Multinational companies increasingly rely upon the work of virtual teams to manage their global intellectual assets and encourage innovation. Spanning functional, geographical and corporate boundaries, virtual team members work together on various projects but are based in different locations nationwide or worldwide. Virtual teams allow companies to leverage their global expertise, take the pulse of diverse markets, promote broader participation in key strategic decision making, increase job flexibility, lower travel costs and pool the knowledge of experts (Majchrzak et al., 2004a). The current economic and socio-political climate has made frequent face-to-face meetings a thing of the past, and because displacing functional and regional experts from the centers of their expertise is often problematic, many executives seek technological solutions to help their virtual teams maintain and sustain essential links. E-mail and conference calls have, until recently, formed the backbone of communications support for virtual groups, but these rudimentary technologies have been found to encourage miscommunication and the loss of crucial contextual information. Can e-mail and audioconferencing adequately support virtual teams, or do they need new technologies that assure a richer communication flow between participants? Research attention has begun to focus on how technologies mediate communication among virtual team members and suggests what technological features might be best suited to different work and cognitive situations.
The Need for Context
Much of the earliest research on support for virtual teams has focused on the use of technologies such as e-mail and audiocon-ferencing, informed by a theory referred to as “media richness” (Daft and Lengel, 1986). Media richness theory argues that some technologies allow more cues to be shared than others; according to this theory, e-mail allows few cues to be shared and is thus very constraining, while audiocon-ferencing allows a few more cues (such as tone, pauses and recognition utterances) but constrains referential integrity (such as when the speaker points to what is being talked about for emphasis, prioritization and focus). In addition to the lack of cues, e-mail exchanges often lead to what has been referred to as information asymmetry, when members engage in a one-to-one e-mail exchange not distributed to the entire team or when someone is intentionally or unintentionally left out of the e-mail list. The use of e-mail also often leads to information overload, resulting in messages being deleted without being read.