MANAGING CULTURAL DIFFERENCES ACROSS VIRTUAL TEAMS IN PROJECTS — (Narotham sen tripuraneni) ABSTRACT I have taken this topic ‘MANAGING CULTURAL DIFFERENCES ACROSS VIRTUAL TEAMS IN PROJECTS’ since i felt there was a growing need in project management to address this issue. Thanks to growing global competition, today’s businesses are no longer restricted by geographic boundaries. Globalization drives many businesses into emerging markets and low wage countries in order to take advantage of their intellectual capital, and lower cost of operation. Globalization and national economic development: Analyzing benefits and costs, Anwar, Sajid,Journal of Business and Management,2002) These changes have given rise to the “virtual team”; a cross-cultural group of co-workers that span international borders and typically communicate by means of technology rather than face-to-face meetings. A recent study by the Garner Group, states that by the year 2008, 41 million corporate employees will work in a virtual workplace at least one day per week [WikiPedia, www. wikipedia. om, “Virtual Teams”]. Teams geographically separated not only must work in separate time zones, but also overcome cultural norms and differences, which have been described as one of the major issues of project management when dealing with virtual teams [B. Egginton, Cultural Complexity and improvement performance of large international projects, in Proc. Engineering Management Conf. IEEE Int. , India 1993, pp. 53 58]. In this literature review we will look at the challenges of the virtual team communication across different cultures.
Initially we will explore the communication problems associated with time differences and language barriers often magnified by the lack of face-to-face experience and cultural differences. Then we will move further to investigate cultural value differences between virtual team members, different power relationships and hierarchical arrangements, diverse communication styles and how are these enhanced in the virtual environments. INTRODUCTION I have taken up this topic after discussions with the tutor and after having a good look into what is the need of today’s environment, i felt that
Culture is a significant factor when it concerns multinational corporations like Google, Microsoft or apple inc which are part and parcel of our everyday life ,some way or the other, or for that matter any concern that operates on a large scale across borders, because the projects taken up involve teams, and in today’s scenario, ‘Virtual Teams’ which consists of people from different nationalities and various backgrounds, “Global projects consist of virtual teams formed from multiple countries, continents, and cultures, which crisscross functions, work locale, markets, and products” (Gray & Larson, 2006, 489).
Benefits and disadvantages of global projects can be sometimes similar. Benefits can range from obtaining different points of view based on culture, function, religion and time zones. Disadvantages can also be limited based on the same considerations. Team A will provide information regarding the management of global projects, challenges faced, similarities, differences and three trends that will be important in the next decade. “Project teams operate in global environments, and because they do, there are a host of issues that face project managers” (Chapman, 2008).
Virtual Project teams are all over the world and face to face interaction is limited. Projects can be conducted via electronics; phone, web conferencing, instant messaging, fax, email and video conferencing. Communication, leadership and direct support from the executives are key factors in running a successful project. Clear roles need to be established by the PM based on individual member skills, culture and understanding of the project goals. BODY OF THE REPORT VIRTUAL TEAMS
A Virtual Team, also known as a Geographically Dispersed Team (GDT) – is a group of individuals who work across time, space, and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology. They have complementary skills and are committed to a common purpose, have interdependent performance goals, and share an approach to work for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. Geographically dispersed teams allow organizations to hire and retain the best people regardless of ocation, [Virtual team communication, Tom Gilb,2007]. Virtual teams were not in the picture a decade ago, but today they are an integral part of every organization. The recent “offshore outsourcing” trend (for low cost labor) and the growth of the Internet and similar globally linking technologies are major contributor to the increase in the use of virtual teams. Virtual teams are made up of people working on interdependent tasks and interacting largely via communication technology to achieve a common goal without concerns of time and space.
Such teams carry out many critical functions, including information collection and dissemination, decision making, and implementation. Virtual teams present new challenges to business leaders. Cultural, geographic, and time differences make it challenging for a leader to provide structure to followers, evaluate their performance, inspire and develop them, and enable them to identify with the organization. As [Avolio, Kahai, and Dodge, 2001] indicate, there are new frontiers rapidly opening focusing on what constitutes effective leadership in the information environment.
