This section first presents the findings on ICT utilization patterns, followed by key results on how leadership may influence such patterns. Table 2 shows ten media and their pattern changes during 4 project stages. Instant messaging (largely Wechat and WhatsApp), team discussion platform (Canvas), and document sharing (Google Drive and Dropbox) are the 3 most frequently-used media in all phases. Interestingly, the face-to-face medium is only 4th in usage, which is a relatively static position through all stages. All 4 top media utilization rates declined in the 2nd phase (planning) and 3rd phase (execution). Three of the four increase again in the closing stage except face-to-face, contrary to our expectations. A technique integral to the project itself, presentation display, switched positions with face-to-face in the final stage.
While face-to-face is a robust medium often desirable to users because of its “richness,” it is often inconvenient in its requirements for scheduling and travel, and inflexible in timing, especially during emergencies (like Covid 19) when in-person meetings are restricted. While participants clearly valued face-to-face meetings, they used them more sparingly, and replaced them with other less-rich media such as frequent instant messaging or shared chat methods. As one respondent said in the reflective essay, “it was a difficult task to finish the project on time through face-to-face meetings, so we created a group chat to replace some face-to-face communication.”
Groups used combinations of virtual messages to achieve richness by the rapidity of response (instant messaging), the convenience of responding after consideration with clear, documented answers (team discussion platforms), and the sharing of actual project materials in real time (document sharing). The use of multiple virtual media with frequent interactions allowed participants to shift from occasional synchronous face-to-face meetings with hard copy exchanges and review to asynchronous virtual settings. As one subject noted in the essay, “we tried to use different kinds of approaches to facilitate the communication and the project work. We shared findings and information and created a group chat in WhatsApp as a communication channel. By using Google Drive, we accessed and shared group work progress easily.”
It should also be noted that lesser-used media in this case study reflect an array of substitutions, redundancy, and unique factors. Email was largely substituted by the similar functionality of the team discussion platform, as was the use of social media. Nonetheless, these other media were occasionally used and provided useful redundancy. Telephone was used sparingly because it was largely a one-to-one medium, but again, it provided redundancy and greater richness when text messages were insufficient and team platform messages were too slow. Because of its small size, videoconferencing use (potentially a rich and more convenient medium than face-to-face) in Hong Kong lagged many other places, and was not a supported technology of the university at the time of research.
Finding 1: Stronger e-leadership demonstrates a relatively higher-level use of multiple ICTs (especially team discussion forum and document sharing), selective use of traditional media, and use of combinations of media to achieve communication richness.
Teams with a greater level of e-leadership tend to use more media as well. By an overall e-leadership index that includes all e-leadership items in this study (see Appendix A), we classified the top 6 of the 12 study teams as stronger e-leadership teams and the last 6 as weaker e-leadership teams. Table 3 shows their media use in all project phases combined. Stronger e-leadership teams use various virtual media more frequently than the weaker groups. The use of team discussion forum and document sharing—2 complementary tools for effective communication (i.e., forums for clear and recorded discussions followed up by documents sharing)—is particularly salient among stronger e-leadership groups. For example, the use of team discussion forum (mean score = 4.81) was close to 5 times a week in stronger e-leadership groups, significantly greater than that of weaker groups (4.06) which is close to 4 times weekly. The difference is statistically significant at the 10 percent level. On the contrary, there is little difference in the use of more traditional media between stronger and weaker e-leadership teams (email, face-to-face, telephone, hard copies etc.).
The findings suggest the potential impact of e-leadership on ICT utilization pattern in virtual workplaces. Stronger team leaders have a greater use of multiple ICTs, supplemented by selective use of traditional media, to achieve communication richness. Feedback from students indicates that team leaders play a pivotal role in initiating communications with ICTs. As one team member said, “our group captain encouraged us to try a variety of means and help us to brainstorm. Every time we got the feedback from the professor, he promptly organized meetings and discussed our research progress.”
Though the existing research shows an increase in ICT adoption in virtual settings which have become increasingly popular especially during Covid 19 [62, 63], the ICT adoption patterns and their causes (including the role of leadership) in these settings have not been fully discovered and understood, though one recent study does find that the significant role of tech-savvy leaders in building virtual teams in leadership effectiveness . This finding suggests that organizational leaders can produce effective institutional outcomes by promoting a higher-level adoption of multiple ICTs with alternating uses of rich media (such as discussion forum) and lean media (such as document sharing) in virtual settings to replace face-to-face communication (rich media) and printed documents (lean media) in physical work settings. Indeed, though there has been little research so far to compare the leadership role in ICT usage in traditional physical workplaces and virtual workplaces, there is an understanding that leadership in virtual settings has certain unique characteristics that distinguish it from leadership in traditional physical settings .
