Dissertation: Out of Sight, Out of Touch?

ABSTRACT

Premise
Due to novel and increased demands on businesses in ever-changing competitive environments, working virtually through information and communications technologies (ICTs) are becoming increasingly popular. Virtual working is not somewhat glorified because the advantages of the ‘networked organisation’ are not genuine, but because the limitations of interacting through ICTs are to some degree understated in the popular literature. Concurrently, creativity is increasingly acknowledged as an essential organisational competence and the nature of ‘tacit’ interactions are becoming understood. There are competitive advantages in enabling better interactions. Yet, how is working remotely distressing the effectiveness of creative and tacit communication?

Methodology
An exploratory approach is chosen within a multi-method study that includes unstructured interviews, observations, action research and online discussion.

Originality
The value of this paper lies in the humble insights that are generalised into theory regarding how managers of small IT businesses can manage virtual teamwork in a more informed and conscious way.

Practical implications
The findings indicate that cheap and basic ICTs are not particularly effective to share and develop creative and tacit communication. Initial and regular face-to-face interactions are key to building and maintaining a shared vision, culture, context and trust, found to be vital for the success of the examined small IT businesses in London.

Keywords
Virtual teams, virtual environments, creativity, tacit communication, information and communications technology, information technology industry, small businesses.

 

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Dissertation: Abstract, Introduction & Implications

ABSTRACT

Premise
Due to novel and increased demands on businesses in ever-changing competitive environments, working virtually through information and communications technologies (ICTs) are becoming increasingly popular. Virtual working is not somewhat glorified because the advantages of the ‘networked organisation’ are not genuine, but because the limitations of interacting through ICTs are to some degree understated in the popular literature. Concurrently, creativity is increasingly acknowledged as an essential organisational competence and the nature of ‘tacit’ interactions are becoming understood. There are competitive advantages in enabling better interactions. Yet, how is working remotely distressing the effectiveness of creative and tacit communication?

Methodology
An exploratory approach is chosen within a multi-method study that includes unstructured interviews, observations, action research and online discussion.

Originality
The value of this paper lies in the humble insights that are generalised into theory regarding how managers of small IT businesses can manage virtual teamwork in a more informed and conscious way.

Practical implications
The findings indicate that cheap and basic ICTs are not particularly effective to share and develop creative and tacit communication. Initial and regular face-to-face interactions are key to building and maintaining a shared vision, culture, context and trust, found to be vital for the success of the examined small IT businesses in London.

Keywords
Virtual teams, virtual environments, creativity, tacit communication, information and communications technology, information technology industry, small businesses.

 

INTRODUCTION

Modern economies are increasingly dependent on knowledge (e.g. Nonaka, 1995; Drucker, 1998). The management guru Peter Drucker argued in 1988 that the organisation of the future be knowledge-based and “composed largely of specialists who direct and discipline their own performance through feedback from colleagues, customers and headquarters” (Drucker, 1988, p10).

Concurrently, creativity, which is closely related to knowledge (Weisberg, 1999), is claimed to be an essential organisational competence (e.g. Amabile, 1988; Nunamaker et al., 2001; Howkins, 2001). Indeed, over the last decades, innovation and creativity has become the primary engine of growth in developed economies and have replaced raw materials, labour and capital as the key sources of economic value (Howkins, 2001; Florida, 2004). Florida (2002, p. 5) claims human creativity has become “the decisive source of competitive advantage”.

Howkins (2001, p. 17) reasons that the notion of “information society” (see, e.g. Castells, 2000) is now inadequate and out of date:

If I was a bit of data I would be proud of living in an information society. But as a thinking, emotional, creative being – on a good day, anyway – I want something better. We need information. But we also need to be active, clever, and persistent in challenging this information. We need to be original, sceptical, argumentative, often bloody-minded and occasionally downright negative – in one word, creative.

For great a deal of employees, creative and in-depth thinking, co-operative tasks and complex problem solving are the very activities that now define their jobs. These ‘tacit’ activities – concerning the exchange of communication and knowledge, decision-making, and a requirement to harness and create many forms of knowledge and skills in the interaction with colleagues and clients – are taking an increasingly larger part of the typical model for businesses in the developed world (Beardsley et al., 2006; Drucker, 1998). In fact, as an average of the UK, the USA and Germany, 41% of jobs chiefly involve tacit activities, making the ‘tacit workers’ more numerous than other the employee groups, which are the ‘transformational workers’ (who for example extract raw materials) and ‘transactional workers’ (for example clerks in the accounts-payable functions) (Beardsley et al., 2006). Extending the reasoning of for example Amabile (1988), Howkins (2001) and Nunamaker et al. (2001), a large part, perhaps the most important part, of these tacit activities require creativity to be performed well.

