Virtual teams are a necessary evil in the modern enterprise.  As companies grow in complexity, so does the nature of problems.  To staff dedicated personnel for every problem is unrealistic, but to "borrow" time from people working in related areas makes total sense.  It's the over-use, and possibly abuse, of this paradigm that has given virtual teams its stigma. 

Most recently I read How Successful Virtual Teams Collaborate by Keith Ferrazzi on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, and it got me thinking:

Why is it that I am on more virtual teams than ever before and why am I OK with that!!?!!?!?

As I thought through this conundrum, I came to the realization that for the past 5 years I've been heavily involved in social technologies, and I believe that to make all the difference!


Recruit the Right Talent ... Fast!

The biggest obstacle to successful virtual teams is establishing the right team composition for the task at hand, and doing so in a manner that allows the team to react in-stride with a situation for optimal success.  With social technologies, virtual team organizers can leverage both explicit and implicit details about potential team personnel to determine real subject-matter expertise for any given situation.

  • Explicit details include quantitative insights pulled from user profiles, team affiliations, and self-proclaimed expertise. 
  • Implicit details include qualitative insights pulled from user contributions, topic interests, and 3rd-party acclaimed expertise.

The above paradigm, often referred to as Talent Discovery, may seem exceedingly simple, but it's also quite powerful.    Imagine the efficiency gains that could stem from everyone (not just a select few, or those with operational tenure) having the ability to assemble tactical teams with qualified candidates on-the-fly.  (*pause for affect)

Establish Leadership, Goals & Success Criteria ... Fast!

As the team organizer, you may find it natural to take the reigns and become the team lead; however, is that what's best for the team?  In some cases, organizers might be business owners and the tasks at hand may be purely technical, and vice versa.  With social technologies, organizers have an unprecedented excess of information about their team capabilities, and that information should be leveraged for the best possible outcome.  To reference Keith Ferrazi's article,

Many managers believe that teams collaborate best when the roles of members are flexible but the group has a clear idea of how to get from A to B. But the reverse is actually true, according to a study of more than 50 teams in different industries. That research found that collaboration increased when people had clearly defined roles but were uncertain about how to achieve the team's goals.

As the team organizer, your role should be to outline the problem(s) at-hand, define success outcomes for the team and assign team roles.  Once these are established, social technologies can help the team curate, collaborate, and formalize details based on the collective team feedback, which strengthens the sense of ownership for each team member and should lead to the best use of the team's available talent.

Execute, Communicate & Disband ... Faster!

When it comes to executing on virtual teams, standing weekly meetings are quite common.  Coming together to hear official status updates from team members, where in most cases the team has already learned "unofficially" via the grapevine or gleaned information from email discussion.

Instead, why not use social technologies to avoid the weekly meeting all together?

By opting for a post first, meet second approach with social tools, teams can share status updates online and avoid unnecessary meetings, which gives team members more time to execute on team objectives and, perhaps more importantly, their primary job functionFast forward to the end of the project, where we traditionally see a "long tail" of presentations, face-to-face conversations, and waining team efficiency and purpose.   The most overlooked characteristic of successful virtual teams, is knowing when to stop

Instead, why not use social technologies to communicate deliverables, extend team conversation, and release team members to other initiatives faster.

By objectively looking at your remaining team objectives and comparing that with your on-hand talent, it should be apparent which team members can be released to their primary job functions.  If situations arise where they are needed again, simply leverage social technologies to bring them back into the conversation.  Not only does this quick dismissal give time back, it also provides instant mental closure for team members, which is important given the aforementioned stigma that virtual teams carry.  


How Do You Use Social Technologies with Virtual Teams?

Imagine the power virtual teams could bring to an organization, if it shed the stigma and became a marketplace of opportunity for people to volunteer, not volun-told, participation, showcase their talents, and diversify their work experience.  (*pause for affect)  How have social technologies made an impact on your ability to operate with-in virtual teams?  Perhaps, together we can write the playbook on how every company can use social technologies optimize virtual teams to achieve an infinite number of positive outcomes, while creating endless job growth opportunities for us all!