5th Edition PMBOK Guide–Chapter 9: Colocation vs. Virtual Teams


The purpose of this post is to discuss what the latest edition of the PMBOK Guide has to say about colocation vs. virtual teams, given the increasing reliance on the latter for project work.

1.  Colocation

For the process 9.3 Develop Project Team, among the seven tools & techniques listed is #5, Colocation.   Now this would have been the status quo before, where the most active members working on the project team are in the same physical location.    The kickoff meeting at the beginning of the project is not explicitly mentioned, but it is an example of how colocation, even if at strategically important times during the project, can facilitate interaction between team members.

2.  Virtual teams

In contrast, the value of virtual teams is mainly for increased convenience, and reduced costs, but the value of face-to-face communication that comes from colocation is noticeably absent in virtual teams.   And that is one of the inherent problems that the PMBOK Guide unfortunately does NOT address.

3.  Problems with virtual teams

There was a Webinar done by the Economist Educational unit back in October 2012 with David Bolchover, international best-selling management author of such books as Pay Check: Are top earners really worth it? and The 90-Minute Manager: Lessons from the Sharp End of Management .

Here are the problems that David Bolchover explained that can be created by virtual teams, and some of the potential solutions he outlined in his conversation with Paul Lewis. These problems range from the practical ones of time zones (red), organizational behavior (blue), language and cultural differences (green), and psychological (purple).

Problem Explanation Possible solution
1. Time zones Some virtual team meetings are put on by the main branch in normal office hours, whereas the other branches need to participate outside of office hours. Recognition of sacrifices made by those participating outside of office hours, allowing teleconferencing from home for greater convenience.
2. Group think In many cultures, there is a pressure to conform to the group or to the manager’s opinion; differing opinions are not expressed. Have the younger or more junior people speak first or have separate meetings of the junior people who represent their findings to the senior staff.
3. Anarchy The opposite extreme from group think is when any member of a meeting is allowed to go off on a tangent. Have an agenda prepared and a timetable and stick to it; table discussions that are off topic or that go on too long.
4. Language fluency People make assumptions about language fluency, and don’t understand there are different levels of fluency, so they speak at normal speed with no regard to how well their message is heard. Include as much information before the meeting in writing; have those in target language deliberately slow down and use shorter sentences.
5. Humor In the early stages of team formation, humor can backfire if it is not understood or worse, misunderstood. Avoid making jokes and alleviate tension in a way that is less risky, particularly at meetings.
6. Lack of trust Teams meet only at virtual meetings, so trust is slow to develop. Have at least one face-to-face meeting at the beginning of team project; find some way of having team members access biographical information on other members so they are seen as human beings beyond the professional role they play.

4. Importance of communications management plan

All of these potential problems that a virtual team can create have solutions that can be put together in a communication management plan which sets the ground rules for meetings such as:

  • Establish levels of urgency for e-mails and assign max response time for each level
  • Establish who will take meeting minutes, what format they will be in, and who gets distributed a copy for informational purposes above and beyond participants
  • Establish at least ONE face-to-face meeting between members at the outset of project, and as often as time and budget permit it throughout project.
  • In virtual teams, problems tend to fester so conflicts can be more severe when they arise: have strategies on how to confront conflict.

5.  Conclusion

After having participated in many virtual teams, mainly between Japanese and Americans, I can attest to many of the problems that David Holchover discussed in discussion with Paul Davis from the Economist Education unit. But like any aspect of a project, communications can be managed and a good management plan will be structured according to the needs of the company and the particular project involved.

Today’s discussions gives people valuable background into the cultural dimensions of these communication problems, thereby giving them more insight into how to prevent them in such a plan. I thank the Economist Education unit and Paul Davis for putting on such an informative webinar, and of course I thank David Holchover for making such a positive case for a communications management plan to manage virtual international teams.

From the standpoint of PMI, if you are relying on virtual teams, then you probably should consider colocation at strategically important points in the project, particularly at the beginning of the project.    This should decrease the communication risks of virtual teams so that the organization can enjoy the benefits that they provide in today’s increasingly international business world.

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