Five broad spheres of activity have been identified that make use of virtual teams: Business/Industry, Education, Military, Healthcare, and Non Profit Voluntary Organizations. All basically share the same fundamental challenges and opportunities associated with virtual teaming generally. That is, how can ostensible virtual strangers become high functioning collaborators without ever meeting face-to-face?
Business / Industry
The Business-to-Business channel has three sub categories involved in some aspect of virtual teaming. First are companies that provide training for virtual teams, for example virtualteambuilders.com. Second are companies that provide online resources that support virtual team activities. This includes communication platforms such as WebEx and more specialized resources like interactive whiteboards such as Mural.ly and Kollaborate. Third are those companies in general that utilize virtual teams to advance business objectives. For example, Dell plans for 50% of its 14000 employees to be working virtually within a few years (http://www.slideshare.net/eremedia/dells-2020-plan).
There are a significant number of universities involved in virtual team research, development, and training. This stands to reason given that the field is still emerging. Typical is an academic paper from Harvard Business School: Virtual Team Learning: Reflecting and Acting, Alone or With Others (2009).
In another vein, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have proliferated in the past few years. Millions of students globally are now participating through the aegis of top universities like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. However, recent research indicates the attrition rate is very high. “It has been observed that only 7% of the people signing up for the courses end up completing it” (http://yourstory.com/2013/08/going-beyond-mooc-novoed-brings-entrepreneurship-education-from-babson-university-online-for-the-global-audience/). NovoED is a new Stanford based initiative that hopes to redress this alarming drop out rate by helping online students collaborate more effectively through virtual team formation (https://novoed.com).
Estimates vary as to the number of K12 students enrolled in virtual schools. It may be as high as 1 million and as low as 250,000. While the actual number may be in question, it’s evident that many virtual students work on projects virtually. (http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/virtual-schools-annual-2013, http://virtualschoolmooc.wikispaces.com/history)
The following is a typical example: “Imagine students at four different high schools working collaboratively and in real time on a project to create a mechanically-fed birdhouse monitored via the Internet. The bird feeder automatically refills itself, based on a preset schedule. One school team acts as project manager, while another is responsible for aesthetic design. The third school handles computer programming for refilling the bird seed. The fourth school determines the type and amount of bird seed used” (http://www.hivelocitymedia.com/innovationnews/virtualcollaborativelearningenvironment051712.aspx)
Virtual Volunteerism has been practiced since the early 1990s. For example, the Virtual Volunteering Guidebook by Susan J. Ellis and Jayne Cravens was introduced in 2000. In 2004, virtual team volunteering was also the topic of a graduate thesis at Antioch University in Seattle by Andrew Wong entitled “Leading and motivating virtual teams in volunteer organizations”.
“Virtual volunteering means volunteer tasks completed, in whole or in part, via the Internet and a home or work computer. It’s also known as online volunteering, cyber service, online mentoring, teletutoring and various other names. Virtual volunteering allows agencies to expand the benefits of their volunteer programs, by allowing for more volunteers to participate, and by utilizing volunteers in new areas” (Virtual Volunteering Resources | Serviceleader.org).
Idealist.org discusses how to “create a virtual global team of Idealists who support one another’s efforts to do good wherever they are in the world”. The United Health Group is even more specific and focused. “There are many opportunities for virtual teams to make an important difference in the lives of others while also instilling the importance of team spirit and the value of teamwork. By pulling together to create volunteer projects, you’ll find you are better able to leverage your resources and increase the overall impact of your efforts…. Team members may be co-located with or in the same vicinity as employees from other United Health Group business units. They may be able to join in company-sponsored events, beyond the team” (www.unitedhealthgroup.com/).
Save the Children International consists of 30 member organisations working in 120 countries. The organization makes significant use of virtual team volunteers as explained in the following report from the Economist Intelligence Unit “Managing virtual teams: Taking a more strategic approach”:
“People at Save the Children are heavily reliant on virtual teams to get their work done. The London-based charity has offices in over 50 countries and is part of an international alliance of almost 30 Save the Children organisations that fight to protect and promote children’s rights…. The charity’s health team, for example, is made up of researchers and policy advisers in London, as well as project managers and incountry policy advisers in each of the countries in which the charity operates. The charity recently launched its biggest global campaign to date, EVERY ONE. Virtual teams around the globe ensured that branding, messaging, policy calls, information materials, fundraising and campaigning activities were synchronised and launched on time. Virtual teamwork has made Save the Children much more operationally efficient. For example, the speed and reach of new communications mean that project designs, policy strategies or media reports that have worked in one country can easily be shared with another” (http://graphics.eiu.com/upload/eb/NEC_Managing_virtual_teams_WEB.pdf).
