The “Mutual Knowledge Problem” and Managing Virtual Teams

Managing a virtual team can be a difficult and stressful experience. Many of the things we expect from a team are hard to come by when played out in a virtual forum; collaboration immediately comes to mind as an example. It can be difficult to collaborate without face-to-face meetings, as email conversations have significantly less flow than a normal conversation, and online chats can leave out important communication cues such as facial expressions and body language. Another issue which can frequently arise is the gap between the actual work produced and the work which was expected. In a normal team environment, there are more opportunities to set expectations and communicate on an on-going basis. With a virtual team, often work is parceled out and given a deadline, but communication between the time when the work is given and received is limited.

In a study by Catherine Cramton of Organization Science, these issues are considered to be part of what she refers to as the “Mutual Knowledge Problem”. In the study, Cramton identifies factors (such as failure to retain contextual information and difficulty interpreting the meaning of silence) which define the communication issues in geographically distributed teams. The study suggests that issues in communication result in uneven mutual knowledge, which leads to poor collaboration and results from the team. As well, the dispersion of the team members naturally lends itself to different understandings of situations, contexts, and expectations.

Combating these issues is a two-fold process, as suggested by the Harvard Business Review blog. The key for managers is to stress two objectives: the creation of a solid, clearly defined structure, and the encouragement of social interaction of an informal nature throughout the time spent working. Setting clear guidelines, giving examples, and providing feedback at defined intervals can help to create the needed structure. Encouraging informal social behaviour is also important. Setting up informal, non-specific chat rooms, and encouraging employees to connect in other informal ways, can help to provide the social interaction that can increase a team’s cohesiveness and lead to better output.

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