(co-author: Ian M Clark)

The following is the second of 3 parts of an article on the challenges around managing the global transfer of innovation in today’s businesses. It was originally written for and published in the “SOFW Kosmetikjahrbuch 2014”. The first part was posted here in July.

The Key Factors

Managing Innovation globally - Key FactorsWe continue our series of ‘Managing innovation in the global marketplace’ by looking at key factors when considering building and working with virtual teams. Operating globally has potential geographical and cultural issues. Being a virtual, as opposed to co-located, team requires special attention to communications in particular. And it is hard to make a true team out of this sort of working group which demands excellent leadership in order to make it all work. In our experience especially in the context of technology transfer a number of key factors are important when building and working with virtual teams:

Special leadership competencies and techniques are required

A very good  leader of local teams may not be the right person to lead a virtual team. When training leaders for virtual teams, special attention needs to be paid to some critical competencies and techniques which we will describe further on.

Virtual teams need more than co-located teams

A good team leader needs to:

  • give clear direction to the team
  • understand what motivate his individual team members
  • support and motivate them.

In addition to all these abilities of leading a physically co-located team, virtual team leadership has specific needs to deal with the cultural and geographic issues added by the global dimension.

Team member “follower-ship” also needs training

It is hugely different for team members working in a local team compared to a virtual team especially coping with the level of autonomy expected. In order to become a most effective team member in a virtual team one has to be able to work with minimal supervision because the physical contact between the member and the team leader is so much lower in a virtual team compared to a local team. Hence, team members need to be trained in autonomous, self-guided work as well as in understanding how the virtual team works and how to contribute effectively to the team dynamics.

Support of local line manager is vital

One extra aspect often ignored by leaders of virtual teams is the degree of loyalty a team member commits to the virtual team versus to the local line manager. In order to have highly committed team members, leaders of virtual teams need to ensure that they have the full support from the local line management of the respective team members, not only at the start of the project, but throughout its life.

 

Next to the issues related to leading global innovation projects through virtual teams a number of broader issues surfaced when we analyse the situation:

Different national cultures

Because of the big diversity of countries and regions involved in these global innovation projects, difference amongst national cultures played a role especially when things did not go smoothly. Partial ignorance of or blindness to cultural clashes between members in the virtual teams increased the tension which was building throughout the course of the projects.

Global and local company cultures

Even though everyone involved is working in the same company it’s risky to assume that the company culture is the same across the whole globe. At the global level a very different culture emerged which in some parts was almost entirely incompatible with local company cultures. For example the global teams had a high degree of freedom in deciding what to do and how, whereas some members of different locations were exposed to a very hierarchical leadership culture which hindered the decision making process enormously because the team members were in practice not empowered to take or apply the decisions as part of the global team. Lack of understanding of these local company culture challenges at the global level worsened the situation and the cohesiveness of the virtual teams.

Company politics

As in many large corporations, company politics did not help to resolve the issues between local interests and global programmes and in fact added a third dimension of self-interest, whether at the level of a local department or a senior individual.

So the key question here is, based on all the experience, what should be done to resolve the issues or avoid them right from the start?

We will cover this in the next part of the blog, coming soon. Please come back again.