As in practically every other sector, the militaries of various nations, such as the USA, are increasingly invested in the development of virtual teaming. The following are extracts from typical studies vis-à-vis.
“The U.S. and its allies work together in virtual teams to put out small “fires” around the world. Such multi-national “fires” are known by many monikers, including small- scale operations, Operations Other Than War (OOTW), or complex emergencies, depending on the background and culture of the organizations involved. The U.S. military is particularly interested in the successful implementation of virtual teams to support its participation in an increasing number of joint and coalition operations, to provide alternatives for a downsized force and to serve as a testbed for exploring alternative techniques for command and control (C2), particularly in the area of network-centric warfare” (Working Together Virtually: The Care and Feeding of Global Virtual Teams (http://www.dodccrp.org/events/5th_ICCRTS/papers/Track4/009.pdf)
“Successful leadership requires clear communication between team members, yet globalization of our society has introduced the reality of directing teams who are often not co-located. In the military environment, distributed teams are increasingly common. However, the current research is primarily directed at such teams in corporate environments. Additionally, senior Army leaders typically have, at best, a passing knowledge of technology and virtual teaming” (Virtual Team Communication and Collaboration in Army and Corporate Applications” (http://www.dtic.mil/get-tr-doc/pdf?AD=ADA502091).
“Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers in the ROTC program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater trained on core leadership skills using the Virtual Battlespace 2 (VBS2) Friday (Feb. 8) at the University Center. The program allowed Soldiers to test their tactical and leadership skills in a sophisticated virtual environment, and “replay” the exercise to review their performance. Wisconsin National Guard Public Affairs photo by Vaughn R. Larson” (http://dma.wi.gov/dma/news/2013News/13019.asp).
Healthcare Virtual Teams
Not surprisingly, virtual teams are finding increasing use in healthcare as in every other sector. “The literature indicates that a virtual community in health care as a group of people using telecommunication with the purposes of delivering health care and education, and/or providing support, covers a wide range of clinical specialties, technologies and stakeholders. Examples include peer-to-peer networks, virtual health care delivery and research teams” (www.orcatech.org/papers/home_monitoring/06_Demiris_diffusion_of_virtual_community.pdf).
The following study is representative: “This chapter describes an in-depth analysis of the methods to increase the effectiveness of virtual teams in health care using the Northern Alliance Hospital Admission Risk Program (HARP) Chronic Disease Management (CDM) Program as the test case. A conceptual framework of the specific components required for virtual team effectiveness and a survey tool to examine a team’s performance (based on virtual team member perception) with each of these components is presented. The proposed conceptual framework of virtual team effectiveness categorises the determinants influencing the effectiveness of virtual teams into four key frames of leadership, team components, organisational culture, and technology. An empirical survey of 38 virtual team members within the Northern Alliance HARP CDM Program demonstrates high levels of agreement with leadership and some team components, however, limited agreement with the organisational culture and technology components” (four key frames of leadership, team components, organisational culture, and technology. An empirical survey of 38 virtual team members within the Northern Alliance HARP CDM Program demonstrates high levels of agreement with leadership and some team components, however, limited agreement with the organisational culture and technology components” (Chapter X Virtual Teams in Health Care: Maximising Team Effectiveness / www.igi-global.com/chapter/virtual-teams-health-care/23638).
Also indicative of this growing healthcare trend is the study “Using Virtual Teams to Improve Chronic Disease Management in Primary Care: An Overview of Two Models of Virtual Team Care” (http://www.carecontinuumalliance.org). The Brighten Project stands for “Bridging the Resources of an Interdisciplinary Gero‐mental Health Team via Electronic Networking”. This virtual program provides an “alternative approach to the identification, assessment and treatment of depression in older adults”. The Brighten Virtual Team consists of a: Geropsychiatrist, Geropsychologist, Social Worker, Physical Therapist, Occupational Therapist, Nutritionist, Psychiatric Nurse, Pharmacist, Chaplain and Primary Care Physician. Together this interdisciplinary team of health professionals makes up a “virtual team of supporting disciplines who review the in‐person assessment and offer collaborative and unique intervention strategies using commonly available technologies” (ibid).
This cursory review of virtual team use across several sectors reveals just how pervasive this growing global trend is. While every sector has its own purpose and focal point they all share the same primary universal challenge. That is how do virtual strangers become effective collaborators? How do they create and sustain trust? For more on these vital questions please see Virtual Teams: Creating Trust Creatively (http://playprelude.com/V2/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/White-Paper-Virtual-Teams-Creating-Trust-Creatively-.pdf).