Our final project document was submitted last week with little fuss or fanfare. I have a feeling that most team members found the virtual teamwork experience and the work produced underwhelming. I know that the project manager found it frustrating, as did I and probably a few others.
A more comprehensive postmortem will be required, but a preliminary review of my previous posts show that my own frustrations seem to revolve around our reliance on email and discussion boards as our sole means of communication. Of course, this need not have been the case: we had a range of mediums available to us, from voice calls and video conferencing to specialist virtual teamwork platforms.
At the beginning of the project I suggested that a Skype call may be a good way to initiate the team. This suggestion was opposed by a number of teammates who felt that the time difference between Ireland and the Florida would prove too inconvenient: it never happened. My UL classmate and I also exchanged phone numbers, but neither of us made a call. The team leader did set up a Microsoft Office ‘groups’ account, but I was the only member to use it – on a single occasion.
We did use a Google Doc to submit work, and this platform has some good features. The different editing modes allow you to comment on, and suggest changes to documents. Email notifications let you know if a suggestion has been made or accepted/rejected. This was very useful. However, formatting in Google Docs was dreadful. This may have been due to the way we used the platform: no design specifications or guidelines were agreed upon, and everyone appears to have actually created their work in Word and just pasted into the Doc with its Word formatting attached. The results were more that unwieldy, they were montrous!
While I’m sure there are many other factors involved here, I do think that the way we communicated shaped the way we worked together, and the work we produced. By limiting our means of communication we also limited our scope for collaboration and our teams potential.
(Image: by GDJ, Open Clipart)
Thus spoke Donald Norman when describing email.
In the same interview the design expert noted that: “The problem is in trying to make email do everything when its not particularly good at anything”. It is a truism that people are ruder when emailing, or that they are over-familiar, or that they are pushy, or whatever annoys you most. These claims can often be contradictory, but they are consistent in one regard: they all indicate that people do not like communicating via email.
Asynchronous discussion boards are essentially threads of group emails, and have many similar short-comings. They are not a ‘rich’ form of communication, and the message is always received in a different context to that in which it was sent. Moreover, you can have a dozen or more individuals with different roles, concerns, and attitudes participating in what is supposed to be a single discussion, or not.
And that is the problem. Often there are two or three discussions taking place, with only a minority of participants contributing at any one time. Assertive chairing and skillful leadership is needed, but in message boards this always risks coming across as bossy or controlling.
I have tried to think of some positive aspects of discussion boards for this post, but I have only managed to unearth two:
i) You always have time to compose a reply, thereby avoiding ‘off-the-cuff’ or ‘heat of the moment’ remarks.
ii) You can always walk away from the discussion and have a cup of tea when ever you need to.
(Image by RRZE / Creative Commons)
Watching Nancy Pelosi spluttering over a malfunctioning mic at a protest rally, I am struck by how even the most confident and accomplished performer can come undone when technology fails. The true extent of the failure is also clear: this clip of Pelosi is now all that the rally will be remembered for. It could be worse. In science fiction over-reliance on technology invariably leads to doom or dystopia, but for most of us it only leads to embarrassment and irritation.
Last week we had to get in touch with the members of our virtual team, which includes students from the University of Limerick, the University of Central Florida, and Univesité Diderot Paris. My UL classmate got the ball rolling with a group email and a post on the designated discussion board. I replied, and so did some teammates from Paris and Florida. However, later on in the week I got another email from my UL classmate expressing concern that no one from the other institutions had replied. My classmate had not received the other replies, and it soon became apparent that some of our teammates in Paris and Florida did not get our emails and/or could not get access to the discussion board.
This highlights one of the main problems with virtual teamwork: it is often impossible to tell whether your message has been received or is being ignored. Perhaps it is the uncertainty which makes technological failures truly annoying. It was not Nancy Pelosi’s dead mic, but her uncertainty that made her flail about: “Is this thing on?”. No Nancy, no it is not.
(Image: Screenshot of C-Span news footage)