SIGNIFICANCE OF CULTURE IN VIRTUAL TEAMS “Culture is an all inclusive system of communication which incorporates the biological and technical behavior of human beings with their verbal and non-verbal systems of expressive behavior. Culture is the sum of a way of life, including such things as expected behavior, beliefs, values, language, and living practices shared by members of a society” [The Innovation Matrix: Cultural and Structure Prerequisites to Innovation Herbig, Paul A 1994].
Team members with cultural differences can have vastly different communication styles [L. Dub and G. Par, Global Virtual Teams, Communication ACM, vol. 44 no. 12, pp. 71-73, 2001] as well as different ways to convey information. Often times these cultural differences, can lead to tension between virtual team members as well as making communication difficult. Without the recognition of cultural differences, and the variation in communication styles, virtual teams often do not perform to their full potential.
In order to make cross-cultural communication more effective, each side must educate themselves about their teams’ culture, and learn to adapt accordingly. Since communication in cross-cultural virtual teams often involve communication via email and conference calls team members also need to change the way they communicate with one another. Communication misunderstandings are the number one complaint amongst virtual team members [WikiPedia, www. wikipedia. com, “Virtual Teams”]. The language barrier can play a significant role, especially in electronic communication.
Misunderstood idioms and culture specific phrases might undermine good relationship or even break the team apart. Team members must be aware of these potentially problematic points and be very careful when communicating across different cultures. A virtual workplace typically leaves a lasting trail in the form of emails and logs. Some of the comments normally lost and discounted during face-to-face communications might pose dangerous problems to the virtual team dynamics when overanalyzed. Another problem with electronic media is difficulty in expressing emotions.
A dry email exchange might be greatly enhanced by a phone call or a conference call, to reiterate and articulate most important issues. Such follow up should greatly improve the understanding of the task that team is faced with. Another issue working in a virtual team is the difference in time zones. A virtual team spread out globally across differing time zones makes group collaboration difficult at best. Technology allows team members to communicate via email, text message, and voice; however, a time that may be convenient for one group may not be ideal for another.
This becomes more of an issue when working to resolve emergency issues that arise when working on large projects. One possible solution to the time zone availability problem, one that was recently adopted at my place of employment where i was working as a journalist in a newspaper concern that had global operations, is to have all groups within the virtual team decide on a time when each group will be available in both normal’ and emergency circumstances. If at all possible the effort was to work to find at least an hour each day that all teams are available for video conference calls.
Video conference calling allows members to communicate quickly about the issues at hand, ask questions, and see each other and in my opinion feel a little more involved in the team effort. If time zone differences do not permit virtual teams to collaborate by a video conference call, we work to find an hour of time where everyone can call a central conference calling service. This allows people to call-in’ from home, after hours rather than having to stay at work to join in a video conference.
In lieu of virtual face to face meetings, I believe that voice communication is often times more efficient and effective in articulating thoughts and ideas when dealing with virtual teams than emails or text messaging. Email is fast, convenient, and necessary, but often times is not as effective at delivering a concept or idea and can be burdensome at times when teams need to brainstorm to find a solution to a problem. These novel and convenient forms of communication might however create some other problems on the ground of cultural differences, especially in the early life of the virtual team.
For example if the person on the call is at home or driving the attendees at the conference can hear his young children in the background or some car noise. In some cultures it might be a good personal break, an interruption that may bring team members closer together, to have some non-work related conversation that would benefit better relationship. In other cultures however, it might be considered annoying, unprofessional and eventually might lead to deterioration of the team cohesiveness and in turn to lower efficiency. Corporations save money by globalizing projects into virtual teams across different labor pools.
It is important for a portion of the savings to be reinvested into technology that allows these teams to communicate efficiently and effectively. Working in virtual teams poses many problems; some of which have difficult solutions. Lack of the technology needed to communicate effectively is a problem with an easy solution and should be addressed in the early stages of the formation of a virtual team. In addition, some of these savings must be spent on physically brining the teams, or key members together for face to face meetings.
Compensating for the lack of human interaction within the team by bringing members together can foster a sense of belonging, trust, as well as help bridge some cultural differences. “A shared commitment still requires personal contact to make it real. Paradoxically the more virtual an organization becomes the more its people needs to meet in person. The meetings however are different. They are more about process than task, more concerned that people get to know each other than they deliver. ” [Trust and the virtual organization.