Many companies today who wish to boost productivity attempt to do this by streamlining and reducing the number of transformational or transactional activities, for example through outsourcing and computerisation. However, standardising or automating the work of a marketing manager, a software developer or a lawyer or substituting them with machines, cannot increase their productivity (Beardsley et al., 2006). On the contrary, to improve creative processes and tacit activities quite different methods and approaches must be taken.

Undoubtedly, technology has and will continue to play a vital role in promoting tacit exchanges and making them more successful. Information and communications technologies (ICTs) are largely responsible for the advancement of tacit interactions during the previous decades. 30 years ago, international calls were expensive and electronic mail was for the early adopters. Today, worldwide communication is cheap (Malone, 2004). Per day, individuals and organisations send about 30 billion e-mails globally (excluding spam), roughly 1.14 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook and Twitter, and many more billions of SMSs and phone calls are made. Altogether new innovations – such as broadband Internet, search motors, social networks, mobile phones, smart / tablet devices and video conferencing – drive the acceleration of tacit interactions forward (McAfee, 2009; McCarthy, 2011; Beardsley et al., 2006; ITU, 2009).

Increasingly, by arranging themselves in a dynamic network form, successful organisations harness information technology (IT) to utilise agility in the face of rapidly changing competitive markets and customer needs (McAfee, 2009; Klein & Poulymenakou, 2006). A primary building block of these modern technology-intensive businesses is the virtual or semi-virtual team, with members who communicate only or mostly via ICTs. Lipnack and Stamps (1997, pp. 6-7) define virtual teams (VTs) as: “a group of people who interact through interdependent tasks guided by a common purpose. Unlike conventional teams, a virtual team works across space, time and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technologies.”

The popularity of virtual working has risen due to a variety of increased demands of modern businesses. These include the requirement for flexibility by individuals and teams in a more interconnected and volatile global economy, but also the need for superior innovation and organisational learning, leading to increased investment in new knowledge management systems (Jackson, 1999). The flexibility of virtual working also allows firms to attract talent and experts globally (Ibid). Whereas VTs put forward a wide variety of potential advantages to an organisation, the execution will be in peril if businesses fail to sufficiently tackle the various challenges arising from working virtually. As communication is at the core of VT activity, many of these issues are embedded in and arising from team communication behaviours and processes (Lipnack & Stamps, 1997; Powell et al., 2004).

As established, modern businesses must ensure the effectiveness of interactions and creativity in order to stay competitive. Though ICTs in this context generally is an enabler, communicating virtually, as opposed to face-to-face, do put restrictions on the effectiveness of some types of communication. Especially, tacit communication and collaborative creativity – which are forms of communication that in this study are claimed to be highly interrelated – are challenged by the absence of a tangible environment.

Enthusiasts of new communications technologies envision accelerating innovation, ‘empowered’, yet apolitical employees and flattening bureaucracies through employing ‘Web 2.0’ platforms, sophisticated online ‘collaboratories’, social knowledge management platforms and group support systems. “Such a utopian vision can hardly be achieved through new technology alone”, said Tom Davenport in an attempt to throw cold water on the hot topic in 2007 (Davenport, 2007). Supported by Barnes (2007), it can be argued that prominent fans of virtual working and new ICTs such as McAfee (2009) and Cairncross (1997) are contributing towards something that at times resemble a ‘hype’. These management ideas are not glorified in the sense that the majority of benefits of the semi-virtual ‘networked organisation’ cannot be realised, but because many supporters are understating the limitations and pitfalls that organisations may encounter when employing a highly virtual approach. ICTs cannot entirely replace face-to-face interaction and there are many ‘soft’ issues that are crucial for critical managers to, at the least, be aware of.

By examining the literature it can be found that there is significant ambiguity around how collaborative creativity and non-trivial interaction is affected by the lack of tangible environments. Martins et al. established in 2004 that “team creativity and learning have not been examined extensively and are important areas for the extension of research on VTs”. This study attempts to address some of this research gap, as the statement seems to still stand.

Undeniably, the technology business is a globally interconnected, rapidly evolving and competitive industry, where firms need to be highly innovative to stay afloat in the long-term (Klein & Poulymenakou, 2006; Levy, 1998). It is therefore particularly relevant to examine how collaborative creativity and tacit communication might be affected by virtual work in the technology sector. Because of limited resources and to increase the generalisability of findings from a small sample, this study focuses on the IT industry, excluding hardware processing, i.e. technology and professional services firms whose primary activity involves the development of software or digital media.

