Virtual Networked Teams in Future Organisations

Cover stories

creating a new kind of team

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in a teamthat speaks different languages, eats and sleeps at differenttimes, and has different views on the world and getting thingsdone? A Virtual Networked Team [VNT] includes all the abovecharacteristics, born of a blend of different cultures, businessperspectives and motivations and enabled by Knowledge Managementapproaches.

Globalisation, increased competition, shorter time to market andpressure to innovate are some of the drivers for organisations toadopt a knowledge-based culture. One of the consequences of this isthe need to change organisational structures and behaviour:creating VNT's for specific purposes is one way of achieving thenecessary organisational change.
This brief article aims to explore VNT's as a viable form oforganisational structure for enterprises committed to adopting aknowledge-based culture and to provide some hints and tips forestablishing successful VNT's.

the case for Virtual Networked Teams

Many organisations perceive that they have created virtual teamsjust by installing email and video conferencing systems. These aregreat enablers but less effective on their own. This is because youcannot just email or videoconference anyone or everyone in yourorganisation to start a project. You need the knowledge of who hasthe competencies, who has the experience, and who will fit into theteam (in terms of styles and values, beliefs and behaviours).Whilst improved HR systems can help to identify people with theright skills and competencies, at present they are notsophisticated enough to replace the manager who has a comprehensivenetwork of contacts within the organisation.

A VNT is more than a limited number of people using videoconferencing and email to communicate. Video conferencing is anexcellent tool for explaining and showing how to solve mechanicalproblems, which involve high risk and short time scales, over longdistances. However, softer and more complex problem solvingrequires a higher degree of Knowledge Management and often moreparticipants than video conferencing can support at present.


Business Development within Cap Gemini Group is organised byusing VNT's. This can vary from developing a new service (e.g. forE-Commerce, Business Intelligence or Knowledge Management) tointroducing global market units for a branch of industry. Also theintroduction of smaller initiatives is often carried out by thisnew way of working.

E.g. the new journal on Knowledge Management was put together bya VNT. The idea was conceived and developed over two meetings of aCap Gemini Natural Work Team, a Natural Work Team being the labelfor a VNT within Cap Gemini. Once the concept had been agreedface-to-face, the short-list of authors and articles, projectdefinition and funding was agreed via emails and telephone callsbetween the Editor, the Natural Work Team facilitator and theJournal's sponsor.
So what's so unusual about this? For a start, the speed and easewith which the project was initiated was due to the workingrelationships and trust, which had matured between the project teammembers. VNT's can only be effective if some face-to-face meetingshave occurred, views exchanged and ideas generated. Without this,there will be no sense of purpose, no sense of striving to attaincommon goals, no willingness to share knowledge and a high risk offailure.

One of the key characteristics of a VNT is its ability to drawon each member's links to other networks both within theorganisation and with the external environment, which can result ina greater cross-fertilisation of ideas and more innovativethinking. Diagram 2 shows the relationship diagram for a Cap GeminiNatural Work Team. Note that in classical General Systems Theory,the thinking was that the system boundary clearly separates thesystem from its environment; consequently, in a systems map orrelationship diagram, systems in the environment should neveroverlap with the organisation. Now that we are seeing a blurring ofthe organisational boundary, caused by alliances and market demand,a better model is to represent these external systems overlappingthe traditional system boundary to represent the interactionbetween the two environments.

dia2.gif (22213 bytes)

How is this managed? There is no manager in the traditionalsense. Instead, the VNT has a facilitator whose role is to act as agatekeeper, broker and catalyst for the community. This role mayalso be combined with a Knowledge Management responsibility for theVNT to stimulate the capture of best practices and the sharing ofexperience.

In a successful VNT, knowledge exchange occurs naturally as thisforms the conversation between people working in differentlocations. Cap Gemini is planning to launch a new tool, The VirtualOffice to facilitate the establishment of even more VNT's withinthe organisation as we move forward with our vision for KnowledgeManagement within the organisation.

Do's and Don'ts for successful Virtual Networked Teams

Ensure that there is a sponsor for the VNT who has aglobal reputation within the organisation.

