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Case Study of Two Well-functioning Teams
by Leslie P. Fridley
|Also see Case Study of Two Poorly-functioning Teams by Thomasina Borkman|
I participated in a project to observe the dynamics in a virtual group and compare my findings to group dynamics theories that are based on research and observation of normal groups. Virtual groups are teams of individuals who work toward a common goal utilizing computer technology to communicate and achieve their goal. By definition, virtual groups do not hold face-to-face (f2f) meetings. Rather, their communication and interaction is conducted through electronic mail (e-mail) and the Internet. Normal groups are workgroups that meet f2f and communicate orally. This allows members to witness interaction, develop a visual picture of who their group members are, and see their reactions.
This project was conducted as part of the Sociology 305 class on Small Groups held at George Mason University during the Spring semester of 1997 and taught by Dr. Thomasina Borkman. I observed a group of graduate students from Brad Coxís Taming the Electronic Frontier course, Learning 572. I was assigned to this group as an observer, with the understanding that I would complete all tasks through the fifth week of Learning 572 along with the other group members. These tasks were designed to bring all students up to the same level of skill in computer technology by teaching them to utilize the Internet, download software, and develop a digital portfolio.
Learning 572 consists of the 5 weeks of Internet literacy described above, followed by the opportunity for students to work in a group to develop and market a digital product (DP). Grades in the course are based on points awarded for the individual completion of each of the tasks assigned, points awarded for development of the DP, and a private evaluation by each group member of all individualsí contributions to the group project.
Group members were assigned to the group by Brad based on a self-ranking of four skill areas: programming, computers, leadership, and people. The group was designed to have one or more members who rated themselves high in each area. The group was a task group in that they had specific tasks to complete in order to complete the course with a passing grade. The group was provided some instruction on the various vehicles for communication, and lectures were given on group dynamics during the semester. Group startup and interaction were left to the group members but certain deliverables were required to initiate the group forming process. Most tasks were to be completed individually; however, some tasks required group members to interact and develop group responses that had to be entered by each individual and be consistent as a group in order for any member to receive credit. This forced interaction and agreement among the members at a specific point in time. Also, the group was required to coordinate the development of a DP.
I was assigned to observe a group that initially had six members and two observers. The group was aware of my role as observer. Utilizing participant observation, I participated in the Learning 572 tasks through week 6; attended f2f meetings; participated in group e-mail, phone calls, and the electronic discussion tool; and read biographies and digital portfolios developed by each member. I maintained a log of all my interactions with the group members, and summarized my observations of the f2f meetings. I also conducted two self-report interviews and asked the members to complete a survey ranking their satisfaction with the group process. Utilizing questions from the interviews, I developed sociograms at two points during the observation period. I promised the members that confidentiality and anonymity would be maintained in all my observations. Therefore, I have assigned each member an alpha letter in place of his/her name, which are used in the sociograms later in this paper.
The two interviews I conducted included open-ended questions designed to obtain the membersí perceptions about the group process and individual performance within the group. These interviews help to identify if members have different perceptions about the group and whether problems are occurring for individuals but not surfacing to the group as a whole. In well-functioning groups, answers are generally consistent among members. The satisfaction survey was conducted to quantify the membersí feelings about 12 areas in the development of the DP. Areas covered included technical aspects of product development, member participation, the quality of the product, and interaction and influence with other group members.
The group members seemed comfortable with my observing and my questions. They opened up about issues, but also frequently noted that the issues that arose are common in group settings and were not problematic in this group. The Hawthorne Effect, in which members adjust their behavior because they know they are being observed, was not strongly in evidence. Members seemed comfortable that their behavior was appropriate for the situations that occurred.
The group initially consisted of six members and two observers. It was quickly realized that one member had dropped the course, so Brad was notified to remove the individual from the group roster. This is a well-functioning, interdependent, task-oriented group based on a functional need, i.e., they formed to complete a task. Members in this group share the same goal--to successfully complete the course, although members would describe success at different levels in terms of the grade soughht. Four of the five members are nearing completion of their graduate degree and are focused on that event. The fifth is just beginning his program and is willing to learn from the more experienced members. The second observer experienced personal conflicts with her observing schedule and, thus, participated on a limited basis. The main group consisted of five members and one observer.
Members worked individually with no interaction for 3 weeks until the Desert Crash simulation was assigned. This assignment required each group member to provide the same set of answers to the task or no one in the group would receive credit. This is the point at which the group initiated contact and began the forming stage of the Tuckmanís Five Stages of Group Dynamics. There was quick agreement on the answers. Due to travel schedules of some group members, they preferred to utilize a lazzie fare approach to group structure in that the only norms identified were the use of phone and e-mail to communicate. The group seemed willing to rely on the professionalism of each member to dictate his/her performance. The group consists of mature professionals who have quite a lot of experience working in groups. Other members who might have preferred more structure did not voice this desire. The group also agreed not to use the discussion tool provided by the Virtual School. Although not specifically stated, through the decision to drop the one nonresponsive member from the group, the members agreed to the norm that nonperforming members would not be retained in the group to the detriment of the others.
