|Book Review: Achieving Project Management Success Using Virtual Teams|
Achieving Project Management Success Using Virtual Teams
Written by: Parviz F. Rad and Ginger Levin. Boca Raton, FL: J. Ross Publishing, 2003. 194+xiii pages.
Virtual teams are a relatively new knowledge area that soon may become a requirement for all new product development professionals. Since the late 1990s the rate of book releases on virtual teams has increased steadily. This review covers two of the most recent in this now-popular genre.
Common to both books, a virtual team is one that is “separated” and uses information and communication technologies to complete the team task. This separation may be a mix of geographical, organizational, or temporal distance. Both books aim to provide the reader with information regarding the use of such teams and optimization of performance, as well as providing some basic information to those perhaps less familiar with the topic.
In Achieving Project Management Success Using Virtual Teams, Parviz F. Rad and Ginger Levin build on their project management experience in academia and industry to examine the fit with virtual scenarios. The book is for project managers in the field and provides a high level of utility with 56 pages of Appendix worksheets to be used in an organization. From a baseline of traditional projects, factors that remain the same, those that need to be changed for virtual teams, and completely new factors are covered. The main features of the book are a characterization of virtual team members and a maturity model to gauge the current state of an organization, providing a path to continuous improvement and repeatable success. Within the context of virtual teams they return time and again to the project management “triple constraint” of time, cost, and quality.
The book has six chapters. After a brief introduction to project management and virtual teams, chapters 2 and 3 discuss the management of project “things” (described by the authors as quantitative features including risk and quality) and project people, respectively. The main value of the book then is presented in chapters 4 and 5—a characterization of virtual team members followed by the Initial, Developed, Enhanced, Advanced, and Leader (IDEAL) maturity model for virtual teams. Chapter 6 then concludes the text, discussing professional responsibility and the virtual team. In essence, the book is built up in layers, first checking the reader's understanding of project management and then virtual teams before addressing both topics jointly. The authors cover generally accepted wisdom of both topics professionally and concisely (chapters 2 and 3) before focusing on the people factors of virtual teams. They emphasize the importance of individual characteristics in the context of team mix, given that “projects are technical problems with human dimensions” (p. 62) and that “particularly in virtual teams, the people dimensions are far more important than the things issues” (p. 67). This people focus is delivered in an easy-to-understand fashion concentrating first on individual factors, before examining the team and then organization contexts that surround them. Most of the appendices appear at the ends of chapters 4 and 5, including the following:
All are available online as part of the J. Ross Publishing Web Added Value resource. They can be downloaded free, irrespective of book ownership, and so may serve as a useful benefit for the prospective buyer. Seasoned experts who may feel confident regarding both project management and virtual teams even may find that the appendices suffice. The worksheets cater to general project work in a virtual environment, irrespective of discipline, and allow the reader the possibility of tailoring to their own organization and context. As such, their use may be combined with virtual tools available for specific disciplines and industries, such as MacGregor (2002) who provides a distributed toolkit for the design field as part of the design4distribution methodology.
The IDEAL model could be particularly useful for the new product development (NPD) community and allows a quick appraisal of where one's own team is. The key to continuous improvement is in its scope—it is more than a model for projects alone, also working for organizations in which virtual team projects play a central role or where organizations want to promote their importance.
While recent publications such as Majchrzak et al. (2004) detail basic steps for improving the chances of success for virtual teams, Rad and Levin show that there is no magic formula for sustainable success other than achieving sufficient rigor, minimizing the disadvantages of virtuality, and exploiting opportunities. While some may disagree with some of the “pigeon-holing” of people traits evident in the book, it is true that some level of definition—and therefore control—is required for managing virtual projects.
In conclusion, inexperienced readers may find the scope of the book a little daunting, especially in a relatively short text, while academics may find some parts overfamiliar and others lacking in depth. Yet the primary audience is clear: simply put, managers of virtual teams will have a better chance of success by referring to this book. It will sit well within a manager's toolkit, especially when combined with available field experiences, including Smith and Blanck (2002). For project managers engaged in virtual team working, at least an awareness of this book's existence and reference to the Appendix sheets is a must.
Contrasting with the 56 pages of Appendix worksheets just mentioned, Virtual and Collaborative Teams includes over 560 references. It is a collection of 15 academic papers, divided into four sections: (1) make-up of virtual teams; (2) leading virtual teams; (3) communication in virtual teams; and (4) effective uses of virtual teams.
Although there is no doubting the individual quality of many of the papers, there are two main weaknesses regarding the book as a whole. First, although the papers are directed to managers of virtual teams, the majority are written in an academic style that managers may find difficult to read with information that is hard to extract. Second, papers are written from such a wide variety of perspectives that readers (especially academics) may find only a fraction of the book wholly appropriate. Further weaknesses include the fragmented nature of the book—questions raised in some chapters are addressed in others with no cross-referencing. Several virtual team introductions cover the same points, and the index is sketchy and inaccurate for several terms. Further commentary on the papers as a whole may have helped the reader extract points of value while an audience guide, perhaps categorizing study fields, applications, and level of advancement, could have made the text easier to use.
However, the book is not devoid of value. Review papers are thoroughly researched, while a healthy dose of empiricism is present in several study papers, the lack of which is a key weakness in the field as a whole. The book introduces some interesting themes, including the call to reconceptualize the virtual team as a psychological entity instead of a physical one (chapter 2 by Lynne J. Millward and Olivia Kyriakidou). Meanwhile, after their discussion of virtual team composition and conflict, Richard Potter and Pierre Balthazard (chapter 3) accurately state that “ailing virtual teams can now be properly diagnosed, most likely to find good old fashioned human conflict, rather than technology, to be the ghost in the machine” (p. 45). Further, William H.A. Johnson (chapter 10) addresses performance in collaborative research and development (R&D) projects related to radical and incremental innovation, while Mila Gasco-Hernández and Teresa Torres-Coronas (chapter 12) provide a commentary on creativity in virtual teams. Distinct from many of the other papers, chapters 4 and 13 by Stacey L. Connaughton and John A. Daly, and Martha Reeves and Stacie Furst, respectively, include easy-to-extract lessons for managers.
Given the scope of the book, research students and those wishing to uncover fertile research areas may find it useful—the book presents an interesting snapshot of the overall field of virtual teams. However, experienced researchers and practitioners can do better elsewhere.
In summary, earlier books on virtual teams served an introductory need, providing definitions, start-up advice, and technology information (see Smith, 2001). These more recent titles seem to be searching for the next level of success, while acknowledging the importance of a human-centered focus in tandem with technology.