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The Learning Conference 2003

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Knowledge Creation in Virtual Teams

I. Baralou, Christina Veliskaki.

A major purpose of today’s firms is to secure competitive advantage, through the creation of new knowledge. The research on knowledge creation process, conducted so far, has provided an understanding of how knowledge is created in firms, where humans communicate and collaborate, sharing the same time and space. However, the widespread use of Information Communication and Technologies (ICT) has changed the pattern of work, which has become geographically dispersed and asynchronous, as it is not necessarily conducted in the same physical space or at the same time. As this transformation of work has just started, limited research has been conducted on knowledge creation in dispersed (virtual) teams in one organization or across organizations, that don’t share the same physical environment, but collaborate and communicate using mainly ICT. The paper contributes to a better understanding of the process of knowledge creation in virtual teams, as well as the significant features of mediated, as opposed to direct, interaction. It does so, by drawing upon the literature of knowledge creation and mediated interaction, and by testing the theoretical outline in the (DI&P) software centre of Siemens Hellas, using an ethnographic research.

Research Background
From September 2000 until June 2001, workplace observation, participant observation, as well as, open structured interviews took place in the DI&P (Development Innovation and Projects) Software Centre of Siemens Hellas. In particular, the first four months, we were playing the role of the observer, trying to understand the way of life and work in the Centre. Simultaneously, we conducted open-structured interviews with employees from all the departments, namely the Mobile networks, the Wireline Networks and the Intelligent Networks.
After getting a general idea of the Centre, we focused on the Wireline Networks department consisting of 90 employees. We conducted almost 80 detailed open-structured interviews. The wireline networks consist of 4 main groups: the Common Development Groups, the Country Projects Development Groups, the System Test Groups and the Surpass Development Groups. Since we wanted to follow an ethnographic research design, or in other words to be participant observers, we focused on a specific function of the Common Development Groups. The latter is divided in two basic functions, the ISUP and the ISDN. For convenient reasons, we chose the first one occupying 10 people. This team is responsible for providing the basic platform of the code that is updated annually. However, in order for this to be produced, they have to be in touch via e-mail and telephones with their colleagues in Germany. In simple words, this particular team situated in a physical environment, is part of a larger team working in a virtual environment. Hence, during February we became participant observers of this group. Essentially, we followed the training program that a newcomer follows, and joined the way of life of the team, by participating in day-to-day conversations, problems, coffee breaks etc.

