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May 09, 2007



Ha! Just realized that Constance S. and David Simkins' OGDC talk is very relevant to this conversation! Stay tuned.


I work in a fairly large enterprise full of virtual teams (I participated in a virtual team meeting just today). FWIW, my experience suggests that virtual teams work best when they're composed of people who by nature find this kind of structure congenial.

A book I've found enlightening on this subject is Charles Handy's Understanding Organizations. The virtual team would seem to be a natural fit for someone who's comfortable with what Handy classified as the Task Culture. As Handy described this culture (which he suggested could be represented as a "net"):

This culture is extremely adaptable. Groups, project teams, or task forces are formed for a specific purpose and can be reformed, abandoned, or continued. The net organization works quickly since each group ideally contains within it all the decision-making powers required. Individuals find in this culture a high degree of control over their work, judgement by results, easy working relationships within the group with mutual respect based on capacity rather than age or status.

C. Handy, Understanding Organizations 4th ed., p. 188

This gets slightly more interesting when compared to the other three cultures Handy perceived:

  • Power Culture (net): charismatic individuals exerting control through rings of influence

  • Role Culture (Greek temple): rule-managed hierarchies in stable environments

  • Person Culture (cluster): groups forming spontaneously to satisfy needs for individual expression
  • A virtual organization could be formed around any of these organizational styles. From what I've seen, however (at least in groups up to only around 40 people), they usually come into being to achieve some particular task, rather than being primarily a power source, a stable hierarchy, or followers of an individual.

    Bigger virtual organizations might be a different story. It's certainly possible to start out as a Task Culture if that makes sense for the kind of work being done (e.g., a creative product development group), but I'd be surprised if organizations of 100 or more people remained virtual for very long. With increasing size comes an increasing tendency to turn into a more manageable Role Culture organization, where insuring that necessary work is being done properly means personally overseeing individuals to make sure they're following the standard processes.

    WRT MMOs, I'd expect them to be dominated by Person groups (roleplayers following a particularly charismatic RPer) and Power groups that turn (usually with a lot of drama) into Role groups (guilds that become large guilds). Task-based groups? Not so much -- with the notable exception of ATITD -- since most MMOs simply aren't designed to offer large-scale creative activities that can be decomposed into tasks appropriate for small groups of players, which is the specialty of the Task Culture structure.

    MMOs do however offer plenty of opportunities to exercise power (PvP), fill a role (tank/nuker/healer), or exercise individual expression (RPing).

    There are other models of the organization that might help explain behaviors of groups in MMOs. I happen to think Handy's is especially interesting, but that's just me. :-)



    Moving your corporation online, means that it has to be consistent with your bricks-and-mortar Brand and with your Personal Brand. Social networks are tools for building a community around your organization.



    That does seem exactly what we see in World of Warcraft. The difficulty of the transition to Role Culture is probably what keeps most guilds very small.


    I've been getting fairly heavily involved in Acclaim's "TopSecret" project recently, and as such, any discussion about virtual organisation is rather interesting for me right now. There's a fair bit of conversation going on about the process and its shortcomings. I wonder if any other terranovians had had a look at "TopSecret" recently and what their thoughts were on the subject? Especially as the subject has now come up for discussion : )

    My personal feeling is that the team's potential is still a long way from being fully exploited, mainly due to the nature of the process and the tools available. In particular, there has been a hestitance from the director and his immediate team to impose any of these cultures, rather I believe they are hoping that the optimal solution will simple emerge from the forum soup. Again, what do people think of emergent cultures? Is it better to encourage a particular form of group behaviour or to leave the group free to organise itself (and therefor also allow it to fail to do so)?


    Oh, some links for those that are interested in TopSecret:

    'Official' website:


    Forum index:

    Sign up page:


    In 2001 we interviewed members of virtual teams in twelve multinational organizations. We came up with a "pyramid of virtual team success" which included (from bottom to top): technology (especially support for informal and opportunistic interactions), setting objectives, competences (such as being results oriented), leadership (coaching and sensitivity), communication and establishing a team culture. I agree with you that virtual teams can be very efficient, as long as they take these aspects into consideration. However, the biggest problem we came across in these work settings is a lack of trust because of limited room for social aspects. The chit chat you mention as being absent in a virtual team serves the purpose of being the grease that makes a team work. I am interested in finding out if teams in an MMO setting are better able to overcome these problems of virtual teams.


    The most successfull guilds socialize very much. Those offduty relationships are the glue that hold them together. Oddly, even tho most games provide marvellous communication tools, they do this mostly outside of the game, thru email, instant message, websites, forums and such. Somehow the simple change of setting, from inworld to outside, is a sort of 'icebreaker' that encourages them to relate in a different way.


    We've worked virtually (up to 16 people now) since I founded Iron Realms in 1996. Biggest challenge is weeding out those who can't manage their own time or are lazy. They're harder to identify when one can't watch how they work.

    I'm sure there is lots of fancy groupware we could be using but we find the most effective combination is a mashup of email, wikis, forum software, Skype, and our own virtual worlds (where we have many of our meetings).


    >People who work away from other people tend to spend less time filling the day with idle chit chat,

    Twitter fixed all that, you can now idly chit-chat with your numerous continuous partial friends, continously, and partially. www.twitter.com


    When thinking about virtual organizations, to what extent do Peter Drucker's observations about real-world organizations apply?

    Paraphrased from _The Effective Executive_:

    Effective executives make strength productive. Only strength can produce results: weakness only produces headaches, and the absence of weakness produces nothing.

    But noone is strong in all respects. Indeed, individuals who have great strengths also have great weaknesses.

    The purpose of *organization* is to make strengths productive, and weaknesses irrelevant, in attaining the objectives of the organization.

    [end paraphrase]

    So: in virtual organizations, is it easier, or harder, than in real organizations, to identify strengths and weaknesses and to assign work so as to make the strengths productive and the weaknesses irrelevant?

    Or is it sometimes easier, sometimes harder? And if so, how do we predict which it is, before choosing between real and virtual for any particular organization?

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