Engineering projects are one of the largest adopters of virtual teams. Companies such as Boeing, Airbus and Shell among others have been adopters of the use of distributed teams or workshare, as they often refer to it, for their projects for the past couple of decades.
Driven, or at the very least enabled by the rapid advances in digital communication technology, it has become increasingly easy for large, complex engineering projects to be coordinated over distances and across time zones.
Projects undertaken with the aid of virtual teams have ranged from small research undertakings, to some of the largest projects ever attempted. Indeed, the use of virtual teams in engineering projects has now progressed to the point where it is more the norm than the exception, even if some of these teams may only have one or two virtual members.
A High Focus On Enabling Technology In Engineering Projects
With engineers and the managers who lead these projects being largely technically focussed, the natural inclination in planning projects where virtual teams are to be used is to focus on the technology. As such, when discussing communications in these projects, it is common that a great deal of time is spent on the selection of the video conference platform, whether personnel will have access to webcams and the server architecture to be used to support the project. These discussions happen often to the exclusion of whether the people working on the project will have the right skills and aptitude to use the tools effectively.
These same technically focussed individuals will also, typically, spend a lot of time debating the computer modelling platform they prefer, establishing technical standards and practices and putting travel policies in place.
With these technical ground rules established, their next focus tends to be on finding the locations for their work to be performed. For many organisations, this is almost pre ordained since most engineering companies. This is particularly true for those who’s business is selling engineering services to clients, will have established global engineering centres. These established engineering centers are already connected to their corporate data network, have in place management structures and an established workforce. The workforce at these locations has usually been chosen specifically to undertake particular phases or aspects of engineering. These offices also have an established cost structure, enabling them to rapidly estimate and subsequently control costs.
People Have A Role In Engineering Projects Too
Often forgotten during the set up stage of these major technical endeavours however, is the role of the individuals and their required non technical skills. There can be a tendency for individual engineers to become commoditised, recognized more for their technical background and technical contribution, than for their abilities to collaborate as part of a virtual team. This tendency to select for technical skills, rather than personality or communication skills, is understandable in a technically focussed environment. However, having an engineering project team comprising technical experts can result in substantial communication challenges. These challenges can include non technical issues going unresolved and technical issues being obsessed over.
While acknowledging that any technical project must have a strong focus on the right technical skills, it is also critical to note that any successful project is heavily dependant on communications. Indeed, research undertaken in 2013 by PMI showed that highly effective communicators result in 80 percent of projects being successful, as opposed to a 51% success rate when the participants were considered to be minimally effective communicators.
This same PMI report indicates that high performing communicators produce communications plans at least twice as frequently to minimally effective communicators. Here at Ulfire, we would suggest that these plans need to be put into action by highly effective communicators, that personnel, whether designated as communicators or not, need to be trained in communication skills and, that everyone needs to practice those skills constantly. Only through practice can you hope to become as proficient at communicating as any other skill required in the workplace.
Communication Structures In Engineering Projects
When Engineering projects are undertaken using virtual teams, like any other industry, they need to have a well considered communications structure to have effective coordination. Using the traditional project management model, where all communications originates from the one person at the top, the project manager, is not necessarily the best approach. Once projects become larger and more geographically distributed, the need for a more distributed form of communication and indeed leadership is very high.
Following the traditional command and control leadership model often results in communication delays, burnout of leaders and their support personnel. Modern project managers, whether leading engineering projects or other endeavours, need to look to more localised empowerment and organic forms of communication, while still maintaining a watching brief over the entire project. They need to trust their people on the ground at each location to do the right thing, to trust that they will keep them informed and to empower them to lead their portion of the project as they see fit.
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Ulfire specialises in supporting organisations plan, establish and run high performing virtual teams. We combine extensive practical experience from decades of involvement in virtual teams with current real world academic research into the way members of virtual teams collaborate. Please contact us to discuss ways we can help your business, or sign up using the form below to receive our regular newsletter.
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