In the 1970’s Dr. Meredith Belbin undertook a research project to understand team dynamics and what makes some teams succeed while others fail. His research culminated in the establishment of the Team Roles Theory, which stipulates that for a team to be successful, it has to have a balance of nine different roles. However, Belbin’s original research focused on co-located teams, teams that are in the same area, have regular meetings, and frequently run into one another, and does not address the issue of virtual teams.
With delocalization (a lot of work no longer has to be performed in a certain geographic location) and disassembly (different parts of the job can be done in different parts of the world) virtual teams are quickly becoming the norm. My experience working with virtual teams, both within the United States and globally in China and the Middle East, indicates that Belbin’s Team Roles Theory is still very much relevant. However, the following considerations should be observed when applying the Theory to virtual teams:
The Thinking Roles: These roles; which include the Plant, Monitor Evaluator, and the Specialist; are possibly the least impacted by the shift from co-located to virtual teams. In fact, the physical distance may be helpful to some of these roles: it can help the plant attain a better view of the situation without interference from the continuous interaction with the team members. The same is true for the Monitor/ Evaluator, whose job is to pass objective judgment on different ideas and solutions. As for the Specialist, a virtual team can help mitigate some of the acceptable weaknesses of that role, including the Specialist’s natural dislike for working in groups.
The Action Roles: Some of these roles need to make adjustment to correct for the geographic, and possibly cultural, dispersal of the team. Because virtual teams are best run in a command-and-control manner (see below,) the Implementer needs to create clear and concise implementation steps, and follow up closely to avoid any misunderstandings.
As for the Shaper, the virtual nature of the team can amplify his/her weaknesses: the risk of offending team members becomes much higher when using written communication media like e-mails and when working across cultures on global virtual teams. The same is true for the Completer/ Finisher, whose painstaking attention to details can be misinterpreted when communicated remotely and across cultures. Special training in cross-cultural communication and in written communication may be needed for the team members who play these roles remotely.
The Social Roles: Due to their nature, these roles may need to make the most adjustment when moving from a co-located to a virtual team.
In virtual teams, Coordinators need to adopt command-and-control methods rather than facilitation methods. Recent research by Insead Professor José Santos indicates centrally-supervised, hierarchical virtual teams perform much better than those that employ consensus building. Consequently, Coordinators needs to play the role of orchestra conductors in allocating the work among team members. In addition, virtual teams benefit from clearly defined rules governing communications, meetings and deadline, rules that should be established and enforced by the Coordinator. Finally, because of global nature of many virtual teams, the coordinator must be adept at working across cultural boundaries .
Cross-cultural skills are also essential for Team Workers and Resource Investigators in virtual teams. A Team Worker needs to be able to bridge the cultural gap present in most global team, and a Resource Investigator should be able to project his/her social skills across cultures in order to be able to locate assets and resources on a global level.
There isn’t much research on how Belbin’s Team Roles Theory fits into the virtual team environment. However, the reasoning behind the team roles, the recent research into virtual teams and experience in working and leading virtual teams suggest that the adjustments above are required if the team is to perform successfuly.