Creating Synergy for Inter-Cultural Learning

Creating Synergy for Inter-Cultural Learning

Tine Köhler (George Mason University, USA) and Michael Berry (Turku School of Economics, Finland)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-106-3.ch010
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Internationally distributed teams (IDTs) face challenges related to the team members’ diversity and geographic dispersion. However, research on IDTs has yet to explore the joint effects of diversity and dispersion on team processes and performance, as well as the role that cultural norms play in IDT effectiveness. Reporting findings from an 11-week e-mail exchange between American and Finnish business students, the current chapter focuses on how and why cultural communication and coordination norms affect IDT team processes and performance. The data shows that differences in cultural norms were amplified by differences in the local context of IDT members and that successful IDTs also created group norms that helped them manage their cultural diversity and geographic dispersion. Given the teachers’ discovery of how they had unintentionally reinforced cultural communication and coordination norms, the authors make explicit how cultural norms unexpectedly influence leadership strategies and learning experiences in positive and negative ways.
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Common Challenges To Idt Functioning

Some of the most important challenges to team functioning in IDTs relate to communication and coordination among IDT members. Challenges with regard to coordination patterns include (1) frequent breakdowns in communication media such as e-mail and phone (e.g., Hart & McLeod, 2003; Hinds & Bailey, 2003; Hinds & Mortensen, 2005), (2) failure to share sufficient contextual information among team members to ensure successful collaboration (Cramton, 2001, 2002), (3) attributions of failure to communicate and collaborate to other team members rather than to situational factors (Cramton, Orvis, & Wilson, 2007), and (4) delayed detection of these issues (Mark, 2002).

Challenges to communication patterns in IDTs include (1) lack of contextual knowledge and cues, information sharing, and inclusive communication, which ultimately results in a lack of shared understanding among team members (Cramton, 2001, 2002), (2) repeated misunderstandings among team members and misinterpretations of information which leads to frustration, to a loss of trust, and to conflict among the team members (e.g., Hinds & Bailey, 2003; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999), and (3) ambiguity of the meaning of silence which often leads to a breakdown of communication between team members (Cramton 2001, 2002).

Interestingly, research on communication and coordination challenges in IDTs so far has not combined the effects of team members’ multicultural background and their geographic dispersion on team processes. While coordination challenges have been researched separately in a multicultural context (e.g., Brislin & Kim, 2003) and in a geographically dispersed context (e.g., Montoya-Weiss, Massey, & Song, 2001), it has overlooked how differences in cultural coordination norms affect the way team members interact across distance. Likewise, research on communication challenges has mainly focused on the problems related to company communication via technology (i.e., e-mail, chat, phone, video-conferencing, etc.; e.g., Cramton 2001, 2002), and has not yet explored the role and effect of different cultural communication norms on communication across distance.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Ethnographic Discovery Process: Teachers who act as observant-participant ethnographers can reflect on how students act, verbalize their opinions, and communicate via e-mail. This process, which is never complete, involves an ongoing framing process in which teachers not only interpret their observations, but also reflect on how they had acted and interpreted their role as participants.

Cultural Norms: Collective expectations of appropriate behavior in a specific context.

Cultural Communication Norms: Yardsticks that often unconsciously or implicitly provide a range of appropriate communication behaviors in a society.

False Friends: A word or phrase a speaker believes carries a universal meaning, but the cultural other(s) interprets it differently when using a shared international language.

Autonomy: The extent to which a leader allows subordinates to determine how to do their work. In an American context, the manager’s role is seen as that of an active pep-coach who delegates responsibility for task performance, monitors progress, and intervenes when necessary. In a Finnish context, the manager’s role is seen as that of a coordinator who oversees the whole project, assigns parts of the task to employees, and stays available should employees request assistance.

Culture: Acquired knowledge that is used to interpret experiences and generate social behavior.

Norms: Norms can be interpreted as shared perceptions and expectations of appropriate behavior that elicit a pattern of behaviors which is reinforced if it meets the expectations, and reprimanded if it deviates from them.

Cultural Coordination Norms: Yardsticks that often unconsciously or implicitly provide a range of appropriate coordination behaviors in a society.

Internationally Distributed Teams: Teams in which team members have different cultural backgrounds and work from different locations (e.g., organizations, regions, countries, etc.) around the globe.

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