June 1998


A Project Management Approach to Online Communication

by Brian Hoyt

Training Virtual Teams Using Desktop Video Conferencing Technology

In business today there is a growing usage and need for off site communication to manage projects and provide specific training. Businesses are finding ways to reduce costs by bringing information to their sites electronically. Technology has enabled organizations to communicate between domestic and international divisions. In addition, companies can communicate with customers, outside consultants and trainers. These communication trends are advanced by cost reduction, effectiveness and efficiency demands, and the capability of technology. What is seriously lagging behind both the motivation and the technology is the communication tools and techniques required to use in online communication models such as chat lines, video conferencing, and Internet-based desktop video conferencing. There have been certain applications of off site / online communication that are being put in trial mode right away. For example, executives are making a company wide presentation to all employees via video conferencing technology. Other online applications already underway include project management activities that utilize work with customers using e-mail, EDI, and some desk top video conferencing. Training using computer based training software increases the interactive level of training sessions.

The training application presents the biggest challenge and has the largest set of unknowns. Training and facilitation has a high interaction level and is very sensitive to basic and intricate communication patterns. Eye contact, non verbal language, and modeling are examples of facilitation skills that good trainers use to raise the performance of their participants. Those communication skills can be eliminated from the range of communication options by using technology such as online communication channels.

As an Assistant Professor of Business Management at Ohio University and as an active consultant and trainer for business I have been working on the facilitation of problem solving teams through off site project management. These training and facilitation experiences have required the establishment and development of several online communication mediums such as Internet meeting private chat lines, desk top video conferencing, and software shareware. The following information describes our experiences, our challenges in establishing effective communication processes, and certain insights into the needed development of new communication techniques which maximize an off site business relationship. Project Description

A project based course, phase I of III at Ohio University was just completed that included a breadth of online communication. The participants were an Ohio University management class that focused on facilitating problem solving teams, a North Central College in Naperville Illinois accounting class team/ and their Professor Jerry Thalmann were providing the problem solving effort, and a CPA accounting firm that was providing expertise and the business project. The project management and problem solving activities took place using desk top video conferencing technology. There were no face to face work sessions, all virtual team project work sessions. The Ohio University team, as part of its preparation to facilitate, had reviewed and practiced training and facilitation techniques in problem solving environments. The sessions had visual capability (through color cameras) but limited audio capability. The logistics of the facilitation was done through various business software applications: powerpoint, excel, project management, SPSS, Statistical Process Control, flow charting, chat lines, and others. The software was mediated through the Internet and virtual sharing software which allows all participants to access the software being used in a live fashion, regardless of whose machines the software is installed. Basic activities included setting agenda, monitoring project quality and timeline performance, training in problem solving tool usage, and facilitation of the problem solving process. The facilitation team planned each facilitation session then moving the other teams through a series of activities that kept the problem solving process on target. Some of the activities required training interventions before further problem solving could take place. An example would be the learning of a new analysis tool such as cause and effect. This must be done before cause analysis can take place.

Immediate Constraints

The OU team encountered numerous constraints and frustrations in the delivery of face to face facilitation techniques in a virtual training environment. Certain techniques worked extremely well in an online environment. Certain unsuccessful techniques were attributed initially to the lack of face to face feedback, lack of substitutes for experiential exercises in the electronic format, low comfort levels, low trust levels, relationship building concerns, and others. We are moving quickly into the arena of electronic delivery of training services without adequate and known facilitation techniques that fulfill the learning objectives required. It is the issue of analyzing traditional facilitation techniques that must first be explored then new techniques developed so that the growing online communication capability and opportunities can be maximized in both business and education.

Facilitation Objectives

There are 3 key facilitation objectives for any training opportunity: Acknowledgement, Understanding, and Action. These facilitation objectives must be met whether in a face to face or virtual online communication environment.

  1. Acknowledgement - There must be certain fundamental knowledge or concept understanding that the team needs to accept before application. They need to acknowledge the importance, usefulness, application potential, standards, etc. This is a key step if a facilitator is going to be building a learning or application experience, laying a foundation before moving ahead.

  2. Understanding - learning specific methods, procedures, specifications are often required before a full application can be accomplished.

  3. Action/Activity - Beyond acknowledgement and understanding there should be some action taken to demonstrate to the team and the facilitator that acceptable expertise can be applied. There are many forms of demonstration but in a training facilitation it usually takes the form of an activity that simulates the actual application or the application itself. A facilitator will release the team into a simulation or actual application to measure the level of expertise as well as planning additional training interventions.

The Use of Traditional Face to Face Facilitation Techniques / Tools for Online facilitation

A set of four effective facilitation techniques include: Checking for Understanding, Asking Appropriate Questions, Summarizing Key Learning Points, and Using Exercises. I will review two of these techniques as they related to our online facilitation experiences.

