Sustaining Organizational Culture in the Globally Distributed Environment

Sustaining Organizational Culture in the Globally Distributed Environment

Kathy L. Milhauser (Concordia University Portland, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-533-9.ch004
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Organizations of all sizes are finding it necessary to expand their operations across geographic boundaries in a phenomenon that has been referred to as the globally distributed team. While this trend is typically a response to business opportunity, it is not without challenges. One of those challenges is how to maintain organizational culture as teams become globally distributed. The goal of the research detailed in this chapter was to examine a single organization that has been utilizing distributed teams to facilitate product development. A single case study method was used. Data was gathered through a series of semi-structured interviews with employees who participated in a distributed product development team. The chapter includes a review of the organization’s approach to orienting employees to the organizational culture, maintaining focus on the culture over a period of years, and extending the culture to support globalization while maintaining the integration of distributed teams into the overall organization.
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The trend toward distribution of teams has increased in recent years. Organizations of all sizes and in a wide range of industries have found ways to extend across geographic boundaries and expand their reach globally. Change drivers such as developing economies, increased competition, and changes in political and trade relationships have facilitated an increase in the ability of organizations to globalize their operations. Additionally, advances in technology and the ability for people and organizations around the world to interact as a global society have served as accelerators for this change (Bellin & Pham, 2007).

Globalization not only affects how organizations interact with each other, but even how they interact internally, as distribution of the organization creates new workgroups who become challenged with how to work together effectively (Ancona & Bresman, 2007). Further, as organizations diversify and distribute, so do the belief systems, values, and eventually the behaviors of their members, often creating tensions between local perspectives and those of the overall organization.

Because culture provides the foundational belief system that influences the development of values and behaviors in groups, a consideration of culture is necessary as organizations grow and become increasingly distributed (Schein, 2004). The globalization trend has been described as a state that facilitates a convergence of cultures by creating an environment in which people can see that they are more the same than different (Thomas, 2008). There is an ongoing debate related to whether cultures tend to converge, diverge, or strive for a state of equilibrium as they interact more closely and become more interdependent, reinforcing Thomas’ assertion that culture is one of the most important concepts for us to understand and appreciate when considering globalization.

The goal of this chapter is to identify practices that have contributed to extending an underlying organizational culture in a globally distributed product development team. A distributed team model will be introduced as a potential new way of thinking about leading in the distributed environment, and a case study shared that illustrates how one company is meeting the challenge of sustaining their core corporate culture while also supporting distributed team effectiveness.

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