empowering cross-cultural teams with technology

Collaboration across time zones and cultures is an inevitable consequence of the growing globalization of business and communication. It is a boost for business as it allows managers to choose the best people for the job and benefit from their different viewpoints.

In fact, research has shown that in the long run heterogeneous  (multicultural)  teams outperform homogeneous teams because they have different perspectives on a problem and can come up with novel solutions. The challenge is that collaboration between different cultures is harder to manage, because of deep-rooted social differences that govern how people work together.

To help understand how technology can overcome these differences, Fons Trompenaars – one the best-known commentators on the area – will host an Orange Business webinar on Friday  June 5th at 14:00-14:40 CET.

In this blog, I’m going to whet your appetite for the webinar with a few scenarios. They will illustrate how cultural differences can make collaboration a challenge, and how technology can help solve them.

1. emotional response: neutral vs affective

All human interaction involves some form of emotion, but cultures can vary dramatically as too how much emotion they display. This level can also vary based on context and who they are interacting with. For example, subtle emotional clues used by neutral societies could be completely missed by those from emotional (also known as affective) cultures. And strongly-expressed opinions by affective cultures could be misinterpreted as inflexibility by neutral cultures.

Consider trying to make decisions in a meeting with participants from different cultures. Someone with an affective approach could be enthusiastic about a proposal, but may be just trying to make the other parties feel more comfortable – or spark a debate on the pros and cons. On the other hand a person from a neutral culture may seem reticent, but that doesn’t mean that they are not interested.

The key to reconcile these contrasting positons is to have an understanding of the different cultural dimensions and not to make judgements based on emotion alone. Using multiple communications channels can help minimize misunderstanding that could occur on a conference call for example. Video can help participants pick up visual clues that can be very important in discussions and IM can clarify certain points where required. Other collaboration tools such as voting functionality can also help people get their voice and opinion heard in large groups.

2. the importance of context: specific (low context) vs diffuse (high context)

In specific cultures, like Australia, people are quite happy to compartmentalize work and play. For example, it is common to do business with people they have not yet met before. The key to these cultures is that they are focused on standards, measures and contracts. And just because a person is quickly accepted into the public sphere of life, doesn’t mean that they are automatically accepted the private sphere.

The flip-side are diffuse cultures like those found in the Gulf states who have a different attitude to relationships. In other words, before they do business with someone, they would like to know more about them, which requires a high level of involvement.  Although it may be harder to be taken into their confidence initially, once this has been achieved, then you are close to them in all social spheres.

The widespread use of telephony and other communications tells has reduced context for most interactions, which makes it a particular challenge for diffuse cultures. However, collaboration tools can also help restore context for some interactions. Think of using enterprise social networks to get to know team members better and find common ground, and video conferencing to better approximate face-to-face meetings. But perhaps most important is to provide the ability for meeting participants to communicate privately so that they don’t “lose face” in a public meeting.

3. sequential vs synchronic

How people deal with time is one of the biggest differences between cultures and it can have a real impact on how projects are run. The two opposing views are the sequential and synchronistic approaches.

The former sees time moving forward minute-by-minute in a straight line and considers time commitments as milestones that need to be taken very seriously. For them, keeping to the schedule is the key to completing a project on time and on budget. People from a synchronistic culture on the other hand, see a project as many tasks in parallel. The schedule is considered more of a guideline, which is able to change to meet changing requirements. For them, the task at hand’s priorities are more important.

Reconciling these two opposing approaches is essential for any multicultural team working on projects together. Without reconciliation, both parties would consider the other unreasonable. Successful reconciliation needs to be more than just tolerating differences, both parties need to make an effort to meet the other’s priorities and work together effectively.

Videoconferencing can help in this reconciliation effort because it can support both ad-hoc and scheduled meetings. In fact, via presence functionality, it’s possible to see who is available and set up an unscheduled collaboration session immediately. For scheduled project meetings, video conferencing and shared applications provide the clarity that participants need to discuss the issues at hand.

looking to the 7Cs for clarity

All successful cross-cultural collaboration is rooted in clarity. Trompenaars has suggested seven “Cs” that can help people ensure that they get their point across without misunderstanding or loss of face. They are:

  • clear: be clear about your goal and purpose of your message
  • concise: stick to the point and be brief
  • concrete: provide sufficient details, vivid facts and examples
  • correct: ensure spelling and grammar is error-free, and minimize jargon
  • coherent: be logical and relevant with a consistent flow
  • complete: ensure all relevant information is present
  • courteous: be friendly, open and honest
  • credible: make sure you message highlights your credibility
  • creative: engage your audience

Sign up for the webinar on Friday  June 5th at 14:00-14:40 CET HERE to learn more.

Read more about going global with Orange Business

Anthony Plewes

After a Masters in Computer Science, I decided that I preferred writing about IT rather than programming. My 20-year writing career has taken me to Hong Kong and London where I've edited and written for IT, business and electronics publications. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Stewart Baines where I continue to write about a range of topics such as unified communications, cloud computing and enterprise applications.