There was no communication between members after the Desert Crash task until another group project was required for the course. This was approximately 2 weeks later, so forming was not quickly accomplished. However, it was at this point, where initial development of the DP began, that the group moved into the performing or cohesion stage very quickly. All members met f2f and a very dynamic, supportive meeting took place. One member (A on the sociograms) provided an idea for the digital product that was quickly taken up by the group and expanded upon. Members volunteered for tasks they wanted to do and the group was off and running.
As noted, members in this group were all focused on completing the tasks successfully and achieving the desired goal. This influenced the groupís interaction in terms of conforming and majority influence. All members had a similar level of commitment to the product which influenced how readily they reached agreement. Since there were no repercussions to agreeing with another memberís opinion, members quickly agreed to an approach as long as it achieved the goal. There was little need exhibited for one specific personís approach.
Consistent with its lazzie fare approach to structure, this group was reluctant to designate a formal leader. Instead, leadership tasks rotated among the members based on their interests and skills. The member (E) who initiated first contact was seen as the first informal leader; however, subsequent meetings were initiated by other members. When work began on development of the DP, one member (D) took on leadership and organizational tasks and retained those roles through the rest of the semester. This individual had more time and interest to devote to the course and other members were grateful for her level of participation. Both she and the other members expressed disappointment that she needed to ìnagî people to complete their tasks on time, but all recognized the necessity of this function if the goals were to be met. All group members felt this informal leadership approach fit well with the personalities of the group members, although at least one member expressed a desire for more formality in terms of stated responsibilities and deadlines. Interestingly, the first and last members to take on the leadership tasks were both female, with the last holding that role for the longest time. Leader E exhibited referent power. Members identified with her and with each other due to their commonality, i.e., mature professionals. They respected and liked the leader and were willing to follow her instructions. The leader utilized an interpersonally oriented interaction style to accomplish the necessary tasks. She reminded group members of their assignments and due dates and emphasized their commitments to the group if members fell behind. She suggested approaches to completing the DP, as did other members. The group held open discussions prior to decisionmaking. Thus, all members felt they had input to the decisions.
During the development of the groupís norms, phone calls were identified as the preferred method of communication. Two group members (A and B) travel extensively for work and felt this was the best method to reach them. The discussion tool provided by the Virtual School was felt to be too public and was quickly discarded. E-mail messages and f2f meetings were supported; however, due to travel schedules, the group agreed to hold f2f meetings only when necessary.
Once the group began developing the DP, communication among the members was very frequent. Most communication was through group e-mail, with follow-up phone calls to discuss more specifics. The group messages were very task oriented, but phone calls and f2f meetings included the socioemotional comments that are important to group cohesion. The group held four meetings of the entire group and two meetings of a sub group established to develop the final presentation. Not all members attended the group meetings, but in general attendance was high. Two exceptions were member A and the second observer, who were also somewhat unresponsive in answering voice mail messages and e-mail.
Conflict was experienced within the group and over the tasks required for the Learning 572 course. In the case of internal conflict, the group quickly stepped forward to deal with the conflict directly. This may have been influenced by instructions in the lectures to actively address conflict and not let it languish, causing the group problems. However, all members were comfortable with decisions made to address the internal conflict.
The group initially experienced conflict at its first f2f meeting for the Desert Crash simulation. One member could not be reached by phone or e-mail. When the group met to complete the task, it was faced with the decision of whether to drop this member from its roster or suffer the consequence of not completing the task. The group suspected that this member might have dropped the course. They decided to give this person another 24 hours to respond to another phone message and, if she had not, they would notify Brad to drop her from the group. She did not respond and was subsequently dropped per the groupís agreement. Also during this exercise, member A, who did not attend the f2f meeting, had agreed to enter the agreed-upon answers by the deadline. As the deadline approached and A had not completed his task, messages were shared discussing whether to drop him from the group. A did meet the deadline and apologized for his lateness. The next point of conflict also revolved around member A. Member A suggested the idea for the DP and offered to provide the database available through his work contacts that was the backbone of the product. The conflict arose when member A failed to meet the agreed-upon deadline. After numerous phone and e-mail messages to him which he did not respond to, a f2f meeting was called. Prior to the meeting, a message was sent out to all members stating that if A did not show up with the database, the group would have to move on to a new DP without him, the implication being that he would be removed from the group. Member A did show up at the meeting, although late. He did not have the database with him but went to get it while the group waited over an hour. He provided the database and the group was able to continue. No mention was made of the threat to remove him from the group.
Since this conflict occurred, the group has continued to function as a cohesive unit, with the exception of member A. He has had little or no input to the product, although the opportunity has been provided. When interviewed, all members, including member A, said they were comfortable with the decision to drop A if he had not met his responsibility. Since he did meet his responsibility, they are content to let him remain in the group but will not rely on him for any additional group tasks. The group feels that the database and license A provided to the DP was so vital to the project that they consider it enough of a contribution. Member A has accumulated idiosyncrasy credit for his contribution to the DP so his nonconformist behavior, evidenced by his isolation from the group, is accepted. During the final interview, member A relayed that he knew early in the semester that he would have time conflicts with the group work so he consciously initiated a group project that relied on a product he provided, feeling this would be enough of a contribution to carry him through the project. He also felt he should receive idiosyncrasy credit.
