8% of global users [1].

The top 10 internet usage countries as of June 2012 ranked from most to least were China, the United States, India, Japan, Brazil, Russia, Germany, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, and France [1].

While Asia now has the greatest number of internet users in the world, it has a below average percentage of users for its population at just 27% [1].

Business Insider


Economy Watch

, and the International Monetary Fund report that the countries which will have the most rapid economic growth in the next 40 years include India, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Qatar, Turkmenistan, and China [2].

Refer to Table 1.1 for a look at some of the most influential economies of the future based on size and speed of growth.

Table 1.1 Ten economies are in the lead for a healthy future based on size and speed of growth.

Business Insider

(10 largest economies of 2050 based on GDP) [3]

The Economist

(10 fastest growing economies based on GDP) [4]



United States








United Kingdom










Between the two lists identifying size and speed, you can see how virtual teams are a critical tool for connecting the global market.

1.3 The International Nature of Virtual Teams

The international nature of engineering in a growing global economy creates the need for functioning virtual teams. Some of the following statistics on virtual workplaces have emerged over the past 15 years:

Eighty percent of the workforce uses meetings that involve off-site workers [5].

Global virtual teams enable organizations to get better products and services to market faster [6].

Organizations indicate, on average, that 27% of their employees work virtually [7].

Forty-six percent of surveyed European executives use virtual teams to improve communication and collaboration within their organizations [8].

One in three people who works in European IT and telecommunications companies spends 80% or more of his/her time working virtually [8].

Fifty-six percent of surveyed executives identified the most significant challenge to virtual teams as miscommunication resulting from differences in culture and language [8].

Core Concept

Research indicates that miscommunication occurs no more often in international online interactions than it does in domestic online interactions. However, people are less certain about how to prepare for and resolve international miscommunication. Thus, international miscommunication often has more severe results.

This international dimension brings with it new opportunities and problems for information that is communicated in the online workplace. Some professionals feel confused and discouraged by the problems encountered in international online communication. You may be among them. However, my research indicates that miscommunication occurs no more often in international online interactions than it does in domestic. People are just less certain about how to prepare for and resolve international miscommunication.

1.4 The Value of Information


Knowledge—information that has been processed in such a way that it is usable.

In the quickly growing and vast web of communication, information has value. In fact, some would argue that information is the most important asset in market economies [9]. As information is passed back and forth in virtual teams, shaping and being shaped into knowledge, products, and services, it gains value. As early as 1997, the impact of virtual teams was being noticed: “In virtual teams, power comes from information, expertise, and knowledge, the foundations of wealth” [10, p. 73]. However, information has value in the market only as it benefits stakeholders. In order to benefit stakeholders, it must be usable despite challenges such as going unnoticed in a world with too much information, retaining clarity across cultural boundaries, and being understood by people with too little time. Because virtual teams create and manage much of today's technical information, they significantly affect whether or not that information becomes valuable.

Core Concept

Three issues threaten the value of information as it is processed through virtual teams:

risk of important information going unnoticed

loss of clarity as information passes through technology and across cultures

lack of understanding by people who have too little time to process the information

This concept of information as valuable, as an asset, is significant. Let us look at it a bit more closely. Information is exchanged as units of rhetoric. Here, the term “rhetoric” refers to online communication that can be composed of written or spoken words as well as such elements as silences, emoticons, abbreviations, and so on. All of these elements of rhetoric communicate information in virtual workplaces, thereby increasing value for organizations unless that information is corrupted in some way—most often by a misunderstanding. Misunderstanding threatens knowledge transfer and, thus, the value of the information. In virtual workplaces, many challenges have the potential to turn a valuable transfer of knowledge into a loss.

1.5 Foundations of Global Virtual Team Theory

Research in both computer-mediated communication (CMC) and face-to-face intercultural communication is plentiful, and research at the intersection—intercultural computer-mediated communication—is growing. It is at precisely this intersection that organizations are experiencing tremendous growth and trying to construct successful global virtual teams.

The largest part of international (often referred to as “intercultural”) communication research has been performed in face-to-face communication, but there is a growing body of research that indicates once communication is taken online, the characteristics change in some ways. (In Chapter 3, I discuss the approaches to understanding intercultural communication in detail, as well as how those approaches change for online communication.)

One study indicated that the effects of including or excluding contextual information online does not support the face-to-face theories of Edward T. Hall, who is one of several well-known researchers in intercultural communication [11]. Ulijn et al. found that while cultural factors may be similar in face-to-face and online contexts, the effects may vary between the two contexts. Many other factors ranging from quantity of communication, to concepts of “face,” to turn-around time affect communication across cultures in face-to-face situations and are likely to affect online situations as well—but not necessarily in the same ways.

Core Concept

Trust is critical to high-functioning teams. However, you must build trust differently in the elusiveness of online space.