Furthermore, to minimise sample heterogeneity, this study’s research has a particular focus on the workings of small businesses in London, i.e. firms who have a turnover of less than €10 million, have less than 50 full-time employees and are situated within Greater London’s 32 boroughs (European Commission, 2003). Hence, it is argued that this study has a methodological advantage over many other related studies on because of its specific focus on collaborative creativity and tacit, in-depth communication, but also due to its narrow organisational scope, allowing for greater generalisations within the chosen business size and type. However, as the research approach was highly exploratory and the interviews performed were unstructured, the extent to which generalisations can be made is limited. As such, generalisations are generally made into theory, not the population.

PURPOSE

The rationale for this Final Year Project is to explore how creative, tacit and in-depth communications forms are affected by virtual working within small tech businesses in London. In conclusion, some ways of alleviating possible limitations present within virtual teams are briefly examined. Thus, the main research question is:

How working virtually through information and communications technologies limits creativity and tacit communication.

APPROACH

In order to examine these topics in-depth without missing the overall picture, a holistic yet highly exploratory approach has been chosen within a multi-method qualitative study.

This approach aims to ensure a good fit between purpose and outcome, as well as secure the richness of data and findings, and a balanced perspective. The study does not attempt to derive absolute truths, but, on the contrary, provide conceptualisations and key insights. Nevertheless, it aspires to present the author’s own voice through a credible, yet distinctive perspective.

DISPOSITION

The paper begins with setting the context and a brief review of the most relevant literature relating to key limitations and challenges of virtual work and communication. Then follows a methodology outline of the study’s research approach and methods, including a discussion of data quality. The subsequent chapter deals with the analysis of findings and relate key insights to the literature. The paper ends with a conclusion that answers the research question and outlines the possible generalisations that can be made.

 

THE SECTIONS “LITERATURE REVIEW”, “METHODOLOGY”, “ANALYSIS OF RESEARCH AND FINDINGS”, “BIBLIOGRAPHY” AND “APPENDIX” ARE NOT INCLUDED HERE.

 

IMPLICATIONS

INSIGHTS FOR MANAGERS IN SMALL SEMI-VIRTUAL IT BUSINESSES

Creativity and imagination enables agility because managers can use it to find novel solutions to problems and empathise with customers and colleagues. Therefore, it is important to encourage and consciously strive for building effective creative processes within the entire workforce.

Collaborative creativity requires sharing and development of tacit communication, which is challenging in virtual environments.

Virtual brainstorming with simple tools such as chat and email is deemed ineffective, hence virtual creative divergence pose significant challenges. Teams excel at convergence, yet it requires a great deal of tacit communication. Consequently, it is concluded that this should be done face-to-face.

Furthermore, asynchronous communication limits the exchange of in-depth and non-trivial  information due to disjointedness and the lack of constant flow. However, virtual environments are well suited for exchange of information when the goal of an interaction is clear, for instance when a problem to be solved is well defined.

Breaking work into smaller parts and determining which parts requires the most collaborative creativity and tacit communication and which can successfully be done individually, may be used to make virtual teams more effective. When possible, separate creativity from the execution of ideas by creating guidelines and detailed descriptions.

Although process planning and tracking systems cannot entirely replace face-to-face interaction to create a shared and unified sense of purpose, vision and context, it is useful for limiting the constant requirement for tangible environments. Although balancing out-of-box thinking and alignment of mind-sets is a trial for all organisations, it is a particular challenge for virtual businesses.

Promoting the continuous use of both lateral and vertical formal feedback channels assist in offsetting the lack of informal communication in virtual environments.

Approximating the face-to-face experience via for example video conferencing is an effective way of limiting the disadvantages of virtual communications relating to displaying warmth and showing facial cues and body language. Nevertheless, because of the lack of ease in the exchange of tacit communication, as much information as possible should be transformed into explicit, for example by simply asking many questions.

More unconditional trust and rapport is vital for creativity and the ability to work together under pressure and during conflict, therefore it should be built when a team forms and subsequently be continuously maintained. Sustaining ties can probably be done through virtual channels in the short run.

When working individually on in-depth issues, embrace the time you have alone and immerse yourself in your work. Conversely, when in collaborative contexts, be communicative, sharing and open. If possible, do not mix the two.