Finding 2: Stronger e-leadership teams use ICT more consistently, compared to weaker e-leadership teams which start at about the same ICT level as the stronger e-leadership teams, but finish much weaker at the end. Stronger e-leaders know how to maintain contacts and accommodate tasks—especially at the planning and closing phases, alternating various ICTs to match specific requirements at different phases.
Table 4 compares the media use patterns of stronger and weaker e-leadership teams in project phases. Both groups have relatively high usage of all media at the initiating phase (see Appendix B for tasks in various phases). Weaker e-leadership teams initially communicate slightly more in all categories except hard copies and emails. Weaker e-leadership groups have significantly more face-to-face communications likely because some weaker groups have harder time to decide on the topics of their projects. At least one weaker team changed its leader at this stage. One member complained about the difficulty in communication in finding a topic and hinted about the team leader’s inability to balance “every groupmates’ interests”.
When the projects move into the next phase (the planning stage), the communication of the weaker e-leadership groups fall off in all categories, whereas stronger e-leadership groups maintain a stable communication level. Stronger e-leadership groups do 2 things that distinguish themselves from weaker groups when moving into the planning stage from the initiating phase. First, they increase the use of more traditional media such as face-to-face (3.41 to 3.57), presentation display (from 3.00 to 3.46) and telephone (from 1.99 to 2.33). Second, they maintain a level of virtual media communication that is significantly greater than weaker groups, especially in instant messaging, team discussion forum, and document sharing (differences are all statistically significant, see Table 4). It appears that planning—a phase that establishes membership responsibilities and task logistics—is a critical time when strong e-leaders emerge. Strong e-leaders maintain a higher-level contact in all categories with alternating use of virtual and traditional media with their group members.
The media use declines in the 3rd phase (execution) in all categories in all groups. Nevertheless, stronger e-leadership teams maintain a higher-level communication than weaker teams in all categories, though these differences are not statistically significant. Then, in the closing stage, another major difference for stronger e-leadership groups surfaces with the resurgent usage of virtual media, which in the case of document sharing and presentation display was even stronger than the initiating phase. As in the planning phase, team discussion forum and document sharing stand out as two ICTs used significantly more by stronger e-leadership groups than weaker teams at the closing stage.
In sum, there is a U-shape pattern of ICT use in stronger e-leadership groups which suggests a greater need for intergroup communication at the planning and closing stages of a project. In contrast, weaker e-leadership groups experience declines in all media over time. The different utilization patterns of ICTs between stronger and weaker e-leadership groups in project phases are dramatic. This finding supports the literature that leadership is as much about sustaining the managerial (operational) process as about enhancing institutional outcomes [45, 65]. It indicates the importance of sustaining leadership efforts throughout the whole managerial and productional process in improving leadership effectiveness, which is particularly important in a project management setting of this study where timely completion of clearly-defined tasks for team members is the key for success.
Finding 3: E-trust is the most important e-leadership attribute in media use, and it is built largely through virtual ICT media, notably instant messaging, team discussion forum, document sharing, and presentation display.
We further analyze the relationship between six e-leadership components and ICT media use. Table 5 shows that, among all six e-leadership attributes, e-trust was ranked the highest in all 4 phases, reflecting the trust-building nature of project development where members are transient and responsibilities are relatively short-term but clearly-defined and demanding.
Trust is developed largely through 4 virtual ICTs in team discussion forum, instant messaging, document sharing, and presentation display. Strong leaders use rich media (team discussion forum and instant messaging) to build relationships, which are reinforced through lean media (document sharing and presentation display) to accomplish tasks. Table 5 shows that these 4 virtual ICTs are the most significant in developing e-leadership. All key leadership functions—trust development, communication, social activities, team building, change management, and technology sophistication—are associated with these 4 ICTs at statically significant levels. Indeed, essay responses indicate that group leaders often took responsibilities of assigning detailed tasks to group members. Earning trust through frequent ICT communications seem to help leaders accomplish that. Leaders use these 4 ICTs in communication with members and these media in turn help leaders build up their leadership functions.