Archive for the 'Management' Category

Problems with Managing Volunteers

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

I am reading Gods of Management by Charles Handy. I am just over half way through and so far I have found it both fascinating and depressing. He adequately highlights the differences in culture within organisations and then complicates this by pointing out that knowledge of the culture surrounding the organisation, such as the country it’s in, is also important.

I have just read a section on voluntary organisations:

“…it needs to be emphasised that voluntary groups are always harder to run well than more ordinary organisations.”

He describes three different types of voluntary cultures and the problems that they face. The first type of organisation is fellowship. In the Perl community an example would be a Perl Mongers’ group. It’s a group of people who come together for mutual support and enjoyment. Anyone is welcome to join and management would never be spoken of – even though there is management involved in organising meetings and the group may have a leader.

The second type is service. This happens when people realise that it isn’t enough to organise meetings and that more community needs could be met. It gives rise to structured organisations like The Perl Foundation. This is a natural progression but can be a problematic one. The service will be run much more like a standard company as it needs to be managed, controlled and directed.

Why is this problematic?

Handy states that the biggest problem is a change in ethos. Anyone was not only allowed to take part in the fellowship – they were encouraged to do so. But the service only wants specific people with specific skills. In the case of Perl anyone can join the Perl Mongers but not everyone can become part of The Perl Foundation.

The Perl Foundation is looking for new members and I am applying for the role of Steering Committee Chair. Over the next few weeks I will discover whether I have the specific skills required to manage a group of culturally diverse volunteers.

Virtual / Co-located Team Hybrids: Favouring those you work beside

Friday, September 14th, 2007

I have just read another study that suggests yet again that if you work on a team that has members who are co-located and members who are in another geographical location that you will be more inclined to work with the ones who are in the same place as you. Fussell et. al. [1] write about using instant messenger as a means of communicating. They note that it’s much easier for people to schedule tasks when they are together and that, in knowledge based environments, the division of tasks is best done through spontaneous conversation in a co-located environment. However, they wanted to find out if using something like IM would facilitate working and scheduling of work between team mates.

I am not that interested in their observations about IM clients and how these can be improved but rather on the work habits of the teams they observed. Their findings suggested that when workers have multiple tasks to carry out that they will favour the face-to-face ones over the ones that need to be carried out remotely even if all the tasks are equally important. And when given two tasks of equal size and importance, one co-located and one remote, they will spend more than half their time on the co-located one and not leave adequate time to complete the remote one.

I keep reading papers that strongly suggests that it’s better to have a co-located team and if you have to have a virtual team all the members should be in different geographic locations. Hybrids of the two will always lead to divisions between the co-located members and the virtual members. How do you stop people from favouring team members they see and work with everyday over team members who are located in a different place or time zone that they may never have to meet in person? And if you can’t stop them from doing this how do you make it work to your advantage?

[1] I cannot find a copy of this paper that does not require an ACM Digital Library login

Fussell, Kiesler, Setlock, Scupelli. Effects of instant messaging on the management of multiple project trajectories. CHI 2004, 191-198.

Communication Problems in Virtual Teams

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

I was reading a paper [pdf] by Valentine Casey and Ita Richardson in which they list some of the lessons they learned from observing two virtual teams. One of the things they noticed was that the team members used email to publicly attack their colleagues. When I first read this I thought of all the problems you get on mailing lists when team members say negative or nasty things about each other. But they were actually talking about the problem of cc’ing. They observed that team members would copy in management on trivial matters when they wanted to put blame on someone who was in another geographic location. This practice not only alienated the person who got sent the message but also annoyed all the other team members in the same geographical location as the recipient. To make things worse the managers then got involved in things that really didn’t require management input and they also tended to take sides with the people who were in the same location as them.

I have come across this problem before but it was in the context of teams with competing priorities. For example the marketing team have a new campaign that they want to get out by a certain date but the programmers don’t have the time to code it. So, the marketing team start to cc their manager when writing to the developers in the hope that this will somehow help to make the developers find the time to do it or at least provide a good excuse for the missed deadline. And then the developers cc in their managers and before you know it the whole company is involved.

But I hadn’t thought about it in the context of virtual teams. I suppose I was thinking that virtual teams would have one manager. However, after thinking about this a bit more, I realise that the team may have one project manager but each team member may have to report to a manager in their own location. The paper suggests using a documented email policy to get round these problems but I suppose I don’t really like the thought of this. This is probably because I usually work with pedantic programmers who enjoy finding unexpected ways to manipulate a policy.

Are Virtual Teams Less Suited to Men than Women?

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

I was reading a paper today by Emmeline de Pillis and Kimberly Furumo that considered the hypothesis that men are more likely to be “deadbeats” on a virtual team than women. Deadbeats are described a “free riders” – people who are content to take credit for a group effort without doing any work.

They carried out an experiment with 201 people who were randomly assigned to either a face-to-face or virtual team of three people. They were trying to show that virtual teams have less cohesion than face-to-face teams and also that virtual teams have a higher percentage of non-contributing members (these were described as either deserters or deadbeats). Their results did show that there is less cohesion, less satisfaction, more time spent on a task, and more deadbeats within a virtual team. Most of the deadbeats were male but their results didn’t have statistical significance. The only deserters were male but again this didn’t have statistical significance.

I was aware that most studies show less cohesion in new virtual teams but I hadn’t really thought about gender issues. I’m going to have to read more papers on this area because Pillis and Furumo believe that virtual work is a particularly poor fit for the average male student. This concerns me. Most of the virtual teams I’m aware of are in the I.T. industry and they are predominately male. I want to know what it is about men that makes it harder for them to work in this environment and what can be done to improve their experience.

Virtual Teams and Conflict Resolution

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

Everyone knows that when you bring a group of people together to work on a project that there will be conflict. In the workplace how this conflict is resolved will have an impact on the success of any team. Small group theory shows that there are five main ways that teams deal with conflict: avoidance; accommodation; competition; collaboration; and compromise.

Competitive behaviour can be seen when one person tries to force their views on the other members of the team. It also happens when one member of the team is more interested in their own goals than those of the teams and as a result starts to withhold information or become very negative about any solution that isn’t their own. Not surprisingly this has a negative impact on the team causing friction and division which stops the team from bonding and results in poorer team performance. What I’ve been fascinated to learn is that competition can actually be beneficial in virtual teams.

Why should this be any different in a virtual team?

There are a variety of different ways to show your competitive nature, for example the tone of your voice, your body language, and the actual words you use. In electronic communication these social cues are removed and it’s much harder to tell the emotional state of the writer. If I write an email stating “I don’t think that solution will work” it could be seen as a very reasonable response. If I’m talking to you in person and I say the same thing in a terse voice while looking at you as if you are a complete idiot, my response is going to have a negative impact on you. So while I may exhibit competitive behaviour all the time it may not be perceived by the other team members when only electronic means are used to convey it. If the team members don’t perceive the behaviour it doesn’t have a negative impact on them.

This shows why the negative impact of the behaviour is lessened but why does it actually become beneficial?

It happens because we mistake it for something else. We think that the person is participating more in the team instead of recognising them as someone who has their own agenda for the team. It doesn’t cause the same division or resentment.

Mind you, it’s just as well that this behavioural trait doesn’t have the same impact on virtual teams as it does on co-located teams: it’s much easier to show your competitive side when you have a computer to hide behind.