Developing and Leading Effective Global Teams

Today’s teams often work across time zones, performing at high levels and adapting to escalating demands. Competency management, personalized learning and virtual environments can help global teams make an impact.

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”

– Henry Ford

It is no secret that organizations across industries rely heavily on project teams, product development teams or cohesive supply- chain partnerships to compete in their respective markets. Indeed, the ability of teams to perform at high levels and adapt quickly to escalating demands largely determines shareholder returns. As children, most of us were conditioned to think of teams as primarily working together toward a shared goal in the same physical setting—a field, court, stage, pool, track, etc. As adults working at organizations with direct or indirect operations in nations around the world, many of us have learned that being on a team does not always entail teammates sharing the same location—or the same time zone, primary language or even employer, for that matter.

The term “globalization” is no longer limited to the multinational distribution strategies of very large enterprises. It is now at the core of operations for vast numbers of organizations large and small. While globalized workforces offer corporations and society many benefits—greater flow of capital, higher productivity, integration of diverse perspectives and improved living standards, to name a few—they are also fraught with many challenges. Companies that choose to go global are tasked with adapting geographically dispersed operations to each local environment while maintaining the corporate culture throughout the organization.

For chief learning officers who work in a corporate culture that rewards teamwork, finding success means doing everything in their power to enable team performance. For organizations that must foster performance and teamwork across time zones, three specific challenges must be addressed, and CLOs can help their organizations overcome these impediments to performance.

Putting the Right People In Place: Competency Management

“I’m not looking for the best players. I’m looking for the right ones…to play within a system.”

– Coach Herb Brooks on selecting players for the 1980 U.S. Olympic “Miracle” Hockey Team

Conventional wisdom tells us that teams should be as small as possible, within reason. After all, a national retailer certainly would not like the idea of one person handling the development and implementation of a point-of-sale system. However, using the term “small” as a descriptor for a team has significant positive connotations. For members of a team, small implies less complication when dividing responsibilities and less time waiting on others to complete tasks. For CFOs, analyzing the profitability of customer projects, small implies efficiency, which leads to repeat business.

When staffing a team, finding the fewest number of people with the greatest number of complementary skill sets possible can drive greater efficiency. Team members are more likely to respect one another’s role if each has strengths and skills that others lack. Enter the growing organizational development practice areas of competency management and personalized learning. When resourcing a team, job-role competencies describe what must be done to help the team members get specific portions of the job done. As global teams proliferate as a means of operational execution, there will be a growing need for team leaders to quickly identify available people with the skills, competencies and certificates necessary to accomplish tasks and meet organizational goals.

To witness this happening firsthand, look no further than an entity whose very name embodies globalization: The World Bank Group. Its mission is to fight poverty and improve the living standards of people in the developing world. It provides loans, policy advice, technical assistance and educational services to low- and middle-income countries to reduce poverty. Some 10,000 development professionals from nearly every country in the world work at its Washington, D.C., headquarters and 109 local offices. The World Bank is currently involved in more than 1,800 projects in virtually every sector and developing country.

“One critical success factor of global teams is the management of the knowledge and skills of the teams,” said Phyllis Pomerantz, chief learning officer at the World Bank Group, “At the World Bank, the success and effectiveness of our operational teams depends greatly on the bank’s ability to translate global knowledge to local conditions.”

To strengthen the strategic focus of the World Bank’s learning efforts, its strategic learning centers and regions use professional and technical learning road maps to articulate how learning activities support business objectives. The learning road maps identify the knowledge and skill requirements at the unit, team and individual levels.

Ensuring Ongoing Performance: Personalized Learning

“Anything you need, you’ve got it.”

– Sung by Roy Orbison

At the World Bank, competency gaps feed into learning plans. When the scope of a particular project changes or a member of a project team departs, the existing members may not be sufficiently equipped to complete it. Where unit or team knowledge or skill gaps exist, managers and team leaders can help staff members find learning activities to close the gaps or search for staff with necessary skills and knowledge to fill the gaps. The World Bank recently implemented a learning technology platform to facilitate these processes.

“Our learning management system enables us to link learning activities to annual learning plans and learning road maps based on the bank’s business and strategic objectives. This is a critical building block to continuously leverage the bank’s effectiveness in the fight against poverty,” Pomerantz said.

The less time a person spends simply searching for the knowledge they need, the more time they can spend using it to do their job well.

Internet juggernauts like Amazon, Google and Yahoo have created the expectation that Web technologies should be capable of adapting to our own preferences. This is becoming truer for learning, which is one of the most subjective and personal aspects of our lives.

As senior learning professionals continue to play a role in knowledge and performance management, they are increasingly investing in Web-based technologies that allow them to rapidly create and deliver learning content to the point of need. As a result, personalized learning paths will become more common. In some cases, these paths may simply entail pointing someone to a chapter in a digital book that describes the culture of a teammate’s region or a module of an e-learning course that provides tips on how to lead remote teams. In other cases, it may involve assessing the employee’s performance in a multi-path simulated environment before he or she is approved to perform new tasks on the job.

Collaborating Across Borders: Virtual Environments

“I not only use all of the brains I have, but all I can borrow.”

– Former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson

Managing team members’ interactions and perceptions of one another is more important than managing the members themselves. People who work in distributed groups lack traditional ways of getting acquainted. Therefore, they need ways to gain information about one another and the tasks at hand. Managing interactions between people in the same room is difficult in and of itself. Attempting to optimize the exchanges between people scattered all over the globe is a monumental challenge. In recent years, organizations have turned to collaborative technologies to foster team environments. They have done this by using a blended assortment of communication and collaboration tools, such as portals, team workspaces, shared calendaring, instant messaging applications, Web conferencing, e-mail, telephones and content management systems.

Learning professionals at many organizations have been in the thick of putting one of these critical applications in place—Web conferencing. The learning and development department has been the beachhead for Web conferencing by way of live virtual classrooms. A survey conducted by IDC last year showed that formal education is the most common use of Web conferencing in corporations.

Some virtual classroom events, such as those aimed at users of a new ERP system or sales and support people who need to learn about a new product, touch large portions of an enterprise. Over the past two years, many virtual classroom experiences have moved far beyond slideshows to become more robust by including features such as polling, breakout sessions and file sharing. By pioneering these rich virtual classes, many training professionals have put themselves in a position to apply Web conferencing to new applications, including team meetings.

These collaborative environments create a sense of place for dispersed team members and enable them to teach and learn from one another. Collaborative tools provide virtual teams with much of the enabling structure and supportive context they need to work toward shared objectives. When married to portal and content management technologies, they become part of a system that integrates:

  • Interaction within the team or with coaches who can help teams get through rough spots. This has worked wonders for teams at Ford who take advantage of colleagues with experience and a fresh perspective.
  • Informal learning assets, such as documentation produced by other teams. This is a significant means of diffusing best practices throughout an organization.
  • Formal learning assets, such as e-learning objects and classroom schedules.

Making an Impact

Distributed global work groups are becoming more common every day. By helping link teams that are facing major obstacles to connection and communication with one another, organizational development professionals are proving they have the power to:

  • Help identify and develop members of global teams.
  • Provide the context to enable these teams to perform and work together over time.
  • Efficiently improve behavior and skill sets of individual members of global teams.

Michael Brennan and Paul Braswell are enterprise consultants for WBT Systems. In this role, they work with customers to analyze business requirements and manage learning technology rollouts as well as research firsthand the trends shaping corporate learning and performance. They can be reached at

March 2005 Table of Contents