ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Building better virtual teams

By Edward Volchok / July 2006

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Every professor teaching online should consider team projects for his or her classes. This is especially true for marketing courses. When Stevens Institute of Technology asked me to develop an online graduate-level marketing course, I was certain of one thing: I wanted to give students an experience that would instill a deep appreciation of marketing and the challenges marketers face. To achieve my goal—to be truly hands-on—I knew I would have to include team projects. The looming question for my new course was: How should I structure teams for a computer-mediated, asynchronous learning environment? As I developed and taught my course, I answered that critical question. This is a case study on why virtual teams enhance online education and I offer ten suggestions on how to succeed using such teams.

The online environment presents unique challenges for any instructor, and especially for one using team projects. The students and the professor lack the face-to-face connection on which we are so dependent. The importance of this cannot be understated. Without the 30 hours of physical presence in a traditional classroom, students often feel isolated from one another and the professor. And online relationships—built primarily on the formality of communicating with the written word without the benefit of body language or a passing smile and the occasional joke—can seem hollow. All this makes building trust more difficult. The wise use of virtual teams, however, can help overcome this difficulty.

Since early 2002, I have been teaching Marketing Management, an online graduate-level course for the WebCampus at The Wesley J. Howe School of Technology Management, Stevens Institute of Technology. I used virtual teams from the start and I am proud to say students consistently give my classes rave reviews. Much of the credit is due to the team projects I assign. After seeing the triumphs and tribulations of nearly 50 teams on some 200 team projects in 13 classes, I have learned how to make virtual teams succeed.

How I Structure My Class

My primary task was to transfer the Institute's marketing management class to the online environment. To keep my online students motivated, I want them to wrestle with real marketing problems. I do not want students, already isolated from their classmates and professor, cramming alone for an exam and spouting-back passages from the textbook only to forget the key lessons shortly after the semester. My course is designed to make students confront the challenges marketers face. Students need to get their hands dirty. I have found that merely studying for tests is just not a sufficiently involving experience. I banished tests.

My next issue was lectures. I enjoy lecturing. I have great lectures from the marketing classes I taught at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. I could have easily adapted my lectures and created a few new ones. As my lectures are already in PowerPoint, posting these lectures on the course Web site would have been easy. I have been a fan of PowerPoint since 1985, when I beta-tested its very first release. But, PowerPoint is not an effective teaching tool for an online class. Good PowerPoint presentations need a real-time presenter. Yes, I could record an audio track along with PowerPoint. I know professors who report great success doing just that. I have even heard students praise such lectures. But, prerecorded lectures are not interactive. Often they are soporific. I have produced and sold such an online lecture for marketing communications professionals, Taking Your Brand From Here to There: Crafting an Effective Brand Communications Strategy. This experience affirmed that I give my best lectures in front of my students.

It became clear that to build a successful online course, I would have to structure my class around case studies, not lectures. I developed two types of case studies. The first are a series of nine small cases for students to solve individually. These little cases—I call them briefs—focus on a single topic. Students have just one week to develop, present, and discuss these little cases. The second type of case study is more in-depth. These bigger cases—I assign four—are the showpiece of the course. They require students to solve real strategic and marketing plan issues. The virtual teams collaborate on these bigger case studies. Teams have two weeks to present and discuss these cases. Preparation takes longer; the teams develop their projects throughout the semester.

Students post their individual and team projects for class discussion on a message board on the course Web site. I delineate project due dates in the syllabus and elsewhere. At the end of each project, I write an overview of the assignment, recap the strengths and weaknesses of the solutions posed by students, and resolve issues that arose during the discussions. I also post grades. This is the primary way I insert my presence into the class.

My Students and Marketing

My students are working professionals. They typically have a degree in engineering or another technological discipline. Their employers encourage them to get advanced degrees and most pick up the tab for all or part of my students' tuition. These employers include top corporations like Verizon Communications, Pearson Prentice Hall Publishers, JPMorgan Chase, Pfizer, Inc., The Boeing Company, Honeywell, and Johnson & Johnson.

The anytime, anywhere benefit of an online course is very important to my students. Online education enables them to complete their degrees faster than if they attended traditional classes. My students' calendars restrict their freedom to attend a traditional classroom. Hectic and ever-changing schedules, the pressing demands of business travel, and the obligations of growing families make attending a fixed-scheduled class inconvenient, if not impossible.

