In today’s working world, many professionals regularly interact with dispersed or virtual team members through collaboration platforms such as Skype, WebEx, or other options that have proliferated the technology landscape. But just 15 years ago, the idea of virtual teams was new, with little knowledge about how these teams performed or how technologies helped or hindered their work.
This gap in understanding became a research opportunity for Dean Anne P. Massey, whose work on this topic led to highly cited papers in the early 2000s that looked at technology-driven innovation processes and their impacts on team performance.
“I would describe myself as a behavioral information systems researcher, drawing from referent disciplines like psychology,” says Massey, who became the Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business in August 2017. “We are trying to understand how individuals and teams react to, use, and ultimately adopt or discard a particular technology. What are they doing and how are they doing it? How can attitudes affect technology adoption, practice, and ultimately, performance?”
Pairing technology with high-performing teams
Trained in industrial engineering, Massey worked at IBM and General Electric before entering higher education. As a researcher, one of Massey’s areas of specialization is studying high-performing teams, something she has experienced first-hand in both academia and the private sector.
Her early interest in virtual teams led to a 2001 study that examined the connection between the performance of virtual teams and how they handled conflict. Recognizing that not all conflict is bad, the question was how conflict management behaviors and the effect of conflict, both positive and negative, would play out in a virtual team. Thirty-five virtual teams from the U.S. and Japan worked on a project using Lotus Notes, a system that supported communication and collaboration. The study showed that working across boundaries of time, space, and culture was challenging and could lead to conflict. But, Massey and colleagues showed that temporal coordination—having a process that explicitly facilitated relationship development and managed communication and work flows—helped mitigate negative conflict, leading to better overall performance.
The results were significant for several reasons. For one, they emphasized that the act of assembling a team alone does not a collaboration make, whether the setting is a classroom, a boardroom, or online.
“In business schools, we often tout that we have our students work in teams,” Massey says. “But the fact that I put students in a team does not mean that they are really good team members or that they actually can lead a high–performing team. Teams tend to focus on the content of their work, and they forget about the team.”
The study also suggested that what might work in a face-to-face setting—for example, how to manage conflict—does not always translate to a virtual setting. While technology enables communication, it also mediates it, thus requiring some other intervention such as temporal coordination.
“We were starting to see technology becoming available that allowed teams to work together virtually, but they had never even met in person,” Massey says. “Our goal in that paper was to shed some light on how virtual teams manage conflict when the technologies don’t allow members to convey how they feel about something. It fueled a lot of subsequent research in the virtual team setting.”
On culture and mobile commerce
Two other key bodies of Massey’s research from that era looked at the role of culture and technology. In a 2002 study examining how consumers in Hong Kong and the U.S. used the internet, findings showed that a consumer’s national cultural background mattered. Users in Hong Kong tended to see the internet as more of a social communication tool than their counterparts in the U.S., who used it primarily to look for information. What defined “user friendly” varied depending on one’s culture, suggesting that companies could globalize or customize their sites to better reach an intended cultural audience.
Culture can refer to an organization’s internal culture as well. Most studies up until that time had looked at the relationship between users, such as employees in the workplace, and their voluntary adoption of technology. Massey’s research explored what happened when employees were mandated to adopt a technology, and found that organizations play a large part in shaping positive attitudes toward the technology in question and how it is used.
Massey’s research influence also extends to mobile commerce, which was emerging in the early 2000s as developers sought ways to recreate the webpage experience for mobile platforms. A study Massey co-authored in 2003 addressed this trend and turned it on its head: Instead of blueprinting the same interface and assuming it would work in a new context, developers needed to customize usability to find the optimal solution for the mobile user. Success in one market didn’t mean that success was transferable to another.
New possibilities in simulated environments
Massey’s latest stream of research is pushing beyond the 2-D collaboration platforms we’ve come to know. Rather, she and colleagues are exploring 3-D virtual environments, simulated spaces that can serve as collaboration platforms. Users work in customizable simulated worlds via avatars, or digital representations of self. Her most recent work is exploring how the very design of 3-D spaces can drive performance, such as individual and team creativity.
Even though space design has been shown to be important to creativity, designing or redesigning physical spaces is often not possible due to resource constraints, Massey says. Three-dimensional virtual environments open new possibilities for virtual teams and the organizations that support them. Imagine, for example, brainstorming about how to reduce pollution or increase tourism.
“One question we’ve been looking at is whether or not including specific 3-D objects in a space can influence team productivity, including the quantity and quality of ideas, and we’ve found significant effects.”
Technology will continue to evolve, Massey says, with implications for firms as well as for the teaching and learning environment.
“Innovative technologies are emerging every day. How we adapt to these changes and demonstrate educational, business, and personal benefit makes for an exciting and challenging time.”
Read more about Dean Massey a
and her plans for bringing cross-disciplinary collaboration and innovative technologies to WSB.
Read the research papers:
“Understanding Usability in Mobile Commerce” published by Communications of the ACM.
“Cultural Differences in the Online Behavior of Consumers” published by Communications of the ACM.
“Do I Really Have To? User Acceptance of Mandated Technology” published by European Journal of Information Systems.
“Getting It Together: Temporal Coordination and Conflict Management in Global Virtual Teams” published by Academy of Management Journal.