Harvard Business Review 73 pp. 40-49, Handy, C. , 1995] Additionally, companies that use cross cultural virtual teams should spend time and money on cultural training of their employees. Many times the stereotypes and presumed qualities will provide for very difficult climate in the virtual team and limit its effectiveness. The culture might be modeled as an iceberg, and only behavioral qualities and artifacts are visible. Upon these people very often are making assumptions about other cultures and creating stereotypes.
Inner, hidden qualities include culture values, beliefs and norms and finally fundamental assumptions about the world that forms them. These qualities are very helpful in understanding other cultures and will help in cross cultural virtual team communication. That should result in much better understanding and effectiveness of the virtual team. Whether teams are brought together virtually, or in person, cultural differences between the two still exists. When bringing different cultures together three key areas should be explored: ? 1) Identifying the nature and implications of the national cultural differences within the team, 2) Establishing a basis for building understanding and awareness of cultural differences and how they can be managed, 3) Formulating a framework for developing a high performance team which takes into cultural differences and leverages the diversity present. ” [Malcolm Higgs, Towers Perrin, Overcoming the problems of cultural differences to establish success for international management teams] IDENTIFYING THE CULTURAL DIFFERENCES IN VIRTUAL TEAMS
Identifying personal and professional cultural differences is the first step in identifying potential pitfalls with dealing with cross cultural virtual teams. For example, the NEWS Company I worked for is based in India, and also has a design team in America. As often as possible, we try to meet for face-to-face meetings and team building; one of the managers involved with a particular team building social outing decided to treat our guest to An American style barbeque not knowing that nearly eighty percent of the guests were Hindu, a religion that practices vegetarianism as an ideal diet for spiritual progress [WikiPedia, www. ikipedia. com, “Vegetarianism”]. Needless to say, this did very little for building cohesion between the two teams as the Indian team watched the American team eat barbecued beef. Not only was it against their religion to eat meat, but most Hindus revere the killing of a cow as taboo [Why is the cow sacred? , Rohit Arya]. In addition to obvious religious differences as in the example above, there are other important differences that need to be identified in a cross cultural team which might be more difficult to identify in the virtual team than in a face-to-face-meeting.
LL Thompson [ Leigh L Thompson, The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator. , Pearson Education Inc. , 2005] identified 3 dimensions of culture: individualism versus collectivism as referred to motivation of the culture, egalitarianism versus hierarchy as referred to influence and direct versus indirect communication as referred to information. Each of these can create additional problems in virtual team and we will take a look at each of them separately. Fig 1 source – Sirkka L.
Jarvenpaa & Dorothy E Leidner, Communication and trust in global virtual teams, 1998. Motivation in a culture is a very important driving factor in the team. When team members are coming from different cultures where some are more individualistic and others more collectivistic, caution needs to be given to prevent negative influences of each culture. In-group favoritism should be early identified as well as social loafing which might prove very difficult in the virtual team setting.
Managers might have only limited personal control over parts of the team in the different parts of the world, and lack of face-to-face communication might additionally complicate team’s supervision. Similarly the hierarchies need to be recognized in hierarchical cultures to improve sharing of information and team dynamics and to prevent unnecessary delays. Different cultures might also prefer different communication styles. While North American culture prefers very direct method of communication, a lot of the Far East cultures are more indirect.
Sometimes this indirectness might be taken as a negative attribute and cause lapses in communication destroying early relationships in a virtual team. Identifying these different communication styles might be additionally complicated due to the virtual nature of the team. MANAGING CULTURAL DIFFERENCES IN VIRTUAL TEAMS In addition to identifying cultural differences, management should make a concerted effort to understand cultural differences and strive toward building awareness in the virtual team.
In my experience working in a virtual team, cultural differences are typically discovered after having worked together for a long period of time rather than identified and addressed in the beginning of the project. One of the most recent examples of managing cultural differences is with working with growing superpowers like china and India. In India group titles play an important role and create a perception of social groups that can only communicate with one another if they carry the same title.
For example, if an American senior design engineer makes a mistake in the design that is discovered by a junior level engineer in India, then that junior level engineer will communicate this up the “chain of command” until it reaches a level equivalent to the senior level American engineer. Afterwards the Indian senior level engineer will call the American senior level engineer and discuss the problem in the design. Often times this can take several days to make its way up the hierarchy before the mistake is brought to the American engineers’ attention.
