Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Self-Formed Teams &Wiki Collaboration

People often find themselves working on deadline-driven projects utilizing wiki collaboration. Wikis are simple and easy to use - so what is it that causes so many teams who use wikis for collaboration to become frustrated, miss deadlines, or have unsuccessful results? The answer lies in the emergence of leadership.

Individuals who work virtually often find themselves collaborating on a project with people they have never met and know very little about. Wiki technology has many useful purposes – the example used herein involves a group article summary project in fulfillment of an online course requirement. Individuals in the class were asked to self-form into teams after a brief eight weeks of class interaction through discussion board and a trial summary project using wiki collaboration. The lessons learned are applicable to virtual teams who use this type of technology. The process of wiki collaboration requires effective emergent leadership – this article addresses how self-formed teams evolve and suggests a process for effective wiki collaboration.

What does it mean to self-form into teams? This indicates that there is a larger group and that each member of the group will choose the team they want to join. The fact that the larger group exists before self-forming into teams indicates that individuals will have at least some awareness of one another. In my example of an online course, each student had introduced themselves to one another, had participated in a few discussion groups, and had been thrown together to collaborate using wiki technology for a previous assignment.
At this time a little more detail about the previous wiki assignment is important. The class had to figure out what wikis were all about – then the class was asked to collaborate by summarizing an ebook article within the class wiki. This was the entirety of instruction and guidelines provided, the class was left on its own to figure out how to proceed. As a result of this assignment, students had an opportunity to see how others engaged and performed – which became important when the class was then asked to self-form into teams and perform the same assignment as smaller groups. What happened from this point forward has been the catalyst for this article.

The first step is for each individual to determine which team they will join – who they wish to collaborate with. The observations made during previous interactions would naturally influence this decision. “People like to associate with groups they think are (or will be) successful” (Nemiro, et al., 2008, p. 219). Some will invite individual classmates to join a specific group. Others will watch for groups to begin forming and then join one that they think will be successful. Regardless of how teams begin to form one thing is certain, those who join teams early are able to be selective regarding who they want to collaborate with and were probably more observant during previous interactions. The action of contacting individual members and inviting them to join a specific team is the most proactive and would necessarily result in a complete team forming quickly. Such team development would increase each member’s confidence in the team and establish the foundation of trust in one another since they were all invited and thereby trusted by someone else on the team. As an example for the remainder of this article, only one specific team example will be used identified as Team A.

Nemiro, et al. (2008), emphasize “Setting Expectations for Working Together” in their textbook, The Handbook of High-Performing Virtual Teams: A Toolkit For Collaborating Across Boundaries, and continue with the following steps: “First is setting goals . . . a critical part of VEtiquette . . . Second is defining roles and responsibilities . . . Third is identifying the team’s decision-making method” (pp. 484-485). It is apparent that leadership is critical – but how is a leader identified within a self-formed group? Someone must step up, of course, but that alone does not a leader make. The group must accept the leader. This introduces the concept of emergent leadership, which is what occurs in such a group where there is no assigned leadership position. Emergent leadership is a topic of its own, and will be discussed in a separate section. It is important to understand what Nemiro et al. (2008) means by the term VEtiquette:
VEtiquette, which stands for ‘virtual etiquette’, is required in work that is typically real time and synchronous. VEtiquette guides team members’ behavior as they collaborate virtually either while speaking or writing using Internet, mobile, or video technologies. It can be summarized as, ‘Be effective, or don’t be heard.’ This extra attention to virtual interaction matters because the effectiveness of the team depends on it. (p. 480)

It is also important to understand the evolution of the team – one of the best examples of this would be Bruce Tuckman’s Team Life-Cycle, the stages of which are shown in the Tuckman Model (Figure 1), which presents the following stages: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Mourning (or Adjourning). In the following sections each stage will be revealed as it relates to leadership emergence, goal setting, accountability, trust, and results.