The group also experienced a minor conflict with its second observer. This observer was unable to participate in all but one f2f meeting, responded infrequently to e-mail messages, and never initiated phone calls. At one point, she sent a message saying she was leaving the group, then a couple of weeks later sent another message requesting interviews of the group with no explanation for the change. About two-thirds of the way through the semester the group members decided to drop her from their communications due to her lack of participation. They did not notify the observer or Bard of their decision. When interviewed, all members said they were comfortable with this decision as they saw the observer as not fulfilling her role to interact with and get to know the group.
The final form of conflict experienced by the group was over the tasks required in the Learning 572 class. All group members felt the tasks assigned while the DP was under development were disruptive to the development of the DP. They felt these tasks took away from the product and that it would have been a better product if their time was not simultaneously required by the Digital Wagon tasks. They also felt frustration that additional tasks were added to the Digital Wagon after they had been notified that all tasks were assigned. This served to add an increased level of tension to the group, but also caused them to pull together in terms of a common antagonist.
As noted by Ernest Barmannís findings on the positive value of conflict, this group experienced frequent episodes of conflict, causing positive secondary tension. These episodes never lasted very long and caused the group to discuss and clarify their goals. However, additional conflict within this group would likely have pushed them over their tolerance threshold and caused performance problems.
A sociogram is a diagram of the relationships among group members. Each member is represented by a circle, and arrows indicate the direction of the relationship. Sociograms were developed for this team at two points during the semester.
The first sociogram was completed during week 7 after the first f2f meeting had been held. Group members had only met once, shared a few e-mail messages arranging the meeting, and conducted a few phone calls with member E. Two members were unable to attend the meeting. When asked by the observer which two members they most like to work with, each struggled for answers. Some members would only list one individual, and most named someone they had had the opportunity to see f2f. No observers were included in the sociogram. Member A was not available for this interview. The sociogram shows two isolates (members A and D), the two members who did not attend the first f2f meeting. Members B, C, and E make up a chain relationship. Member E is shown as the star in the sociogram with the most arrows pointing inward. This is due to the fact that at the time of this sociogram, all members had spoken to E since she had arranged the first meeting. This sociogram was conducted early in the groupís orientation process and shows that they had not gone far in achieving group cohesion.
A second sociogram was developed based on interviews conducted with all group members during week 13. At this point, the group was well into the performing stage of Tuckmanís five stages. Member A had provided his input (database) to the DP and the other members had used his input to develop the final product. This sociogram shows that A is still an isolate. The other members have formed a chain among themselves and are functioning cohesively. E still continues to be a star. However, D is no longer an isolate and has been brought into the group as the groupís informal leader and a second star.
During week 11, a survey was conducted of all group members to quantify their levels of satisfaction with the group process. They were asked to rank 12 elements on a scale of 0 to 5 with 0 being ìnot at all satisfiedî and 5 being ìextremely satisfied.î The rating scale and the 12 elements measured were:
The group showed a high satisfaction level, with all members scoring an average of 3, ìSatisfied,î or higher. All ratings fell between 2 and 5, with no ratings of 0 or 1. Categories that were rated ìVeryî or ìExtremelyî satisfied by individual members were: the climate within the workgroup and interaction between group members. Areas that were rated ìSomewhatî satisfied by individual members were: level of workload assigned to you in developing the group project, recognition by group members of your contribution, group membersí willingness to accept individual responsibility, your success at influencing others in the group, and the level of your personal contribution.
The survey reflects that an overall high level of satisfaction exists within the group but also recognizes the conflicts that have occurred and the limited amount of socioemotional interaction within the group in terms of feedback on each otherís work.
The initial purpose of this project was to observe the dynamics in a virtual group and compare my findings to group dynamics theories that are based on research and observation of normal groups. As stated earlier, by definition, virtual teams do not hold f2f meetings. Rather, their communication and interaction is conducted through e-mail and the Internet. Based on this definition, although they utilized virtual communication, the group I observed was not a true virtual group in that they held f2f meetings. I believe this f2f interaction rendered the group dynamics to be the same as a normal workgroup.
One behavior peculiar to virtual groups is that the lack of f2f meetings causes group members to become more open in their communication. The anonymity of the interaction is liberating, causing members to communicate more freely. They also have the advantage of delayed response, allowing them to consider the message they want to send. Some experts feel that for virtual groups to function effectively, they must exhibit all the desirable characteristics of self-managed work teams with the added challenge of physical separation.
The group I observed utilized virtual tools to enhance their communications. However, each member felt that reliance on virtual communication without f2f interaction would be detrimental to the group process. They all valued the information that could only be obtained from f2f interaction and phone calls, such as body language, voice intonation, and expressions. Also, the socioemotional comments shared virtually were felt to be less effective.
As video conferencing technology improves, people will likely become more comfortable with membership in virtual workgroups. However, members will have to be trained to work in this forum. And it still may be vital to hold an initial f2f meeting to charter the groupís purpose, business objectives, roles, responsibilities, and operating groundrules.