Blended project teams and client-vendor trust
Many projects are run as collaborative efforts between customer and provider (or vendor) organisations. It is well accepted that such co-creation involving both parties is an effective way for service organisations to enhance acceptance of the services they provide. It is a common practice for IT service providers to locate their consultants at client sites for the entire duration of the project. In this period consultants and client-side employees work together in blended teams. It is clear that the (provider-side) project manager plays a critical role in such projects because he or she is at the interface, or boundary, between two organisations. A recent paper, by Sheila Simsarian Webber, entitled, Blending Service Provider – Client Project Teams to Achieve Client Trust: Implications for Project Team Trust, Cohesion and Performance, published in the June 2008 issue of the Project Management Journal, investigates the effectiveness of such teaming from the perspective of trust between the project manager (as a proxy for the supplier) and the client. I review the paper below.
Background and Objectives
Interestingly, most of the research on co-creation or co-production has focused on bringing the customer into the service organisation rather than the other way round. That’s strange (to me at any rate) because the latter situation, in which provider-side employees are placed in client organisations, is way more common in IT projects. Placing employees within client organisations gives the service provider ongoing opportunities to understand a client’s business better, and thus foster long-term relationships with them. However, this works only if there is trust between the two parties. The project manager (as a proxy for the provider) plays a key role in developing this relationship. In the paper, the author provides empirical evidence that the use of blended teams creates a more trusting relationship between the client and project manager. Further, the research also shows that gaining the client’s trust has the side effect of improving (intra-team) team trust, cohesion and performance.
Before proceeding any further, it is worth defining what is meant by trust. Following Mayer, Davis and Schoorman, the author defines interpersonal trust as the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that party. Researchers have identified two dimensions of interpersonal trust: affective and cognitive. The first is based on emotional bonds and the second on notions of reliability, dependability and competence. Trust among business partners involves both types of trust. In the case at hand, it is important that the client not only believes in the project managers competence, but also that he or she cares about the client’s business (i.e. has an emotional bond with the client). Blended teams provide more opportunity for interaction between the client and provider and hence the basis for the author’s first hypothesis:
Hypothesis 1. Blended project teams will have greater client trust (than non-blended teams).
Katz and Kahn proposed that an organization be considered as an open system that interacts with its environment. If this is so, it is important that boundary relationships – i.e. relationships at the interface between an organisation and its environment (which could be another organisation) – be managed effectively. The open system concept has been applied to teams as well. Further, earlier research has demonstrated that managing relationships outside team boundaries is important for knowledge transfer and team success. In the case of project teams, managing external relationships is generally the responsibility of the project manager. In the present case the main external relationship (from the perspective of the provider) is the one between the project manager and the client. Based on research by Amy Edmondson , which suggests that boundary spanning relationships affect team trust, cohesion and effectiveness, the author proposes the following as her second hypothesis:
Hypothesis 2. Client trust in his or her direct project manager will be positively (or directly) related to team trust, cohesion or performance. That is, as client trust (in the PM) increases, so does team trust, cohesion and performance.
Finally, as a follow-on to the second hypothesis, the author suggests a that there is a stronger positive correlation between client trust and team trust, cohesion and performance if the team is blended. This leads to her third hypothesis which is:
Hypothesis 3. The relationship between client trust and team trust, cohesion and performance is stronger when teams are blended (as compared to non-blended teams).
Results and Discussion
The author surveyed 31 IT project teams (20 blended and 11 non-blended). Data was collected from project managers, their primary client contacts and project teams. Project managers reported on background information, nature and duration of project and whether or not the team was blended; clients were surveyed for an assessment of trust (cognitive and affective); and teams were asked about team trust, cohesion and performance. I won’t discuss specific metrics used by the author – please see the original paper for more on these.
The research results vis-a-vis the above hypotheses can be summarised as follows:
1. Clients tend to have greater (cognitive and affective) trust in project managers who are a part of a blended team.
2. The client’s cognitive trust in the project manager has significant positive implications for the team’s (internal) cognitive trust and has marginally significant positive implications for the team’s affective trust. Interestingly, the client’s affective trust in the project manager has significant positive implications for the team’s cognitive and affective trust. This seems to suggest that emotional trust between the client and the project manager carries more weight than perceptions relating to competence and reliability.
3. The results around the third hypothesis are even more interesting. The data suggests that there is a relationship between client trust / team trust, cohesion and performance and whether or not a team is blended. However, this relationship isn’t as hypothesised: it turns out that when the client does not have much cognitive trust in the project manager, a blended team has significantly less cognitive team trust than a non-blended team. Similar results hold for team performance: when the client does not have much affective trust in the project manager, a blended team will show significantly lower levels of performance than non-blended teams. Why should this be so? I suggest it is because non-blended teams, due to the lack of interaction between client and provider side team members, are shielded from the politics of the client-project manager relationship. In blended teams, on the other hand, co-location of team members and managers, and the resulting opportunities for informal communication, means that a sour relationship between the client and project manager can quickly translate to breakdown of team relationships.
The results lend empirical backing to the importance of client relationship management for project managers. Specifically, for blended teams, the research shows that trust between the project manager and the client is directly related to team trust and performance. Furthermore, blended teams tend to be more negatively affected than non-blended teams in cases where the relationship between the project manager and client is not good. This, again, highlights the critical role of client-project manager relationships for blended teams.
Although many of the results discussed in the previous may seem evident to professional project managers who work with blended teams, the research is interesting because it lends empirical support to such “obvious” notions. Having said that, the conclusions drawn by the author should not be overstated, particularly because of the small sample size and limitations imposed by the survey methodology (for example, the data did not capture the nature / scope of the project and other factors which may have an effect on the conclusions). Further, the research does not consider factors such as organisational culture and constraints, which may have a significant effect on the functioning of blended teams and the development of trust between employees from different organisations. In view of these limitations the results can be regarded as suggestive, but by no means definitive. Nevertheless, the paper is of interest to project managers and senior executives who work in service and consulting organisations.
Webber, S.S., Blending Service Provider – Client Project Teams to Achieve Client Trust: Implications for Project Team Trust, Cohesion and Performance, Project Management Journal, 39 (2), 72-81. (2008).