Staging of the “Team Life-Cycle”
Figure 1: Tuckman Model: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing
Copyright Firovia Consulting 2012


Once the team exists the actual forming of the team begins. Brown, et al. (2007), in their eBook Managing Virtual Teams: Getting The Most From Wikis, Blogs, And Other Collaborative Tools, define this stage: “During this phase, many discussions occur, serving to build support and consensus about the vision. . . . Toward the end of this phase, you might get a ‘honeymoon’ period. Everyone is excited about the project, getting to know each other, and busy ensuring . . . that the project can succeed. . . . harness this initial burst of energy and productivity by setting appropriate expectations, ensuring a clear path free of bureaucratic obstacles, and directing activities” ( p. 7). As it relates to our example of the online class assignment – Team A engaged in some discussion about how to proceed with the project, which appeared to be effective in building support and consensus about the project, and the energy was supportive. As Brown et al. (2007) indicate, this presented the ideal time to establish a plan. In the case of the class summary, this took the form of an outline identifying sections that would assign tasks equally amongst members and enable everyone to contribute. It is important to note that this discussion occurred in the comment section of the wiki with the outline itself appearing as the initial wiki content. Group email was also utilized as a follow up to the discussions within the wiki. Although discussions concerning the particulars of the project were good, there was no discussion regarding the preferred method of communication for the group – this is addressed later.


Brown, et al. (2007) describe this phase as, “Similar to the first year of marriage, this stage lays bare all the differences and conflicts about vision, expectations, work style, and communication style. During this phase, the guidelines are honed, compromises are made, and often, real bonding takes place. . . . shorten this period of conflict by facilitating discussions, documenting decisions and guidelines, modeling expected behaviors, ensuring that everyone is heard, short-circuiting power struggles, and when necessary, redirecting people to the larger purpose” (p. 7). It is during this phase that potential leaders will begin to emerge. It is prudent at this time to investigate emergent leadership more thoroughly.

In situations where leadership is not assigned there is an obvious void that needs to be filled. Northouse (2013), in his book Leadership: Theory and Practice, speaks extensively on this subject and references Fisher, who states:
                     This type of leadership [emergent] is not assigned by position; rather, it emerges over a period
                     through communication. Some of the positive communication behaviors that account for
                     successful leader emergence include being verbally involved, being informed, seeking others’
                     opinions, initiating new ideas, and being firm but not rigid. (p. 8)
Team members who engage with the other members early and often while offering ideas, asking for feedback, and emphasizing deadlines are poised to emerge as leaders. Northouse (2013) notes, “When others perceive an individual as the most influential member of a group . . . the person is exhibiting emergent leadership” (p. 8). He identifies personality as it relates to emergent leadership: “The individuals who were more dominant, more intelligent, and more confident about their own performance (general self-efficacy) were more likely to be identified as leaders by other members of their task group” (Northouse, 2013, p. 8).
Within virtual teams, emergent leadership does not have to be a solo role – in reference to the Team A example, there were two or three individuals who shared this role. The early communication and establishment of structure contributed to members’ confidence that the team would be successful and became a catalyst for team cohesion. Individual members signed up to perform specific tasks and could see the structure and how their contribution fit within the framework of the team.