None of my students has a marketing background. Surveys I conduct at the beginning of each semester show that they have a very limited view of marketing—marketing is merely "telling and selling." And, those that have had contact with marketers have distinctly negative views: Marketers are arrogant, marketers are pushy, marketers are ignorant of what other departments do, and marketers have a superficial understanding of the technologies upon which the firm's products or services are based.

I cannot vouch for how marketers practice their craft at the firms where my students have worked. I have seen far too many examples of inept marketing. What I can do—indeed, what I must do—is present a clear vision of what marketing is when done well. And, my virtual teams play a pivotal role in this task.

Marketing is nothing more or less than solving customers' problems effectively. It involves the crafting and management of value propositions that enable satisfying exchanges between the marketer and customers. Today's best marketers believe marketing is too important to be the sole responsibility of their department. And, this is why good teamwork is increasingly essential to marketing success. In today's increasingly competitive marketplace, businesses must focus their entire organization on delivering superior value to customers. In practice, this means they must build cross-functional teams. The marketing department cannot dictate objectives, strategies, and timetables. It is important to actively engage other departments and get their support. Marketers must not treat other departments as if they are merely "direct reports" whom they can boss around. Marketers must earn trust, and that requires teamwork. So, for any marketing course designed to give students realistic experiences wrestling with the problem of delivering customer value, team projects are essential. Through them, students must learn the art of debating ideas, generate a consensus, and then deliver cogent proposals within tight deadlines. To become successful team players, students need to learn how to lead and follow.

In my consulting practice, I have observed clients—multi-nationals and start-ups—increasingly rely on collaborative work performed by computer-mediated teams. As Robert Ubell, Dean of Stevens' School of Professional Education and the force behind Stevens' online program, says, "Virtual teams replicate the way industry, commerce, and research is practiced everyday worldwide." So virtual teams, then, are not only appropriate for presenting marketing subject in its proper context and meeting the needs of my time-starved students. Virtual teams also enable students to master the unique challenges of operating on such a team. Students need to hone their virtual team skills in the relatively risk-free environment of a university class.

How Students Respond to Virtual Teams

Students have strong—and conflicting—opinions of virtual teams. Most love and hate their team. Even students on a well-run team are frequently frustrated. At times they would gladly abandon their project or, at the very least, a teammate or two. Students who share their frustrations with me about getting teammates to pull their weight, remind me of the famous line "Hell is other people," from Jean-Paul Sartre's play, No Exit. There is an important lesson here. Teamwork is not easy. Teammates often have unspoken agendas, which may not coincide with the team's agenda. Getting a virtual team to work together can often seem as vexing as herding cats. Yet, we need not profess Sartre's pouting pessimism. You can develop enthusiastic teamwork in an online environment. The professor can give his or her teams a big boost by acting as mentor, psychologist, rabbi, and arbitrator. The following suggestions will make virtual teams less like the strident interpersonal transactions from a French existentialist's play and more like the immortal 1927 New York Yankees.

Tip 1: Get teams off to a strong start.
To get the teams off to a running start, the professor must set clear expectations. My syllabus, for instance, is far more detailed than those of my traditional classes. I also publish messages about my expectations in several places: in posted assignments, locations throughout the course Web site, periodic emails to the class, and my detailed reviews of each project.

I go to great lengths to know my students. In my orientation survey, I ask each: What do you do for a living? How much work experience do you have? What did you study as an undergraduate? What degree are you studying for now? What do you know about marketing and marketers? In the best of all worlds, this information would be gathered in a face-to-face meeting. Such meetings, however, are impossible. I am in New York City; many of my students are all around the globe: Maryland, Illinois, California, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Moscow. And, my students' tight schedules would make it difficult to have face-to-face meetings even for those who are in commuting distance to our Hoboken campus.

In addition to my survey, I place a ten-to-15 minute phone call to each student a week before class begins. My purpose is to greet students, tell them about myself, clarify what I expect, and hear them express what they hope to get from the course. These conversations are critical for establishing my presence with the class. They and the survey yield crucial information that helps me select teams.

I also have students introduce themselves to each other. My first individual assignment is in itself important for building strong teams. I ask students to write and post a personal marketing statement, sometimes called a "two-minute pitch" or "elevator pitch." I do this for two reasons. My students will need to prepare and perfect their pitches in the course of their careers. So, helping them market themselves is a good way to introduce them to marketing. And, more important from a team perspective, students need to know who their teammates are and who their competition is.

