Leadership and learning in distributed teams


Army training for soldiers and leaders must increasingly include preparation for operations in technology-mediated settings. We propose a sociological study in the context of distributed teams of software developers to identify theoretically-driven and empirically-grounded specifications of leadership and learning behaviors, capabilities and skills that critically influence distributed team performance. As well, we will experimentally validate antecedents of leadership and learning in these distributed teams, thus providing a basis for future training programs and other interventions to enhance distributed team performance. Our study addresses two general research questions: How does leadership emerge and function in distributed technology-mediated teams of software developers? and How do developers in these teams form shared mental models, informal norms and formal rules, and how do these structures guide their behaviours?
To answer these questions, we will conduct a longitudinal in-depth action research study describing and comparing the formation and evolution of distributed teams of Free/Libre Open Source (FLOSS) developers. FLOSS teams are extreme examples of bottom-up selforganization, being composed largely of volunteer members who interact via computer-mediated communications (CMC). We will study how these distributed groups develop shared mental models to guide members’ behavior, roles to mediate access to resources and to provide leadership for the group, and norms and rules to shape action, as well as the dynamics by which independent, geographically-dispersed individuals are socialized into teams. As a basis for this study, we develop a structurational framework that integrates research on team behavior, organizational learning, communities of practice and shared mental models. We will utilize qualitative data analysis of team interactions, observation and interview data to investigate the team dynamics. We will also use social network analysis to study the change in communications and roles over time.
The study will have conceptual, empirical and practical contributions. Developing an integrated theoretical framework to understand the dynamics of learning and leadership in distributed teams is a contribution to the study of distributed teams. The project will contribute to advancing knowledge and understanding of FLOSS development and distributed work more generally by identifying how these teams evolve and how new members are socialized, thus filling a gap in the literature on self-organization and emergent leadership with an in-depth investigation based on a large pool of data. As well, we will use several different techniques to analyze the practices, providing different perspectives of analysis and a more reliable portrait of what happens in FLOSS teams.
Understanding these questions is of practical important because a network organization entails an increased use of distributed teams for a wide range of work. If successful, the project will shed light on learning and leadership for distributed work teams, which will be valuable for managers who intend to implement such an organizational form. The results of the study can serve as guidelines to behavior or as the basis for training (e.g., for team governance, task coordination, communication practices, mentoring) to improve distributed team organization and performance.

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