Global health care innovation requires collaboration between groups of people located in different parts of the world and is a growing trend in industry. Often, team members from various departments of a global organization who need to work together to design, develop, and introduce new products are not in the same location. For example, R&D personnel may be located in the United States, the production facility may be located in Ireland, and other key personnel may be located in Singapore. In this situation, a virtual team can be formed to complete the new product development project. Virtual teams are similar to traditional teams but are geographically separated and rely heavily on virtual methods of communication (e-mail, Skype, teleconferencing, etc.) instead of regular face-to-face meetings.
The management of virtual teams presents some unique problems resulting from cultural, language, and time zone differences, in addition to geographic separation. Overall, the biggest challenges to virtual teams are developing trust and effective means of communication . Since virtual team members cannot see their distant team members following through on commitments, they must trust that the work is getting done correctly and in a timely manner. Trust is difficult to develop if team members have never met each other in person, and geographic separation does not allow the informal social interactions needed to build trust and camaraderie among all team members. Managers of virtual teams must provide opportunities for social interaction among team members through an initial face-to-face meeting (if possible), and the appropriate use of communication and collaboration tools such as e-mail, conference calls, project chat rooms, and videoconferencing. Most of these tools do not allow team members to observe facial expressions or body language (an important component of communication) and should be chosen based on the communication need .
To prepare engineering students to contribute to global innovation projects in industry, experience with virtual teams during their undergraduate years would be helpful. In particular, the capstone design course can offer opportunities for students to gain experience with virtual teams. There are many capstone design instructors who have more experience with virtual teams than I, so I do not claim to be an expert on this subject. However, I would like to describe my experience with two projects run by virtual teams consisting of biomedical engineering students from Marquette University [(MU), Milwaukee, Wisconsin] and engineering science students from Smith College (Northampton, Massachusetts) during the 2011–2012 and 2012–2013 academic years. My colleague and fellow capstone design instructor from Smith College, Dr. Susannah Howe, Design Clinic director in the Picker Engineering Program, and I coadvised these virtual teams. Here, I share the challenges we encountered and the lessons we learned as a result of this experience, as well our recommendations for anyone who might want to include virtual project teams in their capstone design courses.
Rationale for Virtual Teams
I became aware of the growing trend in the use of virtual teams in industry from several part-time graduate students who worked for GE Healthcare in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Dr. Howe and I heard presentations at previous Capstone Design Conferences on the use of multinational student project teams for capstone courses. (See “A Note to Readers” for the schedule and events of the next Capstone Design Conference.) We both became interested in conducting a pilot study with one virtual project team. Our intent was to eventually increase the number of virtual project teams as we gained experience in advising these teams. Instead of working with students in another country who spoke a different language, we decided to limit the number of challenges we would face by forming a team of students who shared a common language and only a one-hour time zone difference. This allowed us to focus on resolving issues related to communication, specifically the lack of face-to-face meetings, and avoid other issues common to multinational virtual project teams.
One virtual project team was chosen for each of following the projects:
- 2011–2012: Acidosis/Alkalosis Detector—Many college-aged type I diabetics have low blood sugar levels, which can lead to acidosis or alkalosis. If these conditions are undetected and untreated, they can result in a coma or seizures. This project involved the design of a device to measure alkali present in exhaled breath during sleeping hours and a way of alerting the patient if the levels become too high.
- Team: four Smith and four MU students.
- 2012–2013: Scalp Cooling to Prevent Alopecia During Chemotherapy—Chemotherapy is one of the main treatments for cancer and has several side effects, including alopecia (hair loss). Scalp-cooling technologies cause the blood vessels beneath the skin to constrict, reducing the amount of toxic chemotherapeutic agents that reach the hair follicles. The purpose of this project was to design an innovative scalp cooling technology aimed at reducing chemotherapy-induced alopecia. The goal was to deliver a proof-of-concept device that met the identified target specifications, which included uniform temperature, independent use, patient mobility, and patient comfort.
- Team: three Smith and three MU students.
The capstone design courses at both institutions are taught for two semesters. Due to different semester start and end dates, as well as vacation schedules, flexibility in deliverable due dates was necessary. To simplify course administration, reduce confusion, and maintain consistency, it was agreed that the virtual team would follow the project schedule and produce the deliverables required by the course taught at MU. The grading of deliverables would be conducted by both instructors using the grading rubrics used in the MU course. Dr. Howe and I advised our respective students and met with them weekly (or as required) for project updates. In addition to these meetings, the MU and Smith students set up their own schedule to meet as a team. Many of these virtual meetings were via Skype, and most other communications were via phone, e-mail, or text messaging. During both years, at the beginning of the spring semester (at the halfway point of each project), Smith student team members traveled to Milwaukee for the first and only face-to-face meeting with their MU teammates. Budget and scheduling constraints prevented additional face-to-face team meetings.
We expected the majority of challenges confronting the virtual teams to be related to lack of frequent face-to-face interactions and the differences in academic schedules. However, several other unexpected challenges were encountered during the virtual team experiences.