One semester, I discovered how not completing the two-minute pitch assignment could undermine a team's espirit d'corp. A student joined the class at the end of the first week. I waived the two-minute pitch assignment for this especially accomplished student. But, one of his teammates became infuriated. Weeks into the class, nasty comments crept into postings: "Who is this guy not to share his pitch with the class?" wrote one student, "If I am going to stand naked in front of everyone, so should he." His increasingly malicious comments spilled over into general class discussions and started to undermine his team. Such nastiness and other unprofessional conduct must be nipped in the bud. (I will discuss how to do this in Tips 3 and 4 below). But, the lesson is clear: Students demand reciprocity. If they are asked to divulge personal information, everyone must do so. If, some are allowed to hold back, there may be serious consequences.

Tip 2: Establish teams during the first week of class.
To give teams a running start on their first team project, which, in my course, is due on the fourth week of class, I announce team rosters at the start of the first week of class. My teams typically have three to five members. Because I assign four team projects, I aim for four students per team.

In no way is it acceptable for students to attempt to form their own teams. These teams are not like a pick-up team at the playground. In the business world, people usually do not get to select their teammates. And, I should add that students do not have the time, energy, or information to form teams. To move things along, the professor should select the teams by trying to balance the experience, skills, and backgrounds of the team members.

Tip 3: Contain the would-be Mussolini.
A good team player must act as both a leader and a follower. I do not want someone to dominate a team by the force of his or her personality. To preempt would-be dictators, I set up a system of rotating team captains. Four members on each team and four team projects, assures that everyone will rotate through leader and follower roles.

Team captains have important responsibilities. They set the agenda, distribute assignments, and enforce deadlines. They also make certain that the contributions of individual team members are consistent with the team's chosen objectives and strategies so that the final submission has a unified voice. If a team submits a project with disparate sections, each written in different styles, I know that the team lacks the essential cohesion of a successful team. The most important responsibility of the captain, therefore, is to make sure the team presents a unified solution to the problem. To achieve this, the captain must bring conflicting points of view to the fore and achieve consensus.

A good team captain, therefore, is a consensus builder, not a despot. He or she uses the powers of persuasive argument to harmonize the efforts and ideas of each member. But, when a team has an ineffectual captain, disorder reigns. In such cases, the team experience can quickly sour. Some students may cast themselves in the role of Mussolini. They force their views on everyone and try to stifle others. They seek this role even as the captain's role rotates to different players. When I get emails complaining that a student is trying to suppress the opinions of his or her teammates and force the team to accept only his or her ideas, I phone the self-proclaimed dictator. A few gentle reminders about team spirit generally work wonders. To my amazement, most students respond well to my correction. Who knew the power to grade students was so powerful?

Tip 4: Empower Shrinking Violets, Restrain Rambos.
Worse than the Mussolinis are Shrinking Violets and go-it-alone Rambos. I once had a student who was a Shrinking Violet during the first team project. Her teammates blasted this wallflower for contributing nothing. She disappeared entirely from the second team project. I called her to warn that her lack of participation in team projects would result in failing the course and asked if she wanted to drop the class. She assured me that she wanted to complete the course and that her performance would improve, which it did for a week. And, then she vanished. She reappeared 20 hours before the next project was due when she frantically emailed her teammates begging for something to do. Her teammates responded politely, saying, in essence, "Thanks, but no thanks." She then morphed into Rambo and privately emailed her own project to me two days late with a fusillade of angry words directed against her team. A quick glance at her submission led me to suspect she used her team's research, which was posted on the team's password-protected discussion board. I had been reading this message board. I knew she did not contribute to that work. So, I reminded her that I do not read late assignments, and, if I did, I might have to enforce the university's policy on academic integrity, which carries severe penalties for a student who "borrows" the work of others. The student accepted a failing grade for this assignment.

Setting up the proper team structure helps eliminate such incidents and the need for more powerful corrective action in the future. But, if the structure fails, the professor must hold feet to the fire. You must persuade, cajole, and empower Shrinking Violets to participate. You must teach Rambos to work with teammates. Ply them with carrots. If that fails, beat them with sticks.

Tip 5: Give students tools to communicate.
Students should have as many tools as possible to communicate with their teammates. When I announce the teams, I distribute everyone's email addresses and telephone numbers. I also establish team-specific synchronous chat rooms. These chat rooms automatically archive all conversations, so each team member has the text of these conversations. I also give each team an asynchronous message board. Most teams make extensive use of this message board to post drafts, suggest revisions, and reconcile opposing views.