Literature Review
In parallel with our empirical research, we review the literature on knowledge creation and virtual teams. In the paper we provide an overview of the literature on knowledge, considering the basic schools of thought, namely cognitivism, connectionism, constructionism, as well as the literature, coming from the fields of evolutionary psychology. After reviewing the literature, we conclude that studies on knowledge creation have focused on physical teams that communicate and collaborate in the context of shared time and space. We identify a gap in the literature, as increased evidence reveals a new context of collaboration and communication, that of virtual teams. Thompson (1995) suggests that this new context involves a reorganization of the ways in which individuals relate to one another and to themselves. We aim to contribute in filling the gap, by applying the current literature to a company that operates both in physical and virtual context, namely the DP&I Software center of Siemens Hellas.
Organizations are beginning to rely increasingly on ‘virtual teams’, which are groups of geographically dispersed individuals, who are assembled via IT to accomplish an organizational task. Lipnack and Stamps (1997) describe the common characteristics of virtual teams as follows:
· people that are members of such teams.
· the purpose, which constitutes the raison d’etre for the team
· links such as channels, interactions, and relationships through which people communicate.
The development and increasing importance of virtual teams comes from their numerous benefits for organizations, namely improved productivity, flexibility, responsiveness, lower costs, improved resource utilization, increased speed and agility, limits of time, space, and culture being transcended, teams’ rapid form, reorganization, and dissolution within the needs of a global marketplace.
Kasper-Fuehrer and Ashkanasy (2001) emphasize three characteristics of all types of virtual teams, namely the central role of ICT, the cooperative character of these teams and their temporary nature. According to Duarte and Snyder (1999) what virtual and physical teams have in common is that team members must communicate and collaborate to get work done and produce a product. Duarte and Snyder (1999) suggest that the difference is that virtual teams, unlike physical ones, may accomplish this task by working across distance, time, and organizational boundaries. We claim and support with empirical evidence that the social processes that members of virtual teams are engaged in, differ from the social processes that members of physical teams are engaged in, in the knowledge creation process. The significant characteristic that differentiates virtual teams from any other teams, is the central role of mediated interaction, as the primary means of communicating and collaborating, which replaces face-to-face traditional interaction. We are interested to understand the process that individuals are involved in, when receiving and understanding media messages, in order to create knowledge.
In order to do that, we set off the basic characteristics of mediated interaction. Thompson (1995) suggests that mediated interaction among members of a virtual team creates new kinds of social relationships. For example, a range of symbolic cues linked to physical co-presence is narrowed (gestures, facial expressions, etc.), while symbolic cues linked to writing are accentuated. The author also emphasizes that the process of self-formation, based on the constant creation of knowledge, becomes increasingly dependent on access to mediated interaction. Essentially, we are experiencing events through the media, events that take place in a context, which is different from the context in which we are experiencing them.
Another characteristic of mediated interaction, according to Lipnack and Stamps (1997), is the lowering of trust. Hosmer (1995:399) defines trust as the "expectation by one person, group, or firm of ethical behaviour on the part of the other person, group, or firm in a joint endeavour or economic exchange". Ardichvili et al. (2002) claim that high levels of trust are related to virtual teams’ success. Our findings suggest that trust needs touch, which makes the face-to-face meetings very important. In the Software Centre of Siemens Hellas, we observed that employees, in case of a problem, preferred to have face-to face interaction, rather than send e-mail. They turned to their colleagues in Germany, only in a case of a real emergency. In relevant questions many employees replied:
“I prefer to ask my colleagues… I feel more comfortable with them…”
“It is more direct to ask a person that sits right next to you… you feel more secure… and it is easier”
“apart from colleagues we are friend as well… wouldn’t you prefer to ask a friend about something rather than a stranger?”
“Sometimes you send an e-mail…and you want an answer at the same time! …and you have to wait! And this really annoys me…”
Following Panteli and Sockalingam’s (2002) claim that trust is a key requirement and enabler for knowledge creation and sharing between the members of a virtual team, we consider trust to be a critical characteristic, a basic ingredient of knowledge creation. The paper shows how the members of Siemens develop trust, when they are working face-to-face and how they exhibit trust, through mediated communication in different stages of their cooperation (early, developing and late). We are claiming that lack of history of working physically together, hinders trust. Workers in Siemens prefer to learn from someone they know already or have worked with already. Our research findings suggest that trust needs to be built more urgently in virtual teams, as their nature is more temporary.
Mediated interaction can soften or at times emphasize cultural issues, since culture is a boundary condition for interpersonal communication. Differences in language and culture are more commonly found in global virtual teams, where members often come from different countries. We are suggesting that knowledge creation process is affected by cultural differences. Common answers we received, related to cultural issues: “I prefer to solve my problem, drinking coffee and speaking in my language…”. However, we have also found that mediated interaction can smooth cultural and language differences, at certain occasions. Members of Siemens in Greece prefer written communication, while communicating with colleagues in Germany, as it enables a better understanding of each other, in comparison to a conference call. Another advantage is the avoidance of listening to information and processing at the same time, as listening and processing of information are mutually exclusive, because listening to discussion blocks processing of new information, and information processing blocks the receipt of new information from discussion. In this way communication becomes more structured and enables the flow of information, and the creation of knowledge.
To summarize, we believe that the importance of our research lies in its contribution to a better understanding of knowledge creation in a context not researched extensively so far. Bearing in mind that knowledge is connected to the conditions in which is created, the paper exhibits the differences between knowledge creation process, within physical teams and virtual teams. We consider the team of Siemens Hellas appropriate, as it operates in a physical and at the same time in virtual environment. The empirical evidence suggests that knowledge creation takes different characteristics, through mediated interaction in comparison to day-to-day physical contact. However, trust is present in both types of interaction, as it is a prerequisite for knowledge creation. We suggest that cultural differences can enable and hinder knowledge creation, through mediated interaction. We would like to emphasize that our intention is not to show that knowledge creation is ‘better’ or ‘easier’ in any of the two types of physical or mediated interaction. We aim specifically to describe knowledge creation as it is affected by the particular characteristics of mediated interaction.


I. Baralou  (United Kingdom)
Doctoral Researcher
Graduate Business School
University of Strathclyde

Education: B.Sc. Hons. In Computer Science (Athens University of Economics and Business, Greece), M.Sc. in Business Information Technology Systems (Strathclyde University, UK)

Evangelia is a researcher at Strathclyde University. Her PhD involves Knowledge Creation in Virtual Teams. Her research involves fields such as Organizational Knowledge and Learning, Organization Theory and Knowledge Management. Her research interest is to understand the nature of “organizational knowledge” and how it is created, especially in contexts that have not been researched extensively at an empirical level so far, i.e. virtual teams.

Evangelia teaches IT applications to undergraduates of different disciplines and also works as a teaching assistant in the millennium project of Strathclyde University named “Integrative Core”, which aim is to integrate the knowledge and experience of undergraduates students gained in their principal subjects.

Christina Veliskaki  (Greece)

Athens Laboratory of Business Administration

  • Virtual
  • Knowledge
  • Creation
  • Mediated
  • Interaction

(Virtual Presentation, English)