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Research
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Collaboration Among Virtual Teams

Social computing is changing how work is organized and completed.

Geographically dispersed employees and virtual teams have become a fact of the modern workplace. For some organizations, virtual teams are a strategic imperative; for others, an everyday necessity. Working this way offers several advantages, distinct costs, and unique dynamics. Coordinating work among virtual teams is one of the many ways social computing technologies are changing the nature of work and employment.

The Study

Examining pros and cons of virtual teamwork, University of Minnesota researcher Ching Ren co-authored a study of a large, global professional services firm. Among other results, the data showed that dispersed teams allowed for a better match of expertise to problem, and that such projects had higher net earnings. Forming teams with geographically dispersed members allowed the firm to access the unique—and valuable—knowledge and skills of its employees.

At the same time, coordinating a dispersed team presents challenges that co-located teams don’t have. Virtual teams may struggle to create social bonds among members, build common understanding, keep each other informed, and adjust quickly when necessary. Despite such difficulties, the firm saw positive returns from dispersed team projects—up to a point. Depending on project size, the costs started to outweigh the benefits when 30-50% of team members were dispersed.

expertise, earnings, costs graphic

Impact

This research is part of a body of work Ren and others are creating, adding to the University’s decades-long history of work in social computing. Group interactions, workplace structures, and forms of employment have evolved alongside social technologies. Understanding the changes can inform policy and help business take advantage of phenomena like open innovation and crowdsourcing.


Boh, W. F., Y. Ren, S. Kiesler, R. Bussjaeger. 2007. Expertise and collaboration in the geographically dispersed organization. Organization Science, 18(4), 595-612.