Next, I offer suggestions on how to work together. Then I step aside and give the teams room to succeed or fail. Students are very inventive in finding ways to work together. Sometimes they use their employers' conferencing systems. Occasionally, my teams go to great lengths to meet in person. While this is rare, many have told me of their intense desire to meet their teammates face-to-face. I myself am thrilled whenever I meet a student in the flesh. So far, I have met just three.

Tip 6: Enlist students' help in holding their teammates accountable.
The last thing I want is for a student to ride on the coattails of his or her teammates. I have solved this problem in two ways. First, every team member grades the contribution of everyone else. This encourages students to participate actively because they know I take their teammates' evaluation of his or her contribution into account when I grade everyone.

I have seen teammates vigorously defend a teammate who did not fully participate. Sometimes a team urges me to give a missing teammate the same grade as the rest of the team because their missing member is valued and not AWOL. The excuses I receive go something like this: "Robert did not fully participate because his wife just gave birth prematurely," or "Maria did not fully participate because she suffered minor injuries in a car accident." Then they plead for me to be generous when grading Robert or Maria. It is easy to confirm stories about "missing" students with a phone call. And, when I do, I generally follow the team's suggestion. Such support for a teammate in need shows that the team has developed a strong espirit d'corp. You should always encourage that.

The second way I assure everyone's participation in the team project is to provide a separate grade for the discussions. Discussions are based in part on questions I pose to each team and questions students pose to other teams. How students respond to these questions as individuals is an excellent way to determine how deeply each student understands the assignment.

Tip 7: Encourage competitive spirit.
Make teams compete against each other. In my class, teams work on the same case. I am amazed at the variety of solutions competing teams offer. Once they post their solutions on the class' discussion board, a vibrant discussion ensues. I help get this discussion started by posting questions about each team project. Some of my questions are legitimate while others are deliberately tricky, the kind that someone's confused or hostile boss might ask. I use divergent views among teams as an opportunity to motivate my class to dig deeper into the subject. For example, in one assignment, some teams might argue that the solution is to raise prices while other might recommend cutting or holding prices. I will ask team members to comment on why their team's solution is better. This requires each student to delve into other presentations and makes the discussions vibrant. And, this sets up my project summation in which I elucidate key concepts and reconcile or refute different solutions.

Tip 8: Reward risk-takers.
Encourage students to think big and take risks. As I always tell students, "If you are going to make a mistake, make a big one." A big mistake in my class carries few penalties, especially if students can justify their ideas with sound arguments. Their mistakes do not lead to lower stock prices, the loss of millions of dollars, closed plants, and ruined careers. They do, however, open the class to new ideas and lively discussions. And, that is what makes a winning course.

Tip 9: Do not participate in team discussions unless asked.
It is very important for the professor to have a strong presence in an online class. But, I have found that if I participate actively in class discussions, students stop "talking." Do not let this happen. Give clear assignments. Then stand back and let students "talk." Let students and their teams make their own mistakes. But, when asked questions, respond promptly. Be generous with your time when students request help, seek clarification, or just want to bounce an idea off the professor. And, most important, provide a detailed summary of every project before the next project begins. In my class, discussions close the day before the next module starts. That is when I post my summary of the assignment and highlight the best and worst of the team presentations. I also post grades.

Tip 10: Consider real-time presentations.
Yes, I know that this violates the anytime, anywhere benefit of an asynchronous course. However, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." At Stevens, we use a Web-conferencing platform for real-time presentations. I hold one real-time session for each team project. With these sessions, classes can have a real conversation over the Internet using microphones while presenting from imported PowerPoint slides. During these sessions, each team presents its solution and responds to questions. Students love these sessions and so do I. They are as interactive and engaging as any traditional classroom discussion. Moreover, they help overcome the loneliness of distance education. Students get to feel the presence of the professor and classmates. While not all students attend, everyone can retrieve an archived version complete with audio and video.

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Let's face facts. Not every team hits a home run. In fact, some teams strike out looking at good pitches. We all learn a lot from our mistakes. Failure, after all, is a great learning experience. When my students submit a less-than-adequate team project, some may echo one of Sartre's more pessimistic and misanthropic sentiments: teams are "a useless passion." But, most consult with their teammates and try to improve team coordination, planning, and presentation so their next effort scores. This is, of course, the most important lesson any professor can offer.


  • There are no comments at this time.