Business schools have been teaching teamwork for years. But as corporate teams now spread across the globe, and workers communicate primarily via Skype, emails and messaging apps, traditional notions of what it means to work in a group are being upended.
That’s why the Yale School of Management now requires all of its MBA students to take a new course called Global Virtual Teams, which follows its established class in managing teams. At the conclusion of the brief course, students are grouped with their peers at business schools in Mexico and France and asked to manage a simulated business problem together–remotely.
The unit is designed to expose students to the pitfalls of working across borders, languages and time zones. Not all the participants in each team receive the same data, and the most successful teams are the ones that best communicate and share information, said Amy Wrzesniewski, one of the professors who taught this year’s inaugural course.
“As groups become more dispersed, team members focus on common information and they ignore or downplay what isn’t known in common,” she said. The teams that fared best didn’t just trade data, but systematically kept track of it and could see the information gaps between the members.
The course is a shift for Yale SOM’s faculty, who have traditionally focused on teaching content. Now they’re also being asked to teach process, said Edward “Ted” Snyder, the business’s school’s dean. The class reflects the changing nature of business, which is faster, more global and more complex than ever. ”Process learning is more important than it used to be,” Snyder said.
In the past, business schools tried to make the learning experience as smooth and seamless as possible, so students could absorb the material as efficiently as possible. Now, Snyder wants Yale to introduce wrinkles and variables that mirror the modern working environment. “Would we be doing our students any favors by eliminating complications and problems? No.”
With the first class in global virtual teams over, Wrzesniewski was able to come to a few conclusions about what does and doesn’t work when managing groups across the globe. In general, teams that rely on written communication—be it email, instant messaging, or texts—tend to have the most problems. Team members tend to be more blunt in writing than in person, which can lead to unnecessary confusion. Delays in responding are often misinterpreted, and nuances of intonation and body language are lost. “It creates everything you need for misunderstanding,” Wrzesniewski said.
She also recommends that team members meet in person by flying to a central location to spend time socializing as well as working. In the simulation, students were required to introduce themselves in videos they shared on YouTube, but it may be worth the investment for firms to convene their groups in one location. “Teams that don’t spend time together don’t have trust built in,” Wrzesniewski said.