Bjorn & Ngwenyama (2009) Virtual Team Collaboration


Virtual Team Collaboration: Building Shared Meaning, Resolving Breakdowns and Creating Translucence

Managing international teams with geographically distributed participants is a complex task. The risk of communication breakdowns increases due to cultural and organizational differences grounded in the geographical distribution of the participants. Such breakdowns indicate general misunderstandings and a lack of shared meaning between participants.

In this paper, we address the complexity of building shared meaning. We examine the communication breakdowns that occurred in two globally distributed virtual teams by providing an analytical distinction of the organizational context as the foundation for building shared meaning at three levels. Also we investigate communication breakdowns that can be attributed to differences in lifeworld structures, organizational structures, and work process structures within a virtual team.

We find that all communication breakdowns are manifested and experienced by the participants at the work process level; however, resolving breakdowns may require critical reflection at other levels. Where previous research argues that face-to-face interaction is an important variable for virtual team performance, our empirical observations reveal that communication breakdowns related to a lack of shared meaning at the lifeworld level often becomes more salient when the participants are colocated than when geographically distributed. Last, we argue that creating translucence in communication structures is essential for building shared meanings at all three levels.

Citation Pernille Bjorn, Ojelanki K. Ngwenyama (2009). Virtual Team Collaboration: Building Shared Meaning, Resolving Breakdowns and Creating Translucence. Information Systems Journal, vol. 19 no. 3, pp. 227–253. DOI

BibTex entry for this article:

BibTex entry for this article:

author = {Bjorn, Pernille and Ngwenyama, Ojelanki K.},
doi = {10.1111/j.1365-2575.2007.00281.x},
isbn = {13501917},
issn = {13501917},
journal = {Information Systems Journal},
number = {3},
pages = {227--253},
pmid = {37307719},
title = {{Virtual Team Collaboration: Building Shared Meaning, Resolving Breakdowns and Creating Translucence}},
volume = {19},
year = {2009}

Key ideas

Virtual teams are groups of geographically and/or organizationally distributed participants who collaborate towards a shared goal using a combination of information and communication technologies (ICT) to accomplish a task. p.228

Translucence refers to groupware design features that permit important but invisible social clues to be visible, thus enabling distributed collaborators to monitor and interpret each other's actions during collaboration. p.232


1. Introduction

Virtual teams must place the ongoing challenge of managing the collaboration at the very centre of teamwork. p.228

In this paper we propose the concepts shared meaning and translucence, and demonstrate their usefulness for analysing and theorizing about collaboration within virtual teams. p.228

2. Theoretical Framework

Shared meaning in virtual teams

For the sake of analytical clarity, we will delineate three conceptual structures of the organizational context: p.229

  1. the lifeworld;
  2. organizational structures; and
  3. work practice.

Technology mediation and translucence in virtual teams

Translucence refers to groupware design features that permit important but invisible social clues to be visible, thus enabling distributed collaborators to monitor and interpret each other's actions during collaboration. Translucence is an important feature of collaborative technologies, and should be provided in a low-effort, seamless way that does not interfere with the user's primary task. p.232

3. The Organizational Context Of The Case Study

The case study reported upon took place in a global transportation company with 100,000 employees located in Europe, Canada, the US and Asia. In 2002, they launched a capability maturity model based software process improvement (SPI) program. The two teams studied were involved with different initiatives related to the SPI program. p.233

The company (labelled distributed organizational context in Figure 3) can be analytically delineated into lifeworld, organizational structures and work practices. p.234

4. The Research Approach

In this research we apply an interpretive case study methodology. This methodology is appropriate because it focuses on the complexity of human sense-making in emerging situations and attempts to understand the phenomenon through the meanings that participants assign to actions and situations. p.236

Our primary source of data are the interviews conducted with participants and project managers of each team. However, other data collected and used in this research include organizational documents, transcripts of email correspondences, work documents, field notes and participant observations. These data are appropriate for our interpretive case study, as they allow us to access the participants' interpretations regarding actions, events and the organization context within which the events occurred. p.236

The data analysis began during data collection and was captured in field notes and a diary kept by the first author. In this initial analysis, the first author described incidents and recorded reflections, impressions and feelings about the processes experienced. However, systematic analysis of the interviews was conducted after the data collection was completed. p.238

During interpretive analyses, the use of theory played a crucial role. We used theory both as an initial guide (e.g. analytic distinction of shared meaning context) in the analysis process, and a part of our final product by our conceptualizations of shared meaning and translucence. p.238

The theoretical concepts of shared meaning and translucence were used to conduct a systematic analysis of the empirical materials. p.238

5. Creating Translucence In Virtual Teams

Translucence at lifeworld level

The lifeworld level comprises assumptions, knowledge, culture, beliefs and the taken-forgranted knowledge that organizational members use to act on and interpret the actions of others. All participants in a virtual team have their own lifeworld that is grounded on earlier experiences in the organization’s life and is forming their expectation to collaborate. p.239

Translucence at organizational level

The toughest issues in information system design are those concerned with modelling co-operations across heterogeneous worlds, of modelling articulation work and multiplicity. Members of virtual teams are, like everyone else, participating in various local organizational contexts. However, the boundaries between the contexts become more challenging when geographical distance is the demarcation line. p.242

Creating translucence at work process level

The work process level consists of profession-specific norms and work practices. All communication breakdowns manifest at the work practice level; however, not all breakdowns are grounded at this level p.244

6. Technology Mediation Of Translucence

  • Constrains of emails in creating translucence
  • Visible configuration of the application mediates translucence
  • Enacting richness creating translucence p.248

7. Conclusion

In this paper we proposed three analytical categories of the organizational context; lifeworld, organizational structures and work practices, which we believe to be important in understanding the development of shared meaning in a virtual team situation. We argue that new virtual teams are prone to communication breakdowns due to sense-making failures at these three levels. Further, we argue that translucence in the very work situations may reduce the number of communication breakdowns. p.250

Tables and figures

Figure 1: Three analytical levels of the organizational context providing the basis for shared meaning Figure 1 p.231

Table 1: Table 1 ~ p.232

Figure 2: Figure 2 ~ p.234

Figure 3: Figure 3 ~ p.235

Table 3: Table 3 ~ p.239


INF6001W, communication breakdown, inductive, interpretive case study, shared meaning, social context, traditional qualitative research, translucence, virtual teams