Dispersed Teams : a Volvo IT Case Study

Nowadays, as non-traditional teams are becoming more and more commonplace, understanding the dynamics of dispersed teams is paramount. It is no secret that corporations are outsourcing their operations to different countries and investing in expertise located anywhere around the world. This type of behaviour has created a need for geographically dispersed collaboration processes and solutions. 
 
While team members working on the same site may have the advantage over dispersed teams in many aspects, a thoughtful knowledge management process may actually give dispersed teams the upper hand.
 
Dispersed teams collaboration

Volvo IT - Managing the use of knowledge between teams in China and Sweden

In 2009, Volvo IT established a global delivery centre in Tianjin, which worked closely with Gothenburg and other sites to develop and maintain IT-solutions that support vehicle sales in Volvo Group worldwide. Instead of opting to organise their application delivery by geography in order to have a closer interaction with end users and less need for interaction globally, Volvo IT has chosen a worldwide strategy, creating teams that are spread out on two continents and organised primarily by application portfolio rather than location. 
 
The study, which you can read in full here, is a "qualitative action research in close cooperation with Volvo IT where the researchers have conducted interviews at the offices of Volvo IT in Gothenburg and Tianjin, and conducted a web-based survey with Volvo IT employees working in Swedish-Chinese teams." 
 
All team members had excellent English and communication skills which was a necessity for this program to work. This way, there was no need for the interaction between teams to pass through additional management layers, and the team was truly one dispersed team instead of two teams. This also made it easier to transfer roles between the sites when opportunities occurred, and all employees became a part of an international resource pool. 
 
Another necessary condition was to have a common culture in the team, despite the wide differences in national culture. This was solved by sending Swedish expatriate line managers in Tianjin, giving extensive training on Volvo culture to new managers and including a phone interview with a Service delivery manager in Sweden as part of the recruiting process.

Handling the knowledge cycle

Different roles require different types of knowledge for their responsibilities in Volvo, such as domain knowledge, technical knowledge and knowledge for project management. The focus here was on managing domain knowledge, as it differentiated Volvo IT from other IT companies. 
They needed to create new knowledge by combining existing knowledge of the firm to define and solve problems. 
 
The requirement was: Volvo IT needed to supply IT solutions to internal customers in the Volvo Group, solve change requests from the customers efficiently and add value to the customers. While solving problems, Volvo IT defined them and implemented new solutions, and also developed new knowledge and understanding of the business which was later used in future application improvements and solution developments.

Storing Knowledge

The main reasons organisations store knowledge is to maintain strategic direction, reduce repetitive work, facilitate organisational learning and make locating expertise easier. In Volvo IT, the organisational memory regarding the domain knowledge was stored as lessons learned on team foundation server, and some of those lessons could have been reused and updated for future application while some documentation could not. 
 
The difficulty was capturing tacit knowledge as most of the employees in Gothenburg have worked for many years and have a substantial amount of individual memory which was difficult to materialise and store for future use.
 
For example, some of that individual knowledge is preserved in emails and meeting notes which are unsearchable for the others. 

Knowledge transfer and sharing

As said in their research study, there was a lack of standardised processes to transfer knowledge in Volvo IT. The knowledge transfer usually happened when someone would leave the company or during business meetings.
 
If the person hired was experienced or coming from within Volvo IT, the transfer of explicit knowledge from the people leaving their jobs to the new people who take the vacant position would take a month or so. Explicit knowledge, saved in the documentation, is generally easier to transfer than tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge regarding the understanding of business requests and the decision making is more difficult to be transferred and can normally be lost during knowledge transfer. 
 
A lot of knowledge sharing comes within the culture itself. For example, Volvo IT staff from Gothenburg spend a lot of time on meetings and discussions, and discuss work with colleagues over lunch, thus keeping valuable tacit knowledge between themselves. Their teammates from Tianjin discuss less with their colleagues during lunch, but they have more initiatives to share knowledge and prefer to have more opportunities to involve in the communities to share with others. They also place much less importance on face-to-face meetings and cooperate better online compared to their Swedish colleagues. However, they tend not to discuss sensitive issues or raise new ideas in meetings, especially unprepared. They are much more used to using written communication which is great for knowledge sharing, but as mentioned a lot of that information is unsearchable.

Expert help

The most efficient way of finding domain knowledge is to ask colleagues to either explain or to refer you to a person who can explain.Team members from both countries agree that access to expertise is paramount. However, the cultural differences arise here as well, Swedish people reach out to their colleagues, while their Chinese counterparts prefer to learn from the existing documentation and avoid asking managers for help as they are hesitant to let them know that they do not know something. This concern is not uncommon, and we've written about it. 
 
Swedes, on the other hand, are very open to reaching out and contact new people without being introduced by a mutual contact. 
 
Volvo IT has developed systems on the intranet to be able to find people with specific competence, but the systems are not being used today, although there is a need for discovering experts, especially in Tianjin. 

Did they make it work?

Volvo IT has successfully managed to establish a similar workplace culture in Tianjin as in Gothenburg by focusing on working with training on culture, emphasising cultural fit when making recruitment decisions, sending Swedish expatriate managers to Tianjin and having close daily interaction with colleagues in Gothenburg.
 
It seems that managing tacit knowledge remains a challenge.
 
What do you think?

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