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Chapter 3 - Environmental Complexity

Working in multi-organizational, geographically dispersed teams

All of the Electronic Commons Program projects involved partners from multiple organizations and geographically dispersed locations. These multiple partner, geographically dispersed teams were consistent with the aims of the Electronic Commons program officers; to encourage collaborative community-based innovations in knowledge sharing. However, this design introduced new challenges for the project team members, most of whom did not have experience working in this way. Some team members spoke about the difficulty of maintaining the passion and commitment to the project goals without the immediate physical presence of other team members to help carry them through difficult times. As a consequence teams were required to develop new and creative ways to work together. The cost of holding co-located meetings on a regular basis, for example, was prohibitive due to both the cost of travel and to the significant loss of time in the field. Therefore, alternatives had to be found. A number of the teams looked to Web-based meeting software, Webinars, and simple teleconferencing technology as alternatives to same-time, same-place meetings. Meeting software supported traditional “teleconferencing” but also allowed the teams to share documents and other products (such as slide shows, video clips, etc.) real-time during meetings. Others found the functionality of basic telephone-based teleconferencing enough to satisfy their requirements as long as necessary materials were shared in advance of meetings.

It is important for a group to have good functioning dynamics prior to an effort to make the communication electronic. We focused on just a core group of organizations and individuals who for the most part had a long term cooperative relationship. This helped smooth the transition to electronic meetings.
Economic Development

Many of the team leaders found themselves having to consider questions not just about the needs and the capabilities of the intended users of the knowledge sharing innovations they were coming together to produce, but also of the team members themselves. A number of the eight project teams found they had to make choices based on the “lowest common denominator.” For example, using Web-based meeting software as an alternative to face-to-face meetings made sense for some teams. However, other teams had team members without access to high speed Internet; therefore, these teams had to adjust their communication strategies to simpler methods to ensure all members could participate.

Meeting cost was also a new factor to consider. Calculating the cost of a meeting when working within an organization where team members are co-located traditionally requires consideration of the cost of personnel and opportunity cost of time spent in a meeting. When working with multi-organizational, geographically dispersed teams the cost of meetings must now include the technologies employed to support those meetings, as well as their selection, acquisition, deployment, training, management, and maintenance. These costs can vary with the sophistication of the tools selected. However, throughout this process a number of the teams discovered that while some technologies are more expensive than others, both in purchase price and overhead, they do not always provide additional value beyond the less expensive alternatives. Teams found they needed to consider the task at hand, the technological capabilities of the team (both of the individuals and the organizations that support them), and the associated cost when deciding about the appropriate technology for their meetings. In some cases the teams found that less wasn’t necessarily more, but it may have been enough.

In addition to the challenges of communicating between and among team members, teams had to contend with the continual struggle of managing competing priorities. This challenge many times is difficult when teams are co-located, but becomes virtually impossible to manage when teams are geographically dispersed or from multiple organizations. Even with using the various tools discussed previously to maintain cohesion within the team and to ensure ongoing commitment among the geographically dispersed team members, the challenge of managing competing priorities continued to be an issue. During the reflection workshop the participants discussed the challenge of managing multiple competing priorities along with balancing their Electronic Commons Program project. As team leaders, they also had to take into consideration the challenges their teammates were facing in addressing their own competing priorities and those of the Electronic Commons Program.