“Teambuilding begins in earnest as individuals become comfortable with each other and their roles” (Brown, et al., 2007, p. 8). This phase is where true leadership emerges. Nemiro, et al. (2008) state that good leadership fulfills key roles:
  1. Motivating people
  2. Coordinating efforts
  3. Developing potential
    (p. 214)
 Effective leaders must motivate the virtual team – Nemiro, et al. (2008) expands on this concept by presenting three challenges: “. . . providing a compelling message, managing conflicting goals, and establishing team identity” (p. 215). He references Hackman in stating that, “Effective leadership involves unapologetically and authoritatively setting a clear and engaging direction for the team” and chimes in personally by adding, “In other words, the overall mission or purpose for the team is not open to debate” (p. 215). Virtual teams can get off track if the clear purpose, or mission, of the team is not kept in focus – which requires the establishment of goals and deadlines. Goal setting is identified by Nemiro, et al. (2008) as “an excellent way to motivate a team”, and references Locke & Latham, who state: “A tremendous amount of research shows that goal setting works when goals are clear, challenging, and consequential and when regular feedback is provided” (p. 216). There is a delicate balance, however, within a virtual team where emergent leadership is the norm – as Nemiro, et al., enumerates when he adds, “. . . the implication is that individualized consideration in goal setting becomes even more critical within the context of virtual teams. . . . taking the time to appreciate each person’s responsibilities outside the team” ( p. 216).
The second challenge mentioned in reference to virtual team motivation involves managing conflict – once again, goal setting can be helpful in overcoming this challenge. Huang, Wei, Watson, & Tan (as cited in Nemiro, et al., 2008) reference studies that have found “. . . teams using goal setting in a computer-mediated situation reported higher team commitment, better cohesion, and a stronger collaboration climate than teams without goal setting” (p. 216). This type of cohesion is also referred to as “collective identity” (Nemiro, et al, 2008, p. 218), or team identity.

If a virtual team has a collective identity and has a clear focus on the ultimate purpose of the team, when conflict arises it is easy to work together toward a resolution that is in the best interest of the team. Again – using our Team A example – the collaboration was conflict free for the most part, but there were two moments that bear addressing. This project was assigned on a Monday and was due to be completed by the following Sunday. The tasks included sectional summary (where each member was assigned a section to summarize – a noon Friday deadline was posted for completion of this task). Additional tasks included a ‘summary of the summary’ – which meant that the member assigned to perform this task would re-work the summary so it flowed seamlessly (as if written as one piece); and the final task was editing, which would include the checking of referenced material for in-text citations, addition of graphics, etc. in addition to general editing. The deadlines were established in respect for each task so those who relied on individual contributions to the initial summary would have adequate time to fulfill their role. By establishing a noon deadline on Friday for the initial task completion, there was room for the deadline to be extended a little bit on Friday, but by having a deadline the urgency for completion was established. There was some discussion as to whether strict adherence to this Friday deadline was necessary – it became obvious that the other task deadlines had not been emphasized and, therefore, every member of the team did not understand the importance of this first deadline. This could have been avoided had a team leader made no assumptions and had more clearly outlined the process. The only other incident was in regard to the lack of an agreed upon form of communication – when a member of the team had previously suggested that the discussion board be used the team did not immediately acknowledge this recommendation (which was a great idea), which resulted in some delayed discussion (and apologies) several days into the project. Team A was fortunate to have collective (team) identity and the primary focus on the ultimate purpose of the team collaboration made it easy to work through the conflict and resulted in a more confident team. This example supports the statement by Nemiro, et al. (2008): “The best way to establish confidence is through success. Small, early successes, are great confidence builders. Experience ultimately informs team members as to whether the team is successful and whether confidence is justified” (p. 220).


Brown, et al. (2007) describe this phase as: “The ‘zone’. The team is working well together, knows where it is going and how to get there, and works interdependently” (p. 8). Virtual teams, at this point, have settled into groove. Members know their place, have accepted the team identity, and are motivated to perform. Clearly defined goals and deadlines at this point is critical. Leaders can use the S.M.A.R.T. approach to goal setting (Nemiro, et al., 2008):

The SMART approach to goal-setting:

Specific – Clear statement of what is to be accomplished or delivered, in concrete terms that can be easily observed and mutually understood.

Measurable – Define how success will be measured in quantitative and qualitative terms, stating the outcomes and benefits.

Attainable – Challenging and stretching but achievable.

Relevant – Tied to the overall direction of the company or business unit.