Disciplinary Language Differences
As biomedical engineering students, the MU students were more familiar with the clinical issues involved in the project and had more classroom experience with medical devices than the Smith students.
Lack of Cohesive Team Identity
The eventual face-to-face meeting at the start of the spring semester was helpful in creating a more cohesive team. However, during the first semester of each project, there seemed to be two distinct teams (MU and Smith) working on different parts of the same project instead of one team working on the entire project.
At times, the workload between the MU and Smith students was not balanced and shifted between each school, causing conflict.
As a result of task delegation and collaboration structure, students were usually more aware of the actions of their colocated teammates than those of their teammates at the other institution. This imbalance coupled with the lack of frequent face-to-face meetings made it difficult for both groups of students to effectively evaluate each other’s performance on the team and project.
Differences in Teaching Philosophy/Course Management
To enable all students to gain experience as project leaders, projects in the Smith capstone course required students to rotate the project-leader role during the entire year. This was not the approach at MU. Differences in leadership and interpersonal skills between the changing project leaders often led to conflict between students from both schools.
Experience Levels and Credibility
The MU students working on the scalp-cooling project had industry co-op experience. Some of the Smith students had summer research experience, but this experience was not as relevant to an industry-sponsored project. This contributed to credibility issues and frustration among the students.
Construction of Prototypes at Two Institutions
Each team had access to prototyping facilities and resources for prototype construction and testing. To divide the work fairly, different parts of the prototypes were made at both institutions. This created some logistical problems related to the coordination of testing activities and the availability of prototypes for classroom presentation and demonstration.
Ability to Provide Comprehensive and Similar Project Experiences
Due to the delegation of different tasks to each institution and the lack of frequent communication between all team members, the student experience was not consistent among the two groups. The Smith students gained more experience with verification testing and prototype construction, while the MU students gained more experience with technical writing and sponsor interaction.
Plans for Improvement
As a result of the challenges and issues described, we plan to implement several changes to our next virtual team collaboration. These changes are based on our observations and recommendations from the management literature.
- We will schedule a face-to-face meeting as early as possible to create and nurture a team culture and build trust among team members . Travel funds will be allocated for three Smith or MU students to visit the other’s campus for a face-to-face meeting within the first few weeks of the project. This will provide opportunities for 1) informal social interaction to build trust, 2) setting goals for the project, 3) discussing project expectations, and 4) assigning roles for each team member. Trust in virtual teams grows as team members display reliability, consistency, and responsiveness. This process can be initiated by assigning each team member a task that can be completed quickly, allowing them to make an immediate contribution to the project .
- We will make better use of appropriate communication and collaboration technologies to establish effective methods of communication per guidelines developed by 3M, a Fortune 500 company, to match the technology to the communication need , :
- Use e-mail to distribute important information and news in a one-to-one or one-to-many frame of reference.
- Use videoconferencing when it is important to observe facial expressions and body language. This is important during the early phases of a project, when relationships are being built and a common understanding of what needs to be done is being developed. This method can also be used when making critical decisions or discussing contentious issues.
- Use conference calls when team members in different locations are working with common documents, presentations, sketches, and models. This method should also be used for project status update meetings and to sustain camaraderie among team members.
- Use face-to-face meetings early in the project to build trust, instill commitment to the goals of the project, and engage in team-building activities. This method should also be used to repair trust when necessary.
- We will require MU and Smith student pairs to work on tasks together instead of assigning tasks to all MU or all Smith subteams. This will create subteams consisting of students from both institutions who will be required to work and communicate with each other on their assigned tasks.
- We will require more frequent meetings of the entire team that include both faculty advisors. This will be a better alternative to having separate team meetings for each group with their respective faculty project advisors and will help create and nurture a cohesive team culture and identity. Our goal is to prevent two geographically separate teams from working on different tasks for the same project.
- We will provide opportunities for both faculty advisors and all students to interact with the project sponsor. The two virtual team projects described earlier were solicited through MU. As a result, one student from MU was assigned the role of sponsor contact, which prevented the other team members and Dr. Howe from interacting with the sponsor. A more collaborative structure should result in a better understanding of the goals and expectations of the project as well as a higher level of buy-in from all team members.
The students who worked on the virtual capstone design project teams described here experienced some of the same problems encountered by members of virtual teams in industry. Some of these problems were related to the lack of face-to-face interaction and inappropriate communication tools, but others were related to course management, team structure, and team reporting issues. The implementation of the recommendations listed here should help our next virtual team experience run more smoothly and lead to better outcomes for the students and industry sponsors.
For those of you with experience in managing virtual student teams, please let me know how you manage the issues discussed in this column and if you have additional recommendations. I can share your recommendations with readers in a future column, which will benefit other capstone design instructors trying to incorporate virtual teams into their courses.
- Gray, C. F. and Larson, Erik W. Project Management: The Managerial Process, 5th Ed., McGraw-Hill Irwin, New York, 2008.
- 3M, Leading a Distributed Team. Accessed June 6, 2006.