Graduate Student Reseach Investigates Office Cultures in Virtual Teams

I grew up in a small town in northern Minnesota. I moved to Minneapolis after graduation and earned my undergraduate degree in psychology, social science and secondary education from Augsburg College. After graduation I entered the workforce. I spent 11 years in the financial sector; most of that time was spent working in international banking, so rather than getting a regular M.B.A., I went back to school to get my master’s degree in international management at the University of St. Thomas. Following a layoff from the last financial organization, I began consulting and worked for a number of consulting firms as a project manager, business analyst and facilitator. At the last couple of consulting firms, I became the practice lead, overseeing the project managers and business analysts’ consultants. After the Y2K effort, I became an independent consultant.

I am currently a management consultant, trainer and facilitator in the corporate world. I have over 25 years of business experience and specialize in working with teams, providing them with project management, strategic thinking and planning, leadership development, business analysis, facilitation, process improvement, change management and team development. Most of my work is within the United States, but I also have done some consulting in Kiev, Ukraine, and a number of training classes globally from Kiev to the exotic islands of Aruba, Curacao and St. Thomas. My clients range from small companies to large international corporations, representing a diverse range of industries. I am also a PMI (Project Management Institute) certified project management professional (PMP). I was the 2004 President for the Minnesota Chapter of the Project Management Institute and have been extremely active in promoting the profession of project management. I am also a certified business analyst (CBAP).

When my children started college, I decided to go back to school to earn my next degree. Ever since I was 12 years old, I had always wanted to get my doctorate degree. I had thought it would be in psychology; however, with all my work experience in corporate America, I decided that I would be better served working on a doctorate degree in organizational development. I received my Ed.D. degree in November 2011 from the University of St. Thomas.

Interest in my research topic came from three venues, my own personal work experience, an interest in organizational culture and my passion with learning and understanding how people learn. Most of my time as a consultant has been spent working with teams. I also have worked with a number of boards and professional network groups. When I started consulting, most of my time was spent working with "intact" teams or boards that were co-located. Now, most of the teams and boards I worked with either have members who are geographically dispersed or do some type of telecommuting. This shift in the way we work led me to focus my research on geographically dispersed teams.

Another spark of interest came to me when I worked as a consultant in various organizations. I noticed each organization had a particular way of working, making decisions, interpreting particular events and determining what was "appropriate" behavior. If I continued working with one client for some length of time, I would find myself adopting and integrating its culture into my own actions.

Although understanding the "rules" of the organization was always a challenge, it became more of a challenge when I worked with virtual teams. Each team member would often come to the table with different expectations and assumptions. We found it much harder to get work done because we spent most of the time explaining ourselves. I was not the only one with this challenge; I also observed other managers and leaders struggling to make their geographically dispersed team members more effective by ensuring that organizational knowledge, context and culture gets shared and understood within the team, between teams and throughout the organization.

It is my work with frustrated clients, my own personal experiences and an interest in learning that led me to wonder how organizational culture is learned by geographically dispersed team members; thus, the purpose of my research was to find out how organizational team members, who are geographically dispersed, learn the organization’s culture, what are the enabler or barriers to that learning, and how they adopt and integrate the organizational culture into their own work.

My research uncovered three key elements that impacted the learning, adoption and integration of organizational culture by geographically dispersed team members: connectors, context and connections. Connectors, such as enabling technology, structured work and socialization processes, and intentional dialog, provided the vehicle for dialog and learning to occur. Context provided the foundation for understanding of the implied meaning beneath the language and actions of others in the organization. Context included frames of reference, such as mental models, previous experiences and work competencies, as well as techniques used to search for contextual clues through observation and reading documentation. Connections included the relationships people have with their reporting managers, trusted colleagues and the organization itself, in addition to trust, which is needed to develop those relationships. Each element connects to the other two elements to create an environment for optimal learning of the organizational culture. Overall, the pattern of data indicated that the stronger the elements, the more likely the organizational culture will be learned, adopted and integrated. The weaker the elements, the less likely geographically dispersed team members will learn, adopt, or integrate the culture into their own work efforts.

In some ways my research confirmed what I already knew; however, I was surprised to find out just how dependent geographically dispersed team members were on their reporting manager for learning and understanding the culture. Without a good manager to focus on dialog and a shared understanding of the culture, the learning, adoption and integration of the organizational culture would not be made.

I believe the findings of my study will have huge implications for organizations, other organization development professionals and researchers, and my own practice. It is my hope that my research will bring organizations one step closer to understanding how organizational culture is learned, adopted and integrated by organizational members who are geographically dispersed.

As a result, I would anticipate that organizations may be able to increase the strength of their support systems that will enable the social interactions needed to learn and understand the organizational culture. By maximizing the success of geographically dispersed team members, organizations may potentially be able to increase their productivity, help team members develop a stronger identity with the organization, and increase knowledge transfer throughout the organization. Further benefits to the organization may include increased flexibility, increased employee satisfaction and retention, less physical office space cost, a smaller carbon footprint and the ability to be closer to the customers.

I also believe my research will have implications for organization development practitioners who want to put a program together for their organization to strengthen the organizational culture and support the co-creation of that understanding to all organizational members, including geographically dispersed team members. The results of my study also may be beneficial for managers who work with geographically dispersed team members and want to improve their ability to strengthen the understanding of the organizational culture, with its behavior norms and values, with their direct reports. Additionally, as a consultant, I came away with a lot of tips to help managers improve their communication with their geographically dispersed tem members and create opportunities to learn the organizational culture with their geographically dispersed team members.

From a research perspective, it is my hope that my study will open the doors to understanding how organizational culture is learned, adopted and integrated by geographically dispersed team members. I believe my study extends the limited research already out there by providing a detailed model of the key environmental factors needed to learn the organizational culture: context, connections and connectors. It also suggests that culture is learned through socialization and rich, intentional dialog. As a result, it may change how we need to think about culture in a virtual setting. Namely, that culture is not something transmitted; rather, it is co-created through dialog. I also believe my study provides new knowledge in which to situate future inquiry and research.

The most fascinating aspects of my research journey were twofold. First was the openness and trusting nature of the participants. These people had never met me and our only conversation was over the phone. Yet, they allowed me to enter their lives for a brief moment to get the information I needed to further understand how geographically dispersed team members learned, adopted and integrated the culture into their lives when most of their time was spent alone. Their candor about themselves and their experiences amazed me. Without their openness and willingness to share, my study would not be as robust in its findings.

I was also surprised at its impact on my professional and personal growth, as well as my development as a researcher. From a consulting perspective, I feel I can provide additional value to my clients as I work with teams. From a research perspective I found a new interest in research, and may continue on my own now that I have been baptized by fire, and my appetite has been whetted. In any event, my life will never be the same – it has been an invaluable experience.

Susan Heidorn was a student at the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling.

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.