In today's increasingly interconnected world, an ever-growing number of businesses around the globe work on complex, cross-border projects the success of which depends on the efficiency of mostly heterogeneous teams whose members collaborate with one another across time zones, continents and cultures. Such settings, known as virtual teams, require special skills that can and need to be developed. The Virtual Team Project (VTP), an integral part of WU Vienna's Global Executive MBA program, prepares managers for the challenge of bringing cross-border projects to fruition, which is becoming more and more of a success factor for both executives and businesses.
How practical Virtual Team Projects can be is illustrated by two Global Executive MBA alumni who have successfully turned their projects into reality:
- Harald Trautsch and his start-up "iVoting" (which is currently being used by international businesses such as American Express and Nokia)
- Norbert Wirth and the BPL "GREENoneTEC enters the US market" market-entry study
The Virtual Team Project has been an integral part of the Global Executive MBA for years, making the WU Executive Academy one of only a few executive-education providers to use this innovative teaching method. 120 MBA students from three leading universities from Europe, Asia and the USA, respectively, work on complex projects in 21 teams. In an effort to foster joined-up thinking and working at the global level, the WU Executive Academy's partner institutions—the Carlson School of Management in Minnesota and the Lingnan College of Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou—have also firmly established the VTP in their curricula. The VTP is a six-month endeavor. At the end of the program, all teams meet in the USA, where they present the results of their work to a jury of experts.
Close collaboration across three continents and time zones
"What makes the virtual teams special is that students from different Executive MBA programs join forces, across three continents and time zones, to work on a project without being physically in the same place. The members of a team will not meet in person until their project is complete. Because the setting is particularly challenging, students will need to use all their knowledge and skills in order to be able to cope successfully with this complex and demanding task," explains Prof. Bodo Schlegelmilch, Dean of the WU Executive Academy.
"The VTP provides executives who have no prior experience of working outside national or European contexts with a wonderful opportunity to experience for themselves how 'tricky' global business can be and to see how the complexity of projects increases exponentially when you take them to the international level—mind you, I am referring only to organizational aspects, and projects involve much more than organization. Nonetheless, state-of-the-art communication tools (Skype, Connect, telepresence, etc.) enable you to carry out projects successfully without ever meeting your team mates in person," says Norbert Wirth, Global Executive MBA alumnus, BPL "GREENoneTEC enters the US market" market-entry study.
In teaming up students, particular emphasis is put on maximizing not only the mix of industries and sectors but also the wealth of perspectives and experience. Throughout the project, students use a state-of-the-art online platform that promotes efficient and interactive working—with experts and professors coaching them along the way.
Team spirit for even greater success
Experience shows that teams who follow the rules of modern project management function best. Time is crucially important in this context: it has become clear in recent years that those teams who draw up—and stick to—a schedule and a list of responsibilities enjoy the actual project work more and are able to derive lasting benefits from the experience. Given that the MBA is a demanding 14-month program, time is definitely at a premium.
"When I embarked on the VTP, I had already worked at the international level and carried out projects with virtual teams. What was challenging in this case was the non-existence of hierarchical structures. We simply had to act as partners on an equal footing but could not afford to go through a lengthy democratic process when a decision needed to be made. Everyone had the opportunity to demonstrate his or her skills—and was subsequently evaluated on the basis of the results he or she had achieved. There were no justifications, sick leaves or excuses of any other sort: we were working towards a common goal, and everyone was doing his or her best. In view of these facts, the learning has been that target-orientedness and result-orientedness are the drivers, while expertise and commitment are our "currency". No talking the talk, just walking the walk. The result of our work is iVoting, which is now being used by businesses such as American Express or Nokia," explains Harald Trautsch, Global Executive MBA alumnus and creator of iVoting.
Real-world challenges, creative solutions
Some projects are particularly outstanding in terms of quality and creativity and impress the program's professors and corporate managers alike. It is not uncommon for businesses to use VTPs as a starting point for projects that are not only elaborated in theory but also implemented in practice:
- iVoting: Harald Trautsch
"Working on a topic for six months is a challenge—and it is even more of a challenge when your team mates are located in China and the USA. Back then, we decided that we wanted to create something of lasting value, which is why we developed not only the business plan but also the product itself. The biggest learning has been how much time you can save by simply building prototypes and interacting with clients, rather than getting lost in theory and Excel projections. Also, it is much more appealing if you can prove your business figures based on real-world experience. Sharing a common goal and working towards something "tangible" was a powerful motivator for the entire team. We knew what we were aiming at and how to go about it, so we did not have to discuss opinions; instead, we were all interested in obtaining real data," says Harald Trautsch.
About the product:
Life is too short for bad presentations: gone are the days when boring lectures and presentations made you fall asleep! Thanks to iVoting, lecturers are now able to interact with their audiences. It gives them the opportunity to ask participants questions that they can answer in real time via their smartphones, tablets or laptops. iVoting is fun and easy to use—and it is free. Voting results are available immediately and inserted directly into the presentation. In the past, remote controls and receivers had to be hired or bought, which required considerable logistic and financial resources. Now, by contrast, everyone can take advantage of iVoting.
- BPL "GREENoneTEC enters the US market" market-entry study: Norbert Wirth
"The VTP provided me with an opportunity to deepen my understanding of the solar business—an industry I worked in myself as a photovoltaic professional between 2010 and 2012. Moreover, it is very gratifying for us to know that a company has taken up our project and derived enormous benefits from it. As a result of our recommendations, Carinthia-based "GREENoneTEC" has not only entered the market successfully but also established a production facility in Mexico where it produces, among other things, solar panels for the US market in general, and for California in particular," says Norbert Wirth.
About the custom study:
"GREENoneTEC", one of Europe's largest manufacturers of solar thermal panels, was interested in an in-depth evaluation, which was to include a business plan for entering the US market—a goal that the St.Veit/Glan-based business intended (in 2007) to reach within no more than two years. For our project, we initiated a custom study (BPL "GREENoneTEC enters the US market"). Some two years later, "GREENoneTEC" managed to reach this vitally important milestone by implementing our recommendations. By now, they have even set up a production facility in Mexico, which we had suggested as an alternative in order to boost local value creation and ensure competitive pricing of products.