Courtesy of Virginia Tech
Virtual is a reality in project work by global participants in a lab-created shared cybergrid environment. Researchers say the approach reduced the impact of cultural differences and time spent resolving conflicts.

Can global project design and construction teams work more effectively in a totally virtual environment, rather than face to face? Industry professionals and academic researchers at six universities are now experimenting with the approach on real projects in cyberspace.

The research, funded for the past four years by the National Science Foundation, the Construction Industry Institute and other groups, is an effort to develop virtual tools to support global teams, improve their efficiency and cut costs.

The researchers currently involved are from Virginia Tech University, the University of Washington, Columbia University and schools in India, Holland and Finland.

Student teams have executed real projects, from a dorm in India to the Madison Square Garden renovation in New York City, on a lab-created "CyberGRID," says team leader John E. Taylor, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.

"We arrange students into global teams, with complex projects assigned, and then set them loose on the CyberGRID and ask them to cooperate on execution of tasks," he notes.

"The major part of the grant is to build tools to support the spatially complex AEC work but also to study such things as how leadership works in a virtual team environment," says Taylor. "Working in a virtual world has enhanced communication and collaboration. We found the virtual tools can minimize the impact of cultural differences and reduce time in resolving conflicts. The results have important implications."

Recently joining the researchers are Skanska staffers, thanks to the firm's recent corporate grant of an undisclosed amount.

Greg Smith, the firm's virtual design and construction director, says engineers used the CyberGRID environment to collaborate and communicate on the recently completed Boeing aircraft facility in Washington state, as university researchers monitored interactions.

"Unlike LiveMeeting or similar platforms, the team members will be constantly connected, can share images and files instantly, have whiteboard discussions and can include additional team members when necessary," Smith points out.

"Team members felt more connected to each other through use of avatars and voice communication," he adds. "As our teams grow more transient [and are not] physically present on every jobsite or in every office, the ability to work more effectively becomes critical to understand and develop."