Without a doubt, technology plays an important role in the modern workplace. In most organizations, employees must have certain technology skills in order to complete their work. Most people in office jobs need to demonstrate proficiency with a word processor or spreadsheet; in some positions much more specific software proficiency is required. We seem to assume that proficiency with a word processor implies ability to write a memo or business letter, and in most cases this may be true. But does this type of assumption transfer to newer technologies? For example, when hiring for virtual teams, many managers seem to think that younger people’s proficiency with document sharing, online chatting, virtual worlds, and social networking technologies will make them strong candidates for virtual teamwork.
I would like to suggest that this is an assumption that could get a lot of organizations into trouble as they increasingly conduct virtual teamwork. I believe it is not just comfort with the channels or media used for virtual teamwork that is crucial to success, but also the cognitive and behavioral skills of the individuals in those virtual teams.
For example, last month I heard a series of stores on NPR about executive function (sometimes called the executive system). Executive function is a cognitive system that is theorized to control other cognitive systems. Executive function is thought to be related to planning ability, cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, and acting appropriately for a situation. The NPR stories talked about how several cultural forces have come together since the mid-20th century to make for less development of executive function in children. In one of the stories, cultural historian Howard Chudacoff explains that, starting in the 1950s, toys became increasingly specific (e.g. a fire truck); parents began buying more of these specific toys for their kids, so children played less with sticks or other found objects. Simultaneously, parents became more worried about their kids, and less comfortable letting them simply play outside in the neighborhood or the park unattended with other children. Parents also began to worry about achievement at an early age, to the point where many see unstructured free time as time lost learning specific skills.
All of these trends came together to create a situation where children no longer have as much time to develop executive function. According to the experts in the NPR stories, executive function is developed when play is negotiated with a group spontaneously, when there are roles and pretend scenarios with a developing and changing storyline, and when props or toys are ambiguous and the child decides what each “is” or will be used for. Executive function is developed when children have to regulate their behavior themselves, initiating appropriate actions and inhibiting inappropriate actions. These kinds of play also might involve private speech – self talk children use to work through what they are doing.
The experts interviewed said that many of today’s most common pastimes for children are not developmental of executive function. For example, most video games, watching TV and movies, playing with toys that have a specific purpose, and taking lessons (being instructed) are not conducive to developing executive function. So today’s young people, those beginning to enter the workforce, may have fluency with technology, yet if they individually lack executive function they will not necessarily be effective as workers, and even less likely to become effective leaders.
This means that experience and even fluency with technologies or communication channels is not enough for individuals to be capable virtual team contributors. The bad news for hiring managers is that hiring for virtual teams is still just as difficult as hiring for more traditional work situations. Hiring has long been a risky and inexact science, which is unfortunate since much is at stake with each position filled. Increasingly managers understand that there are costs to the organization when a position is left unfilled, when a position turns over, or when a poor hire is made. As virtual teams are increasingly utilized by organizations with hope for efficiency or added benefit, poor hires can offset the benefits of virtual collaboration.
All of the traditional hiring guidelines still stand for virtual teams, with a few adjustments. Primarily, managers cannot assume that technological skill is the only variable that makes for a productive worker even in a virtual team. The resume is only the first part of assessing a potential hire. Whenever possible, take the time to see candidates in action – some organizations ask candidates to spend several hours or more at the organization, interacting with current employees (to see how their social skills fit) and working on tasks that are representative of the position (to assess their task-related skills). While this is certainly time consuming, in the long run it may save resources compared to a hasty but poorly chosen hire.
Managers who are compiling a virtual team of current employees must also be careful not to assume that experience with technology makes for a productive virtual team employee. Managers of virtual teams sometimes have little say in who is recruited for the team. In cases where managers have less control over the composition of the team, they can still make a difference by molding and guiding the team to work together. For example, managers may want to encourage team members to spend time in virtual worlds, since there is emerging evidence that leadership, planning, and other skills related to executive function are developed in certain virtual worlds and MMOGs (see a Harvard Business Review article on this topic).