I believe this may be an issue of respect for the American engineer; however prolonging the reporting of problems in the design end up prolonging the project. This example lends itself to the classic problem of hierarchical and egalitarian culture. The Indian culture is more hierarchical, in that a message has to traverse the whole “chain of command” before getting to the American engineer who works in an egalitarian environment. This kind of communication problem is additionally magnified in the virtual team where email communication between different time zones might take days.
It is the managers’ responsibility to prevent these delays and make sure of the efficiency and cohesiveness of the team. When the virtual team members come from different cultures, another problem that needs to be managed is different motivational behaviors of team members. If team members are coming from the collectivistic or individualistic cultures, they must be evaluated on how they fit in the team. Many individualistic cultures might display problems of social loafing especially when working with team members coming from collectivistic cultures.
Social loafing must be identified early and properly managed. Other frequent problem is the in-group favoritism often displayed by collectivistic cultures, which might alienate the virtual team completely. Virtual teams are bound by communications; therefore one of the most important factors in the virtual team is the clear communication of goals and expectations across the entire team. This might be difficult when the team is composed of team members from cultures that prefer different methods of communication.
When some of the team members are very direct others might use indirect methods to communicate their needs. Competent managers need to be able to identify and accommodate both of these methods and be able to send his or her message across both types without causing negative effects in the team. The skill to accommodate both styles of communication will be especially useful in resolving conflicts between the team members, where different cultures will have different ways of communicating their points across for resolution. CONCLUSION
After the above reflection on the subject as part of the curriculum for project management, I feel that companies can have even greater success from a culturally diverse workforce by fostering the diversity of ideas rather than enforcing conformity. One implication of doing so is that the team becomes less uniform, allowing the team to adapt fast to changing situations. In addition, fostering this diversity can create new and innovative ideas as well as unique solutions and opportunities for the group to grow stronger and become more efficient problem solvers.
Virtual team members from different cultures may greatly improve efficiency of the team if the best traits are brought and the team is managed properly. Skilful manager might bring up the best values from each culture to benefit the whole group, while minimizing negative effects. For example, the collectivistic cultures might greatly improve the team efficiency by improving cooperation; however, individualistic approaches should not be discounted as they might provide better direction and unorthodox but beneficial ideas that otherwise might have been lost.
Cross cultural virtual team must overcome many challenges to become efficient and effective group in today’s world. Starting with the time differences and language barriers and ending with deep cultural issues special care must be taken to help bring the team together. Companies must invest into advanced means of communication as well as education of the team members to help overcome these issues. A lot of differences are based on the different cultural values, collectivism against individualism, egalitarianism versus hierarchy, or direct versus indirect forms of communication.
Managers must be able to identify these issues before they create problems and then effectively manage these problems to make the virtual team effective. Furthermore skillful and culturally educated managers need to be able to leverage the cultural differences to improve the team effectiveness and increase its performance. No of words – 3140 (excluding references and diagram) No of pages – 7 References:  B. Egginton, Cultural Complexity and improvement performance of large international projects, in Proc. Engineering Management Conf. IEEE Int. India 1993, pp. 53 58  The Innovation Matrix: Cultural and Structure Prerequisites to Innovation Herbig, Paul A 1994  L. Dub and G. Par , Global Virtual Teams, Communication ACM, vol. 44 no. 12, pp. 71-73, 2001  WikiPedia, www. wikipedia. com, “Virtual Teams”.  Trust and the virtual organization. Harvard Business Review 73 pp. 40-49, Handy, C. , 1995  Malcolm Higgs, Towers Perrin, Overcoming the problems of cultural differences to establish success for international management teams  WikiPedia, www. wikipedia. com, “Vegetarianism”. 8] Rohit Arya: Why is the cow sacred? http://www. beliefnet. com/story/82/story_8229_1. html  Leigh L Thompson, The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator. , Pearson Education Inc. , 2005  Globalization and national economic development: Analyzing benefits and costs, Anwar, Sajid, Journal of Business and Management, 2002  Gray & Larson, 2006, 489  Chapman, 2008  Virtual team communication, Tom Gilb, 2007  Avolio, Kahai, and Dodge, 2001  Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa & Dorothy E Leidner, Communication and trust in global virtual teams,1998