Kevan Hall, CEO, Global Integration discusses one of the key challenges of matrix working and operating virtual teams: creating community

Community building takes hard work

Having a sense of community and trust is a key success factor in today’s complex companies and teams. Community reduces barriers to cooperation. Community speeds up the way people work together. And community can make people less averse to change.

Community was once a by-product of location. Given the choice people naturally tend to form a community with people who are physically close to them and socially similar. Today’s work communities include colleagues from other cultures and other locations and we are required to build virtual communities and demand trust through technologies like email, just because they work for the same company.

In the multi-site businesses common today, let’s not gloss it over: it is expensive and difficult to build community. Managers often feel that a sense of identity or team spirit is missing. Building a deep and enduring sense of community and trust does not happen quickly. It takes time and requires a lot of face to face contact. It is surprising that it works at all.

People are often pulled in different directions by competing priorities, multiple reporting lines and rapid change. Organisations often respond to this by introducing a matrix type organization structure. Whilst different reporting lines to geography, product group, functions and so on can create a structure of excellence, the resulting divided loyalties can present a problem.

We asked thousands who attend our Virtual Teams training programs to identify what factors pull people towards the local context and what pulls their loyalty towards the central or corporate context? Factors such as personal relationships, culture and language, history, career and reporting lines have a powerful influence over loyalty and identity.

When we map these keys for organisations, we find overwhelmingly found three distinct groups with different patterns.

–        Global Groups: the senior group at the top of the organisation whose loyalties are usually to the centre. This group is usually small enough and meets often enough to form a real community.

–        The Locally Loyal – the people who have purely local jobs and loyalties and can generally be insulated from some of the complexity further up the organisation

–        The Matrixed Middle – those who sit between these two group and have to balance the needs of the global and local on a daily basis.

This ‘matrixed middle’ needs the skills, knowledge and confidence to manage this dilemma.

The principle of building a sense of community at the right level is simple – align the keys to community to your objectives. The more you need to attract loyalty to your complex team (in preference to al the other demands on people’s time and attention) the more you will need to build relationships, social contacts and a shared culture.

The more you need loyalty the more you want to take control of line management processes, reward and career development, but before you decide how much (or whether) to invest in community, there are some key considerations:

–        The purpose of the community

–        The business goals it is expected help achieve

–        Resources required and available

In extreme situations, there may be very few community ‘keys’ available, but even a small number can be enough to complete the project in hand.

Trust or Control?

Where trust and community don’t exist, managers and organisations tend to increase central control. If you are in a ‘high control’ environment, you need a systematic process for building local capability and competence so that managers can delegate, empower and build more confidence in their people. Centralised decisions making is too slow and expensive for fast moving complex companies.

For managers, escalation is a great trigger to identify where competence is lacking. When people escalate to the hierarchy, it means that you have not given awarded the skills, knowledge or confidence to deal with the problem for themselves. The manager’s role then is to help fix the problem and make sure we equip people to solve the issue themselves next time – doing this systematically allows us to continuously build real capability and confidence.

 

About the author:

Kevan Hall Kevan Hall is a CEO, author, speaker and trainer in matrix management, virtual teams and global working. He is the author of "Speed Lead - faster, simpler ways to manage people, projects and teams in complex companies, "Making the Matrix work - how matrix managers engage people and cut through complexity", and the "Life in a Matrix" podcasts, videos, cartoons and blog. He is CEO and founder of Global Integration. Company profile: .

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