Virtual Teams and Knowledge Communication: Drawing on Semiotics for Making Knowledge about Virtual Teams and Collaboration Visible

Virtual Teams and Knowledge Communication: Drawing on Semiotics for Making Knowledge about Virtual Teams and Collaboration Visible

Miikka J. Lehtonen (Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, Japan) and Constance E. Kampf (Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark)
DOI: 10.4018/ijskd.2014070101


How does culture affect virtual teams and the knowledge communication processes in which they engage? As virtual spaces are increasingly used to support teams and establish collaboration in cross-cultural projects, the notion of cross-cultural communication can be understood as shifting from contextual perspective to a semiotic perspective. That is to say, although the team members are using the same vocabulary they might attach different meanings to and have different knowledge about them thus highlighting the importance of approaching virtual teams and collaboration from a semiotic perspective. To look at how knowledge about virtual work is established in a multinational context, the authors interviewed members of a team that connects Finland and India. Results reveal five objects shared between the team members with varying knowledge about them. By making these differences in knowledge visible through semiotics the authors are calling for a more nuanced understanding of cross-cultural collaboration that draws on and extends the existing body of knowledge on virtual teams and collaboration.
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Culture is often considered from a contextual perspective, with definitions ranging from Hofstede’s “the software of the mind” (Hofstede, 1996, 2002) affected by dimensions of culture to Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck’s variation in value orientations (Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck, 1961) and Hall’s discussion of cultural factors in terms of low/high context, monochronic and polychronic time, etc. (Hall 1976, 1983) as well Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner’s cultural factors (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998). In these frameworks, individuals are seen as influenced by the norms around them with respect to power, identity (individualism/collectivism), and other modes of acting. However, this picture of culture is contested in terms of granularity (Kampf, 2008), with even Hofstede claiming that dimensions of culture do not exist (Hofstede, 2002), and can result in culture being used as a classification scheme in analysis of cross-cultural and intercultural data.

The limitations of culture as a contextual factor based on norms begin to emerge in virtual contexts—when people with different norms in cultural contexts meet in a third, virtual context and develop their own team norms, how can we address the issues which emerge? We suggest that a semiotic perspective on culture offers a way to focus on the knowledge creation processes of meaning-making (Malhotra, 2000) and the experiential knowledge asset of trust (Nonaka, Toyama & Konno, 2000). More specifically, in this paper we ask:

From a semiotic perspective, what kind of shared signs can reveal knowledge about cross-cultural virtual work?

To shift from a contextual perspective on culture to a semiotic perspective for knowledge communication processes in cross-cultural teams, we focus on using Peirce’s semiotics, where emphasis is on the triangular relation between the interpretant, the sign and the object. The interpretant, here, refers to the process in which a person interpreting the world around herself engages, while objects are something she can refer to by different signs (e.g. ‘a chair’ [sign] is a word that refers to the object chair) (Peirce, 1986). In the case of a Finnish-Indian virtual team, we extended Peirce’s model to linguistic signs which objectified concepts around which the team interacted and communicated procedural knowledge, i.e. trust, “work hours”, and “Finnish directness.” This procedural knowledge begins to take on significance in terms of knowledge communication processes such as trust-building and meaning-making.

To focus on a semiotic perspective on culture for understanding knowledge communication in virtual teams, we begin with a discussion of the literature on virtual teams, and situate a semiotic approach at the intersection of literature on virtual teams and knowledge creation processes. Then we describe methods used for gathering data from the team participants, and the framework for analyzing results. Next we describe results which depict Peircian objects as part of knowledge communication processes, particularly meaning-making and trust-building. Finally, we conclude this paper by taking a look at the contributions and limitations as well as future research avenues.

Knowledge-Focused Perspectives On Virtual Teams

During the last twenty years the amount of articles on how to move from more traditional teams – that are bound both temporally and spatially – to creating virtual teams that can operate anywhere and anytime has increased rapidly (Guo, D’Ambra, Turner & Zhang, 2009; Handy, 1995; Hart & Saunders, 1998; Jarvenpaa, Knoll & Leidner, 1998; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998; Zhan & Xiong, 2008). However, although researchers have proposed models and processes for effective virtual team communication, studies that analyze virtual team communication in detail have been scarce. To bridge this gap, we have studied virtual team communication from up close to better understand how trust is built through language in virtual teams. Thus, during this literature review our aim is to discuss current literature on virtual teams and to show how this paper can advance the field.

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