Exploring the factors which affect cohesion and conflict in distributed information systems development project teams

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McCarthy, Stephen
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University College Cork
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In recent years, we have witnessed an increasing trend towards the conduct of Information Systems Development (ISD) projects in distributed environments, whereby ISD team members are geographically, spatially and organizationally dispersed. This has been driven by the desire of organizations to expand their pool of development resources and to gain access to diverse sources of expertise, irrespective of location or organizational affiliation. While these benefits are impressive, the conduct of distributed ISD projects is far from a routine undertaking. This is reflected more broadly in the high rate of ISD project failure recorded across different industry sectors and organizational settings over the past twenty years. In particular, the effectiveness of distributed ISD teams is often inhibited by deep seated social and task-related differences between team members. For instance, distributed ISD project team members typically come from diverse backgrounds which can create social challenges around the alignment of structures, identities, and cultures, as well as task-based challenges related to the delivery of project outcomes. In light of these challenges, literature suggests that cohesion is a key determinant of team performance. However, a competing set of literature asserts that conflict is essential for exploiting diverse knowledge. These contrasting bodies of literature highlight an opportunity to explore the factors which affect the tension between both cohesion and conflict in distributed ISD projects and the impact these have on team performance. The dissertation therefore seeks to explore how cohesion and conflict co-exist and co-evolve through distributed ISD project team interactions, and how this impacts team performance. The dissertation presents a within-case and cross-case analysis of three distributed ISD projects. Each in-depth case study is characterised by inherent aspects of complexity or ‘wickedness’ which created unique challenges around the need for both cohesion and conflict. For instance, the distributed ISD projects were undertaken in emergent areas (i.e. connected health), and the team members in each case had not worked together before. In order to explore this emerging research area, theory building is undertaken by the researcher to describe and explain the factors which affect cohesion and conflict in distributed ISD project team interactions. The theoretical framework co-evolved through empirical insights from the in-depth case studies as well as logical propositions from seminal literature. Discussions of case study findings are structured according to the concepts developed in the theoretical framework, as well as their underlying relationships. These emergent theoretical insights are also used to guide discussions around both team performance and distributed ISD project team leadership later in the dissertation. The dissertation presents a number of unique contributions. Firstly, the dissertation develops a novel theoretical framework for describing and explaining how the interplay between different factors shape team interactions in distributed ISD projects. This contribution can help deepen scholars’ understanding of the complex and dynamic nature of team interactions in distributed ISD projects. Secondly, the dissertation contributes insights into how shared understanding and shared commitment among the team can be affected by these factors. In particular, findings presented from the in-depth case studies suggest that shared understanding and shared commitment may evolve in ways which are often unexpected. Thirdly, novel contributions are made by considering the relationship between cohesion, conflict and team performance. For instance, findings from the cross-case analysis suggests that cohesion and conflict are both needed to maximise team performance in distributed ISD projects. In particular, findings suggest that cohesion and conflict are appropriate for realising different perspectives of ISD project team performance. Lastly, the dissertation contributes insights into how team leaders can respond to social and task-based factors in distributed ISD projects. The dissertation puts forward a new style of team leadership called ‘agitation’. This theoretical contribution expands on existing literature by considering how team leaders embed constructive conflict into team member interactions in order to challenge social and task-related differences. Finally, the dissertation puts forward the concept of ‘leadership intelligence’ to contribute insights into how leaders can develop the sensitivity to know when to promote and suppress different leadership styles over the course of a project, and indeed even during an individual interaction. The structure of the dissertation is as follows: Chapter 1 provides a high-level introduction to the dissertation and sets out the structure of the remaining chapters as well as how they relate to each other. Chapter 2 presents a review of existing literature across the key areas of study and identifies areas which the dissertation will aim to investigate. Chapter 3 then outlines the first stage of theoretical development undertaken by the researcher which uses logical propositions from literature to investigate the relationship between concepts. Meanwhile, Chapter 4 presents an overview of the paradigm choice, research method, research strategy, and research process. Chapters 5-8 then investigate each research question in turn based on in-depth case study findings from three distributed ISD projects. Each case study is used to support theory building through empirical insights from a within-case analysis. Chapter 9 then provides a cross-case analysis of the research questions drawing on further empirical insights from across the three in-depth case studies. Chapter 10 draws the dissertation to a close with a conclusion.
Systems development , Shared understanding , Shared commitment , Team performance , Team leadership , Team cohesion , Team conflict , Macro-level , Micro-level , Distributed teams , Project management , Team interactions
McCarthy, S. 2019. Exploring the factors which affect cohesion and conflict in distributed information systems development project teams. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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