Virtual Teaming

Want your students to learn to resolve  conflict, leverage technology, and develop cultural awareness while managing a globally distributed team? If so, consider adding a virtual collaboration project to your next business course.
Virtual Teaming

Business is undoubtedly becoming more multicultural and more global. But not all global business interactions require a pass-port or plane ticket. In fact, more organizations are relying on technology, not travel, to keep their global workforces connected. Business graduates often will be expected to collaborate effectively as members of geographically distributed teams through e-mail, social media, videoconferencing, and other digital tools.

But without proper preparation, graduates could find that its more difficult to build effective multinational teams virtually than it is face-to-face. E-mail cannot communicate voice inflections facial expressions, or body gestures, which can lead to misunderstandings. Conflicts are more likely to arise when workers are separated by thousands of miles and a cultural divide.

That’s why more business professors are working with their colleagues in different countries to create virtual team projects, which group students at different schools into multicultural global teams. Here, educators at St. Petersburg University in Russia and the University of Massachusetts Boston share their experience implementing virtual team projects in their classrooms. They have found these assignments get students used to crossing cultural divides without physically crossing time zones. Most important, they push students to overcome barriers of distance, temperament, and technology to complete their team’s objective. 

From Monocultural  To Multicultural

 Virtual Team Challenge St. Petersburg University  Graduate School of Management    (GSOM SPbU)St. Petersburg, Russia

by Tatiana Andreeva

Three years ago, I wanted to design a project that would provide students in my cross-cultural course with much more exposure to other cultures. At the time, the cohort I was teaching was very monocultural—I had one or two international students, but the rest were Russians. They had traveled, but none had spent a semester abroad.

I didn’t have the luxury of sending them on multiple international study trips, but I did have relation-ships with colleagues at member schools of the Global Alliance in Management Education (CEMS), an international alliance of academic and corporate institutions. Through that network, I have partnered with several professors to design virtual team challenges, which require students at different schools to collaborate on a course project together, all through the use of technology. So far, these challenges have teamed our students with their counterparts at schools such as Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi in Italy, the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in The Netherlands, ESADE Business School in Spain, the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom, and Corvinus University of Budapest.

Three years later, virtual team projects are a standard part of several of my classes, including courses in culture, organizational behavior, and knowledge management. Each virtual team challenge includes collaborative research, a visual presentation and team report, a debriefing session at the end of the project, and individual papers in which students reflect on their experiences. Students receive two grades: a group grade for the project and an individual grade for their individual papers.

Students are assigned into teams, with members dispersed among several schools. We try to form teams with equal membership in each country, but that isn’t always possible. Last semester, for example, I had 70 students in my class, my colleague in Italy had 80 students, and my colleague in Budapest had 17. In that case, teams each had three or four students from Russia and Italy, respectively, but only one student from Budapest.

But when a team is culturally imbalanced, it can provide a learning opportunity that we address during the debriefing. In our project with Corvinus, we asked the individual students from Budapest how it felt to be in the minority. We talked about how subgroups form and how team dynamics evolve as a result. This sparked discussion about how virtual teams can be more inclusive of all their members.

Creative Collaboration

I have experimented with different formats for the virtual team challenge. In one of our first challenges, members of each team visited subsidiaries of the same international company, or organizations with similar missions, in their home locations; then they prepared reports of their findings. For example, member of one team visited IKEAs in Russia and Italy; members of another compared the national post office of Russia and Italy. In another challenge, students developed cross-cultural training scenarios for a fictional international company.

In both cases, the largely analytical projects had mixed results. Students turned in interesting reports, but we discovered that students could do much of the work independently.

I now assign projects that require joint creativity. Each team now creates a visual presentation—usually an image designed to solve a problem for a real or fictional company. Students also must justify their choices for the image in a final report.

Most recently, students created promotional campaigns designed to help cosmetics company L’Oreal attract more males to its largely female global workforce. The challenge for our students was to create a visual campaign that would fit into three different cultural contexts.

