can technology help different cultures collaborate?


The age of communications has made the world smaller than ever before, but cultural differences remain. Real Times spoke to cultural expert Fons Trompenaars to find out what role technology and communications can play in helping us overcome cultural differences – particularly in multinational companies (MNC).

Doing business and working practices are very different in the Ivory Coast, US and Japan. It’s easy to spot the differences in the clothes, architecture and food, but for successful interaction you need to understand another culture’s values and norms. Global business has long wrestled with the challenging of managing teams in different cultures, but global communications has widened the issue.

at a moment’s notice

It is now possible to create multicultural teams across different countries at a moment’s notice to meet specific challenges. The advantages of this approach is that global businesses are able to pool skills and resources from across the world to work towards a common goal.

As Trompenaars puts it: “The synergies created by different cultures leads to interesting insight, better results and more innovation.” And in fact the value digital tools can bring to collaboration frequently exceeds that of traditional business travel and face-to-face meetings.

Trompenaars has identified five dimensions of cultural differences that affect how people use communication and collaboration technologies. With all of them we suggest a way that technology can help reconcile these differences.

1. universalistic vs particularistic

The former societies are focused on rules, standards and procedures, while the latter are more flexible and focused on relationships. This can have a big impact on how people communicate.

People focused on rules relate to the standards dictated to us by communications media, such as how to use an email and how many characters are required for Twitter. Moreover there are some processes you need to follow if you want to be seen as a correct user. For example, they expect to get a response to an email within an accepted time period.

On the other hand, relationship-oriented people value the unique approach. They would rather go in person and want to show their seriousness by a handwritten letter, for example.

  • how to reconcile: training is important for appropriate use of communications tools. Multiple communications channels can help rule-oriented colleagues build deeper relationships.

2. individualistic vs communitarian

The former society puts individuals first and rewards their achievements. The latter society is focused on primarily working for the community, from which the individual will get their reward. For individualistic people, having knowledge alone is no longer enough, because it is widely shared by technology. In fact connections, which have always been a feature of communitarian society, have become more important. In addition, for group-oriented cultures digital technology offers a great opportunity to widen the group and enhance the communication between its members.

  • how to reconcile: an individualist can use the Internet to build connections, while a communitarian person can use it gain recognition as an individual, such as by writing a blog and by anonymizing it can get out of the group pressure.

3. neutral vs affective

Communicating over the Internet is a particular challenge for affective cultures that rely on emotion to properly communicate. An emoticon is never going to get the same amount of information across as a face-to-face discussion.

  • how to reconcile: affective people should use a combination of different communications channels to convey emotion, such as sending an email and following it up with a telephone call. Video conferencing is also useful to pick up visual and audio clues on screen.

4. specific (low context) vs diffuse (high context)

Some cultures give the same messages regardless of the context in which they communicate. So someone with a low-context culture would speak to their boss the same way as their colleague – even if that was telling them they didn’t think a project was working. A person from a high-context environment would not separate the issue from the context and would couch their language accordingly. Most digital communication invites you for low-context messages because lots of contextual factors such as the presence of certain people, tone of voice and eye contact are excluded.

  • how to reconcile: modern communications technologies have generally reduced context, so those from high-context cultures need to keep communications private in order not to “lose face”. And add communication channels to broader the context possibilities.

Exercise: ask a group to imagine they are a group of senior managers of an organization that listen to their boss’s request to dismiss 15% of their people. They fundamentally disagree with their boss. Ask everyone to write their individual reaction to the boss in the meeting. You see some will write: “Dear boss, I fully understand the need for cost reduction. However,…” Others say… “Dear boss, I fully disagree to fire people, but…..” It is just to show that there are different ways of showing disagreement.

5. sequential vs synchronic

There is a fundamental difference on how people organise work. People from sequential or single tasking cultures expect to follow a clear agenda on a teleconference, for example. However people from synchronic or multi-tasking cultures would welcome interruption and digression as it shows interest.

  • how to reconcile: communications channels can keep both sequential and synchronic people happy. Look to video conferencing solutions that can emphasize a particular speaker or threaded collaboration platforms that can support both forms of discussion.

the bigger picture

Of course, technology is only part of the answer, after all they are only tools to help people work together. There needs to be a will within company management to encourage diversity and support multicultural teams in their effort to collaborate.

However this unity must not come at the cost of homogenization, because diverse opinions are the spark that ignites innovation. Instead teams need to agree on a shared common goal and accept that there any many different ways to achieve it.

Find out more about Fons Trompenaars’ cultural theories at this TED talk, and read about how Orange Business Services can help global businesses collaborate.