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  • Knowledge-sharing in cross-functional virtual teamsJacky F. L HongAssociate Professor, Faculty ofBusiriess Admr)istraton, University of Macau, Macau, China

    Sara Vai

    Companhia de Telecomuritcaes de Macau (CTM), Macau, China

    The emergence of cross-functional virtual teams has presented both benefits and challenges toorganisations. However, the unique characteristics of virtual teams make the sharing ofknowledge among the geographically separated members difficult. This paper attempts toaddress this issue by looking at how the process of knowledge transfer takes place in a cross-functional virtual team. A case study is conducted to interview various cross-functional virtualteam members in one local subsidiary of a multinational telecommunication corporation as wellas two of its hardware vendors. The findings indicate that four knowledge-sharing mechanismsare being employed, including shared understanding, learning climate, job rotation andcoaching. Among them, shared understanding and learning climate are thought to be able tosolve the challenge related to the unwillingness among the virtual team members to participatein the knowledge-sharing process, whereas coaching and job rotation are argued to be thesolutions for the lack of collective competence required for performing the co-operativeworks. Some practical implications are also suggested for the effective management of cross-functional virtual teams.

    IntroductionCross-functional virtual work teams have been around for a while. They areidentified as a group of people who work interdependently with a shared goalacross space, time and organisation boundaries by using the latest informationand communication technology (ICT) (Brown, 1998; Dube and Pare, 2004;Crenier and Metes, 1995; Lipnack and Stamps, 2000; Martins et al, 2004).They have given organisations unprecedented opportunities to bring peoplelocated in different geographical locations together, including employees,representatives from external stakeholders such as suppliers, clients, vendorsand joint venture partners, to work on a common initiative over a long periodof time (Montoya-Weiss et al, 2001). For example, Hewlett Packard hadreportedly been using various virtual teams to develop new products andservices in its IT Resource Centre (Raths, 2001). A number of benefits can beattributed to the use of cross-functional virtual teams, including qualityimprovement, shorter response time, improved socialisation and bettersharing of knowledge (Jessup and Kukahs, 1990; McCartt and Rohrbaugh,1989; Townsend etal, 1998).

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  • Jacky F. L. Hong and Sara Vai

    However, there is limited understanding about how the process of know-ledge-sharing takes place in these teams (Blackurn et al, 2003; Corso et al,2006; Griffith and Sawyer, 2006). As the separation of team members indispersed physical locations reduces the opportunity for having frequent face-to-face interactions - a crucial requirement for effective sharing of tacitknowledge (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995) - this canmake the knowledge-sharing process difficult (Wilson, 2003), if not impos-sible. Past researches suggest the use of some technological fixes (King andMajchrzak, 2003) for overcoming the physical dispersions in cross-functionalvirtual teams to facilitate the knowledge transfer, such as advanced commu-nication networks and groupware systems (Barrett etal, 2004; Boudreau etal,1998; Haake and Pino, 1998). However, the results are far from satisfactory,since the reliance on information technology alone cannot substitute thesocial dynamics underlying the knowledge-sharing in virtual knowledgecommunities (Robey etal, 2000; Storckand Hill, 2000). For cross-functionalvirtual teams requiring the skills and knowledge from a whole range of peoplein different physical locations, the major challenge is to establish a "socialinfrastructure that allows the transfer of knowledge and information" (Corsoet al, 2003; p. 207), an issue that is yet to be resolved.