Time-bound – Time frame for the goal is stated, including stages.
(Nemiro, et al., 2008, p. 73)

Image Copyright 2011 Kadena Tate
Using the example of Team A, the S.M.A.R.T. approach was utilized. There was a clear (specific) understanding by the team regarding the assignment and what was expected. The directive came from the professor, but the understanding resulted from the previous wiki collaboration experience and the first discussions in the wiki comments section. The measurement of success would be realized as each member fulfilled their individual commitment and realized the interdependency of the team. The tasks were evenly distributed – the deadlines were challenging but achievable, and necessary considering the scope of the project. All of the work was relevant to the assignment, and the time frame was divided according to task priority in consideration of the due date for the project’s completion.


How is team trust built? The initial trust is adopted from the leader or other member’s implied trust in one another (a result of being invited to join the team), but true trust must be earned. The next phase, as outlined by Brown, et al. (2007) is the testing, or the verification phase: “As pieces of the project are completed, they are verified against specifications and other components of the project. Problems are identified and corrected” (p. 8). It is by fulfilling commitments that member’s earn trust with one another. It is important to communicate throughout the process. Brown, et al.(2007) emphasize this point when they say, “Communicate, collaborate, coordinate, and communicate some more” (p. 23). It is by communicating some more that members come together to assess the progress of the virtual team – where they can see the accomplishments and know they can trust one another – and they can see how interconnected and interdependent the team is. In our Team A example, this testing was affirmed when everyone’s tasks were completed and the final summary came together as a perfectly synchronous project that everyone could be proud of.

This is the ‘wrap up’ phase, as described by Brown, et al. (2007): “The team is finishing its tasks, evaluating how things went, and preparing to move on to other things” (p. 8). This is also called the Mourning phase (although adjourning seems to be a more appropriate title). Bruce Tuckman (as cited by Smith) refined his theory around 1975 and added this stage:
                    . . . it views the group from a perspective beyond the purpose of the first four stages. The  
                   Adjourning phase is certainly very relevant to the people in the group and their well-being, but
                   not to the main task of managing and developing a team, which is clearly central to the original
                   four stages. Adjourning is the break-up of the group, hopefully when the task is completed
                   successfully, its purpose fulfilled; everyone can move on to new things, feeling good about
                   what’s been achieved. From an organizational perspective, recognition of and sensitivity to
                   people’s vulnerabilities in Tuckman’s fifth stage is helpful, particularly if members of the group
                   have been closely bonded and feel a sense of insecurity threat from this change. (2005)
Members of a virtual team can be confident that their collaboration was effective when they either don’t want the group to split or look forward to working together again. Regarding Team A – the follow-up assignment was to reflect on the team’s wiki collaboration, which complements the adjourning phase. Members of Team A agree that they hope to work together again and are pleased with the team’s performance.


Whether it’s the classroom or the organization, increasingly more collaboration occurs in a virtual environment – and this trend will continue to increase. This results in people who have never met, or know little about one another, forming teams and working together. Technological resources, like wikis, become critically important to virtual teams and contribute to their overall effectiveness. It is leadership, however, that will ultimately impact a virtual team’s success. As the Team A example that was used throughout this article indicates, it is most often an emergent style of leadership found within virtual teams – leaders who earn the respect and confidence of the team; who step up and take control early in the process; who set goals and establish points of accountability; who maintain focus on the goals of the team; and who continue an ongoing conversation with every member of the team. When emergent leadership is effective, the virtual team will be successful resulting in member satisfaction.


Brown, M. Katherine, Brenda Huettner and Char James-Tanny. Managing Virtual Teams: Getting The Most From Wikis, Blogs, And Other Collaborative Tools. Sudbury: Wordware Publishing, Inc., 2007. 15 Oct 2012.

Nemiro, Jill, et al. The Handbook Of High-Performance Virtual Teams: A Toolkit Fro Collaborating Across Boundaries. First. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

Northouse, Peter G. Leadership: Theory and Practice. 6. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc., 2013. 2012.

No comments:

Post a Comment