For example, trust is a critical element that must be present in high-functioning teams of all kinds. In face-to-face interactions, I might earn trust with non-verbals that indicate my sincerity and reassure coworkers of my commitment to the team. I might leave the door to my office open so that colleagues feel welcome and can ask me questions quickly and so that I can deliver responses quickly.

In online teams, trust is just as important, but I cannot establish it in the same ways. Thus, I have to ask myself, “How can I exhibit commitment online? How do I build trust?” I might try to meet with colleagues occasionally using both audio and video media. I should also respond quickly to messages and let colleagues know when they can expect me to meet their requests. By letting my colleagues know what to expect from me and by meeting those expectations predictably, I build trust online.

Similarly, intercultural communication patterns online vary from intercultural communication patterns in face-to-face situations because of differences between online and face-to-face contexts. The online environment offers the opportunity for more contact with more people and more information than face-to-face communication because time and distance are so easily traveled. But the online environment also offers something less than the face-to-face environment: fewer cues, slower process of trust development, less personal contact, less familiarity, and less depth [10–14]. Organizations and team members can make their communication succeed by taking a structured approach to constructing the activity in online spaces. This structured approach should be based on team goals and cultural expectations as you will see throughout this book.

Case Study

The Sound of Silence: The Cues We Must Interpret in Virtual Workplaces

Pam Estes Brewer, Ph.D., Mercer University

Alden works for computer engineering giant Apex (all case studies are based on real cases but use fictitious names for companies and people). When Alden provides training to employees in his company, he does so in both online and face-to-face contexts. In face-to-face contexts, when people fall silent, Alden receives cues from them as to the meaning of that silence. Maybe they are taking notes; maybe they leave the room briefly; maybe they are confused. In most cases, he receives clear physical cues and can respond accordingly; however, when he is met with silence online and he has no physical cues, how does he know what the silence means? Has he completely lost the attention of his audience, or are they taking notes? Are they confused? His confusion grows because he knows that among the members of his multinational audience, silence can mean different things. Without physical cues, how does Alden know how to respond?

This case study illustrates the complexity of communication when it is taken online and across cultures. Within this book, you will begin to understand strategies that could help Alden in preparing for, interpreting, and responding to situations such as online silences.

1.6 Global Virtual Team Basics

It is useful to note some basic characteristics of virtual team communication in this first chapter though I will go into more detail in Chapter 2. Remember, virtual teams are teams that do much of their work across distances, facilitated by technology. Virtual team communication is largely dialogic in nature; this means that the communication flows back and forth. Team members rely on such technologies as e-mail, instant messaging, VoIP (for example, Skype), web boards, content management systems, and other online media. Online communication that flows back and forth is decidedly different than other forms such as websites where much of the information flows one way.

Because of this back and forth flow of a large amount of information, virtual teams must be efficient and flexible. Characteristics of virtual organizations are reported in many sources, and the following five characteristics identified by Guimaraes [15] are reasonably representative of the descriptions found in many articles and books. Virtual teams typically display the following characteristics:

They share a common vision of the work or project.

They cluster activities around core competencies.

They work jointly in groups.

They process information quickly through systems in real time.

They delegate from the bottom up. [15, p. 322]


Colocated—physically located close together. People who are colocated can work in face-to-face contexts.

These characteristics may not seem so different from those for colocated teams with the exception of the bottom-up flow of information; however, each of these characteristics must be considered very deliberately in the elusiveness of virtual space. Throughout this book, you will learn how to build effective virtual teams by responding to these characteristics.

1.7 Targeted Benefits of Global Virtual Teams

The use of virtual teams is growing, which is tangible evidence that these teams offer value to organizations. Consider some of the following significant benefits:

Organizations have benefited from the growth of international online access in their ability to increase outsourcing and offshoring activities as well as to globalize their operations with offices in multiple countries. Globalization through virtual teams increases the marketplace for organizational talent as well as for sales of services and goods. Companies are experiencing rapid growth as they cater to the outsourcing and offshoring markets. The market in global outsourcing is worth billions worldwide.

With their ability to cross boundaries of space, time, organizations, and hierarchies, organizations can assemble teams that are best suited to a task.

Virtual workplaces have the potential to be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, though this benefit may provide less value than originally projected. In fact, France and Germany have gone so far as to outlaw contacting workers outside of the workday and on weekends [16].

Virtual workplaces are more democratic and less centralized; like a free marketplace, they are best able to maximize benefit by enabling organizations to direct resources to their most productive use [17]; virtual teams enable this flow of resources globally. They greatly reduce the cost of moving intellectual property from place to place because no physical movement is necessary. Organizations can hire and retain the best people for a job with fewer constraints, particularly with regard to location. Flexibility for organizations means that, like an efficient marketplace, they can swiftly self-correct and redirect resources as needed.

Innovations and knowledge transfer are products of virtual teams that can be dispersed more quickly throughout global organizations.