Because many students are accustomed to completing analytical projects in their business courses, they’re often worried that they’ll be graded on their graphic design skills with such an assignment. We assure them that it’s the quality of their idea, not their artwork, that will determine their success.

In analytical challenges, it’s easy for students to say, “You write up the first part of the report, and we’ll write up the second.” When the final product is a single visual, it’s difficult for students to work independently. This format for the challenge has been more successful, because it forces students to interact and collaborate with all members of their teams.

A ‘No Interference’ Policy

There are two things that we do not do during virtual team projects. First, we don’t tell students what technology they should use to manage their teams. We simply give students a list of their team-mates’ e-mail addresses and let the communication begin. From there, some students use Skype for video chats, some create Facebook groups, and some create Google groups. Some choose to communicate only through e-mail.

Teams that use only e-mail are often less successful than those that use social media and video chats. Students who use more robust collaboration technologies tend to build better relationships, experience less conflict, and ma-age conflicts that arise with more ease. How technology affects team dynamics becomes an important point of discussion during the debriefing session.

Second, we don’t coach students on how to collaborate effectively. We want students to discover on their own the nature of virtual team dynamics—and the conflicts that can arise—as part of the experience. That doesn’t mean that students can’t come to us with problems, or that we won’t listen with sympathetic ears. But when there is conflict, we want students to try to handle it themselves. We once had a team of Russian and Italian students. Our students here complained about “lazy Italians,” while the students in Italy complained that “Russians do not respect dead-lines.” They even asked if they could turn in different results, with one outcome from Russia and one from Italy.

We told them that was not an option, and they settled the conflict themselves and turned in a single project. We view these moments as opportunities for students to learn what their responsibilities are on multicultural teams.

Debrief and Reflect

We believe that much of the true learning happens during the debriefing session and in the self reflective papers students writ at the end of the project. That’s when students realize what they did right, how they contributed to problems, and what they could have done to avoid conflict.

For example, an Austrian girl attending GSOM SPbU had been so concerned about deadlines that she pressed her teammates to have work ready days before it was due to make sure they had time for revisions. Her teammates thought she was taking power that had not been delegated to her. She forced the team to stick with their first idea rather than give their creativity time to flow. Their report suffered, because their first idea wasn’t very good. After the project was finished, she came to me to discuss what had happened. She said that this was an enlightening experience, because she realized that she could have had an open discussion with her team about why deadlines were so important to her. As a result of this project, this student learned to understand herself better, to work across cultures, and to apply strategies that will help her work more effectively on teams in the future. And from our perspective as educators, that’s exactly the outcome we want.

Tatiana Andreeva is an associate professor of organizational behavior and human resources management at St. Petersburg University’s Graduate School of Management in Russia.

A Different Kind of Student Exchange

“Two Markets, Two Universities” University of Massachusetts at Boston College of Management

by Edward Romar

In response to the ways that technology, innovation, and globalization are driving rapid changes in the business environment, the University of Massachusetts at Boston added a new dimension to its business curriculum. “Two Markets, Two Universities” is a 15-week undergraduate course that connects students in Hungary and the U.S. The course is designed to train students to work in cross-cultural teams, navigate time zones, and manage cultural and geographical barriers effectively.

I created “Two Markets” after my Spring 2009 Fulbright Scholar-ship experience teaching market-ing at the University of Pannonia A Different Kind of Student Exchange“Two Markets, Two Universities”University of Massachusetts at BostonCollege of Management by EDwArD romArin Veszprem, Hungary. My goal for the course is to take student exchanges to a new level by simu-lating a global work environment.

Transatlantic Project

UMB offered “Two Markets” for the first time in fall 2010, enrollin ten students at our Boston campus and ten students at the University of Pannonia. Students use course deliv-ery tools available in Blackboard, combined with other collaborative technology, to work cooperatively in online environments. Faculty respon-sibilities are divided between the two universities, although primary teaching responsibilities lie with the University of Massachusetts Boston, which offers the course.

