Feature: Virtual teams, real benefits

For years, lottery equipment manufacturer Gtech Corp. allowed its business units free reign in choosing technologies, which led the IT department on a merry-go-round of support for multiple platforms. The company’s move to organize its IT department in virtual teams has paid off in eased manageability and savings of US$3 million per year.

A virtual team is a group of dispersed workers with distinct skills who focus on a specific goal on a temporary or ongoing basis. Transitioning to virtual teams forced Gtech to standardize platforms, build an IT skills inventory database and develop an evaluation process for prioritizing and assigning projects. As a result, Gtech went from buying six models each from 14 PC manufacturers to just five models from one manufacturer. The volume purchasing deal resulted in a 35 per cent price reduction per desktop.

Another payoff is that IT more carefully chooses which projects to support. Senior network executives and business executives review technology requests based on how well the projects meet business objectives.

“Previously, having $100,000 in the accounting department budget for a new system was enough to initiate the project. But the project may not have been the most important,” says Thomas Caffrey, vice-president of enterprise systems for Gtech in East Greenwich, R.I.

Like Gtech, Bechtel Group Inc. and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP have found that forming virtual teams saves money, extends resources and boosts productivity. A virtual team goes beyond the boundaries of a traditional, roles-based department to tap members with varied skills and expertise. Remote access and groupware technologies let IT collaborate regardless of location and perform routine maintenance, troubleshoot network problems and roll out new projects.

Construction engineering giant Bechtel decreased its server management costs with a virtual team that functions as a distributed resource for server management. System administrators assigned to several offices now have access rights to the entire server infrastructure to collectively support 28,000 users on a global network.

And PricewaterhouseCoopers’ move to virtual teams extended its IT resources, letting staff perform virtually any router or switch maintenance task remotely. Staffers, located in 150 countries, use standardized platforms to remotely enable backups, perform operating system upgrades and set up phone extensions for employees.

Ivens Mendonca, director of integration services for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Atlanta, says virtual teams can react quickly in a crisis. With the Code Red virus, IT pulled an international team together to share techniques for accessing switches and blocking traffic from affected servers, buying time for staff to commute in for the clean up.

“IT isn’t limited to walking down the hall to see who’s physically on-site, but can look within the global organization to locate an IT staff in another country with the best skills for the task at hand,” he says. “There’s no reason to re-create the wheel.”

Gtech, too, now assigns projects to those who have the required expertise. “When teams deploy, we know we have the right people for the right job. Prior jobs were tossed back and forth … teams evolved as the project got stuck,” Caffrey says.

To make virtual teams work, you need to invest in relationship building and collaborative technologies. At PricewaterhouseCoopers, Mendonca manages employees by objectives.

“Trust is a basic premise of work relationships. If you manage by watching people work, then virtual teaming isn’t a good choice,” he says. “Someone can be busy, even though you don’t see him sweat. Just look at the outcome of the work.”

Virtual teams also require the right tools to share information. “We use tools like e-mail, Outlook scheduling, Documentum for content management and videoconferencing to keep projects going,” says Darrell Delahoussaye, manager of collaborative systems for Bechtel in Houston. The firm’s IT department handles 1,100 projects a year, so project management software is another necessity.

But while technology enables communication, there’s still a need to meet face-to-face for important meetings. “Having a four- to five-hour discussion is hard to do by phone, especially where you need to read body language,” Mendonca notes.

When you’re deploying a team off-site, executives suggest sending staff a few days in advance so they can bond and address cultural barriers.

Working in virtual teams not only extends IT resources, but it adds to the quality of life. Caffrey says that at Gtech, turnover in IT is down to the single digits from a previous 20 per cent rate.

At PricewaterhouseCoopers, Mendonca says virtual teaming lets the IT staff live where they want and work from home on Fridays. “The real value in virtual teaming is people filling the role where the need is best served,” he says.