May172010

Managing the Challenges of Geographically Distributed Work Groups

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By Jennifer Edgerly

Catherine Cramton, School of Management. Creative Services photo

For Mason organizational behavior expert Catherine Cramton, it is all about perspective.

“It sounds like it should be simple to look at a situation or problem from the other person’s perspective, but in fact this can be very difficult,” she says. “When we manage to do so, however, it often seems to transform the situation.”

Cramton, a management professor at Mason’s School of Management, studies virtual teamwork and geographically distributed work groups, focusing on software development teams in particular.

Her research has taken her to Germany, India and Tunisia. As a Fulbright Fellow, she spent several months at the Mediterranean School of Business in Tunis, studying the cultural, economic and political contexts of the Mediterranean rim.

Cramton’s research, which is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Bechtel Foundation, explores the challenges that members of globally distributed work teams with cultural and lingual differences encounter when collaborating on interdependent work across distance.

Her longitudinal study of a software development company with locations in Germany, India and the United States became the basis for three research papers she wrote with collaborators on cross-cultural adaptation, the importance of site visits and language challenges in international work.

The Local Context

“What’s unique about geographically distributed collaboration is that you have groups working together that are continuously subjected to the pressures, messages and systems of their local contexts,” says Cramton.

Cramton explains that this when-in-Rome-do-as-the-Romans-do mindset makes it more difficult for teams to adapt. As structural solutions to cross-cultural tensions were implemented, the researchers observed what they called “instantiation surprise” when a solution that made sense in one cultural context yielded unexpected consequences when inserted into a different cultural context.

“Rather than allowing tensions to devolve to team members, project managers on both the U.S. and Indian teams would often stand in the gap: inventing temporary solutions, working long hours, calling each other at home and taking on much stress of time differences of up to 14.5 hours,” says Cramton.

“We did sometimes see close partnerships form out of these situations between project managers in different locations, and those were very helpful and successful.”

Global/people image

Cultural and lingual differences in globally dispersed work groups can impede teamwork. Image by Renith Krishnan

Beyond the coordination of work, the partnerships were important vehicles for cross-national learning and adaptation. By creating a dyad and working together, the project managers developed a relationship that allowed for a deeper understanding of the other cultural context and enabled them to find solutions together.

Cramton points out that site visits are also a valuable tool. Ideally lasting from two weeks to one month, site visits allowed project managers and team members to gain a better understanding of how their colleagues worked, what they knew and how capable they were.

“We interviewed a team leader in California who had a couple of Indian colleagues come over and work for a month. He said it took him just three days to realize that they were some of the best developers on the team,” says Cramton.

“The team leader acknowledged that he was not able to see that before they arrived because they always asked a lot of questions; however, he came to realize that they were asking a lot of questions because his team was not giving them a lot of information.”

Along with the difficulty of reading a colleague’s capabilities from afar, it’s also difficult to understand the cultural context that others are facing. When site visits occurred, people could see how their colleagues, be they American, German or Indian, dealt with each other every day. That in turn put their own communication in context.

The Lingua Franca

One challenge that persisted even after establishing cross-site leadership partnerships and conducting site visits was language. English served as the lingua franca, or common language.

When team members had uneven proficiency in English, some co-workers expressed their apprehension in various ways. Cramton and her collaborators noticed that workers withdrew from interaction, avoided English speakers, or, when interacting with colleagues more fluent in English, alternated between English and their native language to more precisely express themselves.

“It wasn’t uncommon for German employees to switch to German during a meeting if they couldn’t come up with the words in English,” says Cramton. “They then would give their American counterparts a summary of what was said, which outraged the American colleagues, who felt they were being excluded.”

While issues of cross-cultural adaptation and language differences will always persist, Cramton provides tips on how a company can be successful with globally distributed work teams.

Understanding that it can take up to two years to work out the kinks associated with cross-cultural adaptation is essential, as is budgeting for site visits. She also notes that establishing nonthreatening situations for employees to practice the lingua franca can have positive outcomes.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Mason Research 2010.

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