USC Marshall: Teaching the art of virtual team collaboration

When one of our business school graduates lands his or her dream job, I can’t help but smile. At the University of Southern California – Marshall School of Business, we take immense pride in our graduates’ achievements.

However, our own success in evolving the USC Marshall curriculum to boost students’ edge in a super-competitive marketplace doesn’t happen by accident. We carefully listen to what potential employers of business school graduates want and act accordingly.

And what do they want?

Interestingly, even though today’s students are savvy in using digital and social tools, employers report that their hires need to be better all-around communicators. They want people who are highly skilled at working in teams, conveying information through written and oral communications, and interacting with members of other cultures and varying perspectives, including in online environments.

USC Marshall has long helped students develop exceptional soft skills, such as leadership, communication and collaboration. However, a few of us in the department of Business Communication saw that many students struggled when it came to virtual team collaboration.

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No other higher education programs focused directly on this area, so we launched our own project.

Boosting performance with a shared platform

We call it the Virtual Business Professional Project. Over the span of six weeks, students in several courses come together in an online community to complete an assigned project. We don’t allow them to team with people they have already met, or to work face to face once the project starts.

At first, we let students choose their own tools, whether it be email, text messaging, Skype, Google Docs or Google Hangouts. We thought, today’s students understand how to communicate in the online space, and they can be effective using the tools they know.

We were entirely wrong.

Even though they loved using the tools, students engaged in fragmented conversations and produced subpar work. Our measures of how well the teams coordinated tasks, made decisions, explored options, and talked through disagreements indicated that the students weren’t integrating and performing effectively as teams.

Once we required them to use the IBM Connections shared virtual team collaboration platform, team performance and work quality dramatically improved. What’s more, students said they developed stronger friendships with their online teammates.

Creating cross-cultural virtual teams

We’re expanding the project internationally so that our students can become more adept at working across cultures. Using digital communities, they engage with students attending universities in Finland, Canada, France, Spain and India, creating really compelling, intercultural experiences. We also have interest from higher education institutions in a variety of other places, located as far away as Latin America and northeast Asia.

My colleagues and I are certainly smiling about the project’s success. We’re addressing employers’ major pain points, giving business graduates a distinct advantage when it comes to landing their dream jobs.

Plus, it’s extremely satisfying to see students push toward stronger team performance and produce something that’s better than the individual parts. We’re fostering virtual team collaboration among students on a whole new level, a level never seen before in the higher education space.

For more, watch the IBM interview with Peter Cardon below.