“Being a well-connected leader to a diverse group of professionals outside of one’s team will enhance one’s ability to recruit the right people and keep good relationships. Teams that share common values and can find common interest will likely build trust and stronger relationships.” Binod Sundararajan
Binod Sundararajan, co-founder of CELNeT, contends that virtual teams are different from face-to-face. It is essential to utilize technology to increase media richness to counteract the feelings of isolation that can plague long-distant networks. In the virtual world, common sense is not always common knowledge. Virtual teams require leaders who respond to the additional challenges of a mobile workforce. Establishing a common purpose, planning team activities, negotiating role expectations, motivating and building trust within a virtual setting are the essential skillsets of an e-Leader.
In a recent “virtual” interview, Binod provided insight on the evolution of virtual teams and e-Leadership.
What prompted you to consider e-leadership research?
Binod: I have been involved with e-Learning research since 2003; my PhD dissertation was on e-Learning and blended learning. Interestingly, research on e-Learning and virtual teams is about 10-15 years old, so we are seeing the beginning of a major trend in the way we organize work. Without question, our understanding of virtual teams grows as adoption increases across sectors. However, this is a vast space, with teaching and learning for university students, high school students, continuing education students. The rise of online degree programs, certificate programs, like Coursera, Udemy, continue to address this market as more and more organizations, public and private, turn to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to connect their co-located and dispersed teams within and outside their organizations. Our literature review yielded many theories and best practices on doing distance/virtual team work, but it was Martine Durier-Copp, my co-founder in CELNeT, who recognized that there was a gap in this research: that of e-Leadership. Leadership literature is vast, and has a long history stemming from Organizational Theory and Organizational Behaviour disciplines.
So, what then is e-Leadership and why is it any different from leadership?
Binod: Just like teaching in a face-to-face classroom is different from teaching in an online environment, managing a face-to-face co-located team is dramatically different from managing, and leading a virtual team. While there are many common issues like trust in leaders and managers, communication, and team dynamics, the technological challenges in a virtual team, the distance, lack of two-way communication compounds existing issues, while adding new ones related to complexities, tasks and timelines. The e-Leader, i.e. the Leader or Manager of a virtual team then must have a broader understanding of the contexts, a finer understanding of the complexities, an empathetic approach to team needs, a laser focus on tasks and timelines, a very good comprehension of the technologies and the adherent challenges, in order to successfully achieve the team goals and objectives.
What are the next steps?
Binod: As our research found out, there are more failures of virtual team projects than successes. This led Martine and me to create the ConnecT© framework for e-Leadership, which connects the ‘C’s—such as culture, complexities, communications and context—with the ‘T’s—tasks, timeline, team and technology. Our workshops to government leaders have been well-received. Currently we are exploring the landscape to identify an industry partner, with whom we will test this framework.
What do you enjoy most about giving presentations on e-leaders?
Binod: Whenever Martine and I give presentations, we look for that “aha” moment in the audience’s eyes. Participants engage in a virtual team simulation of a case, and then discuss the ConnecT© framework in the context of the case, and their own individual experiences at their workplace. We know we are doing this the right way, when the “aha” moments keep coming, and the discussions get informative, and participants respond with positive comments after the workshop is completed. All of this is thoroughly enjoyable, and it allows Martine and me to learn and refine our framework. All in all, the outcomes enrich us all.