Involve enthusiastic people. Those who want to participate inthe VNT will gain the necessary commitment at their local level tobecome team members if they are passionate enough about the subjectarea or problem addressed by the VNT.

Encourage an atmosphere of fun and curiosity. The mostinnovative solutions will be produced in a supportive rather than athreatening environment.

Communicate! Publicise achievements, recognise individualcontributions, make the rest of the organisation curious about whatyou are doing, keep in touch with each other in the VNT on aregular basis even if there is nothing significant to report.

Actively interact with the external environment e.g. customers,suppliers, universities, competitors and industry gurus and buildup your personal network. This will benefit the VNT by providing aricher pool of collective contacts.

Share interesting articles and papers that you find; even ifthey may not be directly relevant to you, they could stimulatesomeone else's creativity.

Establish a forum for exchanging ideas and information. Adiscussion forum on an Intranet is more open than using a fixedemail distribution list.

Hold a kick-off meeting to launch the VNT and meet face-to-face3-4 times each year.

Reconsider performance measurement. It is the capability todeliver, based on competencies, combined with a willingness toshare knowledge that will form the basis of individuals assessment:not the number of hours they spend at head office

Implement or update knowledge management processes to ensurethat the risk of losing tacit knowledge transfer within the VNT isreduced to a minimum.

Consider how content management will be conducted for thegeographically dispersed team. Is the organisation's infrastructurecapable of effectively supporting global knowledge access anddissemination.

Use a facilitation style of leadership: autocracy won'twork!

Attempt to balance the innovators and adapters in the team.

Remember that multicultural teams consist of many participantswho are not native English speakers. Aim for clarity of expressionand agree common terms at the start of the mission.

And, speaking of mission, ensure that the critical successfactors are defined for the VNT and that everyone involved knowswhat they are.

Overstructure things. Project managers will raise theirhands in horror at this statement. VNT's are organic rather thanmechanistic and overstructuring will kill the opportunity for tacitknowledge exchange and stifle creativity.

Make the VNT a permanent structure: the lifespan should be longenough only to achieve the goals. Typically, a VNT tackling globalissues may last between 3-5 years.

Expect to document everything. Instead, ensure that thecommunications map is maintained, charters defined, progressbulletins created and at the end, case studies and project profileswritten up.

Expect to have a common view on all aspects of the mission.Divergent views should be encouraged and articulated if innovationis to occur.


To conclude, VNT's are good for projects with a high intellectualcapital/thinking content, increasing knowledge sharing for businessbenefit in geographically dispersed organisations and bringingtogether people with a similar problem to solve. The benefit isless re-invention of the wheel and more consistency of approachacross the organisation.

On the other hand, VNT's are not good for organisationswith hierarchical structures and rigid central control, permanentworking or Rapid Application Development -it s better to bring theteam physically together to pressure cook the results for thissituation.

Using a team approach, supported by appropriate technology andKnowledge Management practices, the advantage of a VNT is theability to create and refine ideas and solutions without therequirement for continuous face-to-face interaction. The bestresults will be obtained by bringing the team members together atthe start to establish a sense of community. Then you cancommunicate and operate in the virtual world from London to Tokyo,Singapore to San Francisco and Paris to New York.

Julie Coleclough is involved with business development forApplied Knowledge Management in Cap Gemini. She facilitates the(Virtual Networked) Business Development Team for Applied KnowledgeManagement and is a lead tutor for Applied Knowledge Management atthe Cap Gemini University.

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Chun Tong Chung
A good example of this concept you find within
the website of
m.p. van mourik
Dear Mrs. Coleclough,

At this moment I am establishing a virtual network team for architecture/townplanning etc. in the Netherlands

The reason for doing this, is the fact, that a lot of possibilities and talents are being lost, because of the fragmentation of the buildingproces, burocracy, etc. Now there are new software programmes for virtual offices available, which makes the communicationprocesses a lot quicker, easier and controllable.

I would be glad, if there are possibilities to communicate with you about how to establish such an organisation.

Yours sincerely,

M.P. van Mourik
sushma sharma
very insightful
liked it very much