While “Two Markets” includes some lectures, its primary content is the creation of an international marketing plan. At the beginning of the course, students act as members of a team from a prestigious consulting firm. Then, they are divide into four cross-cultural teams, each with the responsibility to prepare a marketing plan for a real company, whose objective is to enter either the U.S. or Hungarian market.

To set up projects for the course, I approached the Small Business Development Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the Massachusetts Export Center, both funded by the Small Business Administration. These organizations helped me identify two small companies based in Boston that wanted to expand into the Hungarian market and would be willing provide project case material. One company manufactures thermocouples; the other, tools for construction and telecommunications.

We also got help from, a consulting firm specializing in open innovation that connects firms tha have created new technologies with firms seeking new technologies. helped us find a German med-cal device firm planning to enter th Hungarian market. The faculty at the University of Pannonia identi-fied a Hungarian youth camp tha wanted to enter the U.S. market.

Student teams developed marketing plans to help managers at their client companies better understand such factors as market size and seg-mentation, product requirements, distribution strategies, and regula-tory issues. Three of the teams were able to send their local members to tour facilities and meet with execu-tives at their client companies. Only the fourth team, whose client was in West Germany, was unable to do so due to distance. Students submitted project reports each month and took mid-term and final exams. At th end of the semester, they presented their recommendations via an oral PowerPoint presentation and a for-mal written  report.

Building Community

To facilitate a sense of community, we post media describing life at The University of Massachusetts Boston and the University of Pannonia online and invite students to explore that content at the beginning of the course. This material helps students at one campus gain a better understanding of their counterparts at the other. A sense of community and connection also is encouraged through the use of “Student Lounge,” a tool that allows students to post and receive voice messages from colleagues. To promote free communication, this is a space where faculty is not allowed.

Real-time collaboration is facilitated with teamwork rooms in Wimba, a bisynchronous communications tool. Teams can use Wimba for voice and video communications; they also can use its whiteboard function to collaborate on presentations and other activities, which they can archive for future retrieval. Wimba is used for real-time class meetings, as well as for office hours. Finally, teams can post asynchronous communications to team discussion boards, which include a Q&A discussion board available to everyone in the class.

Sparking Excitement

We did not know whether or how well the students from two universi-ties would interact across six time zones through only voice and written communications—especially when one group was unfamiliar with the online tools required.

In an online exit survey, students reported having a good learning experience, although they admitted that overcoming the time difference and organizing their projects at the beginning of the course was dif-ficult. The group that was unableto meet executives at the West German company indicated that the inability to visit the firm wasa limitation—and yet, this team wrote the most detailed plan of all four groups. The biggest shortcoming students reported was the lack of video conferencing, although we deliberately did not use that feature. We felt that the amount of data that video conferencing requires could overload our system.

What we found most surprising was that students did not consider cultural differences to be significantchallenges in their collaborations. Many said that managing the time difference and language barrier was more challenging.

But we have been incredibly pleased with the results. Manag-ers at all four firms told us tha they found the information the students provided useful. Last fall, we offered the course again, this time to graduate students, to deter-mine whether the course is more appropriate at the undergraduate or graduate level. We’ve increased enrollment to 15 students from each campus, and we’re incorporating video conferencing. At the end of the semester, we repeated the stu-dent exit survey, and we will com-pare results with last year’s survey. Eventually, we hope to make this course an established part of the curriculum at both schools.

The course excites students from both universities, because it allows them to work with success-ful businesses, international colleagues, and the latest collaborative technologies. More important, it gives them valuable insight into the challenges and opportunities they’re likely to face in their careers. Edward Romar is a senior lecturer in management and marketing at the College of Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The Virtual Faculty Challenge

Bettina Gehrke, professor of organizational behavior at SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, Italy, has taught two courses that included virtual team projects. Both times, she worked in collaboration with Tatiana Andreeva of St. Petersburg University in Russia.

These virtual projects aren’t just challenges for students, she says. They present substantial logistical—and sometimes even emotional—challenges for faculty as well.