    The main objective of this paper is to investigate what facilitates the socialprocess of knowledge-sharing in a cross-functional virtual team. In-depthinterviews with participants of a cross-functional virtual team involvingoperational managers, top management and some IT specialists were con-ducted in the local subsidiary of a multinational telecommunication companyin Macau, a special administration region (SAR) of People's Republic ofChina, and also two of its hardware vendors. The findings indicated that fourdifferent organisational mechanisms, including shared understanding, learn-irig climate, coaching and job rotation were employed to facilitate knowledge-sharing processes amongst the virtual teammates. By understanding how tbecross-functional virtual team members actually engage in the day-to-dayknowledge works, the study aims to contribute to the ongoing debate aboutknowledge transfer and sharing at the intra-firm level (Argote et al, 2000;Szulanski, 1996,2000) and extend it into tbe virtual team setting (Griffith andSawyer, 2006; Robey etal, 2000; Sole and Edmondson, 2002). Some practicalirriplications were also suggested for the better management of cross-func-tional virtual teams. The paper is divided into four parts. Part two surveyssome of the background literature pertinent to tbe cross-functional virtualteams and tbe related knowledge-sbaring mechanisms. Description of methodand research design is presented in part three. While the empirical evidencefrom the qualitative interviews in the telecommunication company and itshardware vendors are examined and explored in part four, conclusions arepresented in tbe part five, followed by some practical suggestions anddirections for future research.

    Background literatureThe cross-functional virtual work team is commonly known as the one wberemembers are separated by space and time to work together primarily tbrough

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  • Knowledge-sharing in cross-functional virtual teams

    ICT (Dub and Par, 2003; Montoya-Weiss et al, 2001). Cross-fiinctionalvirtual team membership composition is more dynamic than in traditionalteams, as it includes members from locations that would not have traditionallyworked together. It represents a major structural alternative from traditionalworkgroups because of the ability to transform quickly according to changingtask requirements and responsibilities. This dynamism requires virtual teammembers to be particularly adaptable to cope with different managementchallenges. However, the management and co-ordination of transfer ofknowledge and ideas among individuals and functional groups could be achallenging aspect of the job (Lovelace et al, 2001; Sethi et al, 2001). It is ofvital importance for the cross-functional virtual team members to share theinformation and know-how required for the implementation of joint tasks.Lussier and Achua (2004) state that the premise behind any cross-functionalteams concept is that the opportunities for sharing information and cross-fertilisation of ideas amongst people from different functional areas (pro-duction, marketing, R&D, information systems, etc.) are essential. This isespecially true for cross-functional virtual teams charged with developinginnovative products/services or new technologies. Developing an effectivecross-functional virtual team goes well beyond the technical problem oflinking them together. As all the team members increasingly interact in avirtual mode, it is imperative that they participate in the situated knowledgeprocesses (Sole and Edmondson, 2002) that are crucial for the organisationalsuccess.

    There are reportedly two main kinds of problems and challenges related tomanagement of the knowledge process in virtual teams. The first challenge isto overcome team members' reluctance to participate in the shared knowledgeworks. The loosely defined structure, varied members' background, fluidmembership and lack of prior joint work experience increase the degree ofdemographic diversity and psychological distance in virtual teams (Dub andPar, 2003) and the dispersed organisational affiliations may affect how theyperceive and identify each other. This may reduce their motivation toparticipate in the social interactions and knowing in practice (Orlikowski,2002). The second challenge is to minimise the problem related to the lack of"mutual knowledge" (Cramton, 2001), or "knowledge that the communicat-ing parties share in common" (p. 346), and the related negative consequenceson the mutual engagement in action. Having unequal distribution of priorknowledge critical for the task on hand and work-related competence putseach member on an unequal footing, thus undermining their abihty to co-operate interdependently and give contributions to the ongoing knowledgeprocesses. After reviewing some background literatures (Brown, 1998; Griffithand Sawyer, 2006; Hildreth et al, 2000; Lagerstrom and Andersson, 2003;Sarker et al, 2005), four main mechanisms are identified as beneficial forovercoming these two challenges. Eirst, members need to build up a sharedunderstanding among each other (Hinds and Weisband, 2003). Shared under-standing in a cross-functional virtual team is the degree of cognitive overlapand commonality in beliefs, expectations and perceptions about a given target.Since the cross-functional virtual team members come from different depart-ments, business disciplines and geographical locations, they have different

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    ways of perceiving the tasks and taking up the issues together (Rivenbark andFrost, 2003). If there is a lack of common background and experiences, it is aconstant challenge to maintain the commitment, coherence and cont