Checking for Understanding

This technique requires a range of listening and observation skills that help the facilitator see if the group remembers, understands, and can apply learning. Upon the completion of subject review, explanation of concepts, and noting examples a facilitator checks for understanding. The checking process could include asking questions and listening, presenting tasks and watching, and restating messages and confirming. The best opportunities to check for understanding include when multiple messages are used, when giving instructions, and when coaching a team to complete a task. We specifically experienced several strengths of the virtual team facilitation / online communication while checking for understanding. The online communication format requires a "listening" stage after asking a question. The virtual team must consider the question and respond before there is movement on more information. Face to face facilitators often ask the question, answers the question, then move on to more information. The Chat line format actually encourages a more thorough questioning session. A stronger Socratic approach can be taken or several attempts at restating the question might be needed to obtain the response required to demonstrate understanding. I observed the student facilitator from Ohio University using several questioning approaches to confirm understanding of a problem solving tool such as a cause and effect diagram that the Illinois team were preparing to use for their project. The online structure and etiquette (you can not "talk over" an online partner) provided some ideal conditions for checking for understanding. The typing of a question, pausing while it is being read, thinking and responding, then repeating this process encourages not only very structured questioning techniques but also encourages good conversation skills. Active listening is still required for effective trainers and facilitators. The online communication within this virtual training environment did present some challenges and frustrations while checking for understanding. Frequently during a checking for understanding sequence there is an identified intervention need, there is a help opportunity. Facilitators are trained to identify and respond to individual and group behaviors then intervene just in time for the group to complete the immediate project or learning stage. Cues to determine a needed intervention include eye contact, non verbal readings, and quick consensus readings. These cues are almost impossible to use in off site virtual sessions. The result can be overkill of questioning because we can not "read" our online participants, sometimes causing long delays in moving to new information areas or simulation opportunities.

Using Exercises

This technique can be a creative and effective method of demonstrating and experiencing learning objectives. Exercises/simulations create a pattern of structure or action. A facilitator can use an exercise to structure similar conclusions about an experience or to elicit many different kinds of reactions. Participants in a simulation have an opportunity to experience objectives creatively and increase their understanding of cause and effect. An exercise with careful planning and delivery can influence convergence of the group, maximizing the movement to additional learning areas. Our online communication and facilitation was really tested as we attempted to use exercises to expose the problem solving team to various analysis tools. Highly structured exercises (such as providing a scenario that requires some brainstorming, prioritizing, and conclusions then debriefing the exercise by revealing their work) went well but exercises requiring flexible administration or redirection (such as an exercise that has several possible interventions depending on immediate responses by the group) were difficult to plan and deliver. We tried to improvise by using interactive software as a flexing vehicle, but with limited success. The facilitation team even stopped particular sessions in progress because they had lost control of the structure enough to impact the learning objectives. The experience was not a total loss however, as we did design some innovative spreadsheet exercises that required a high level of interaction and met analysis learning objectives quite well.

Reflections for online working relationships

The interpersonal interactions that I observed while my students were facilitating their problem solving sessions demonstrated some interesting work relationships. There are four discrete stages within a facilitation session marked by different interpersonal interactions. The four stages include socialization, presentation, interaction, and closure. The socialization stage of a facilitation session might require introductions of team members, introducing the content for the session, or setting the social/working environment. Techniques might include a round robin introduction of team participants and their interest in the session, informal conversation or perhaps an ice breaker exercise. Business students as facilitators in this stage are reluctant leaders, in some cases skipping this important stage and beginning with the presentation of the content area. The online facilitation at this stage actually had the students more engaged. The chat sessions before the actual work session were dynamic and quite out of character from previous face to face facilitation practice sessions . They established excellent rapport readying the participants for information and exercises. This type of confidence is rarely exhibited in traditional formats. There were, however, some interesting interactions. Several of the initial sessions the facilitating teams would not use their camera in the desk top video conferencing sessions. They joked about the camera not working "today" or actually setting up stuffed animals to represent their roles. I am not sure whether my pressure or an increasing comfort level relieved this particular scenario.

The presentation of information was delivered directly, assuming that understanding was immediate. The typing of information, pausing only for short responses, made it nearly impossible to read the audience by observing body language, eye contact or inflections of words. Levels of emotion were demonstrated by capitalization, underlining, and the repetition of key words.

Interactive sessions were perhaps the most difficult to duplicate in an on line environment. The participants of these simulations were not engaged, just moving through the motions, making convergence into a cooperative group almost impossible. The ability to structure an experience that creatively exposes the participants to learning objectives was very difficult. Without seeing the level of participation, consensus, or levels of confusion the team exercises were left up to the interpretation of the team member at the keyboard. The exercises were referred to as being run through an interpreter.

The closure stage resembled the presentation phase where closure information was just provided in a series of review statements. The closure should flow from the simulation/exercise, knowing what areas are well understood and which ones are not understood. The positive aspects of the online communication were clearly in the area of follow up. The ability (or perhaps comfort level) and convenience of the online communication kept the virtual teams communicating between formal facilitation sessions. This type of communication never happens in traditional deliveries. When the session is over the teams do not get together until the next formal session.

For business students entering the workplace there is a growing need for training facilitators and project managers to have the required skills to deliver their activities using distance based conferencing tools. We must improve those areas that are not conducive to traditional facilitation. This includes abandoning certain techniques while maximizing those areas of online communication that enhance team facilitation. We must first analyze why certain online relationships are stronger, and structure those strengths into the learning objectives.

Professor Brian Hoyt ( who teaches Business Management and Marketing classes at Ohio University has been integtrating business projects into an innovative business curriculum. His recent interest and work has involved using various online conferencing tools to train virtual teams.

Copyright © 1998 by Brian Hoyt. All Rights Reserved.

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