“You must pay attention to who your students are, how much experience they have, what their level of frustration is when the virtual collaboration is not working as expected,” she says. “Sometimes, as faculty, you have to coach the groups that are not up to the task. This means continuous monitoring by the teacher is necessary—we have to put a lot of energy into this project!”

It also is imperative that faculty pay close attention to details before the project starts, Gehrke says. In many cases, the professors involved in the collaboration may have never met each other in person. For that reason, they must be diligent about maintaining contact to make sure there are no misunderstandings.

Andreeva learned this les-son the first time she deli-ered a virtual team challenge, before she started working with Gehrke. “In my firstexperience, my colleague and I decided that I would grade one half of the projects, and she would grade the other half. But when we compared the results, we realized that we were grading very differ-ently!” In the end, Andreeva says she had to adjust her grading when she discovered that her partner had raised certain expectations with some students.

Andreeva has also discovered that faculty from different schools may face different institutional requirements—a professor at one school may have autonomy, while a professor at another may be required to abide by strict institutional requirements.

Professors who are entering into a long-distance teaching collaboration should spend a great deal of time communicating with each other by e-mail, phone, and Skype or video conference to build rapport and iron out details. They should discuss their grading styles, course criteria, institutional expecta-tions, and communication styles, as well as how they plan to handle any minor issues that arise along the way, say Gehrke and Andreeva.

Most of all, faculty should prepare themselves for an unpredictable semes-ter, Gehrke says. “During most classroom situations, the teacher can ‘control’ the learning situation. Not here. Faculty must be prepared to let their students ‘jump into cold water,’” she advises. Once students are involved in the project, faculty then must be responsive to whatever arises, she adds.

“Projects like these are an ongoing, open learning process. Neither teach-ers nor students can know what’s going to happen. That makes the learning experience real.”

Tips to Consider

For professors who want to design and deliver their own virtual challenges to students, Tatiana Andreeva and Edward Romar offer several pieces of advice:

  • Tap your networks. Andreeva networks with professors at member schools in the Global Alliance for Management Education (CEMS) to find potential par-ners for team challenges. “In CEMS, we have faculty groups and professional communities of teachers who all teach the same subjects,” she says. When she discovers someone with a syllabus or teaching approach that’s similar to hers, she reaches out via e-mail to see if there is potential for collaboration.
  • Start small. It’s natural to be uncertain about whether a faculty partnership will work well. Professors can test the waters by starting with smaller, less demanding projects lasting one or two weeks. If those go well, the assign-ments can be expanded into courselong projects.
  • Don’t be limited by technology. Romar notes that some schools’ sys-tems may not have the capacity for large-scale video conferencing. In that case, it’s fine to use less intensive communication tehnologies—or, as Andreeva and her colleagues do, allow students to choose their own team-building tools.
  • Be creative. Although Andreeva uses virtual team challenges for organiza-tional behavior and cross-cultural courses, she emphasizes that a virtual col-laboration project could be adapted to almost any subject. But be careful not to assign a project that can be easily divided into parts, allowing students to work independently. Andreeva finds that projects involving creative output—notjust analytical output—inspire students to collaborate the most.
  • Prepare for students’ emotions. One of the hardest aspects for profes-sors during virtual team challenges is handling the gamut of student emotions that arise, including anger and even desperation. The key, says Andreeva, is to check in regularly with each team and to be sympathetic when students need to vent their frustrations. But it’s also important to stay neutral. Students should feel listened to, but must eventually take responsibility for managing emotions, solving problems, and completing tasks.

“Students tell me that these projects can be painful experiences, but I want them to experience these emotions for themselves,” says Andreeva. “Only afterward, during the debriefing, do I present them with formal guidelines forcollaboration. I think they learn more this way.”

Tatiana Andreeva is an associate professor of organizational behavior and human resources management at St. Petersburg University’s Graduate School of Management in Russia.

Edward Romar is a senior lecturer in management and marketing at the Col-lege of Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Bettina Gehrke, professor of organizational behavior at SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, Italy,