Creating Successful Global Teams
Must build trust and bridge cultural differences
By Peggy Albright
These days, computer professionals often work on globally distributed teams. While this practice was unusual a decade ago, today even small startups rely on global teams to increase competitiveness. Using talent from around the world lets a company draw on regional expertise, increase productivity and speed time-to-market by “following the sun” to create a 24-hour workday, and take advantage of a region’s economics to reduce investment and operational costs, particularly salaries.
Because global teams are so prevalent, organizations have made great strides in improving their distributed team business practices. Today, companies realize that relying on email and other basic communications methods to facilitate interaction and collaboration among team members isn’t enough to ensure that they are satisfied in their jobs and produce the desired outcomes. A company must carefully plan its outsourcing strategy beforehand to determine if, how, and where work should be distributed. Once this work has begun, the company must have systems and procedures in place to make sure the employees work effectively as individuals and a team.
“There is an acknowledgement that there is a cost to working that way now,” said Pamela Hinds, an associate professor in the department of science and engineering at Stanford University and co-director of the university’s center for work, technology and organization.
The larger cultural context
Hinds has spent the last 13 years studying team dynamics that occur when companies coordinate work across national boundaries. She has observed that people participating in globally distributed teams are generally dedicated, conscientious, and hard-working. But they’re often working within mismatched and often incompatible cultural and business environments that they have no control over, which can be frustrating and counterproductive.
To their credit, many organizations have focused on improving cultural understanding, for example holding training sessions about customs and sensitivities individuals should observe when working with people from other regions. But a day of sensitivity training will just scratch the surface. A person’s workplace role and behavior are affected not just by cultural norms but by the larger corporate context, including its rewards systems, routine business processes, legal and regulatory frameworks, and even the vendor environment. These contexts are embedded within us. They’re hard to learn across cultures and even when understood, they’re difficult to negotiate or change.
Understanding how individual technical expertise and business authority are treated from one culture to another is also important. Hinds cited one case in which a computer programming manager from a country where programmers have decision-making authority was supervising programmers from a country where non-management employees wouldn’t presume to exert that type of authority. The manager was frustrated that the offshore programmers didn’t take the initiative he expected, and the programmers were frustrated too. While they might have wanted to have that particular type of authority, it wasn’t considered proper within their own cultural and workplace contexts.
These types of circumstances are common and create great tension on all sides among the people who have to straddle the two sets of demands.
“It is really important for organizations to not just look at the individual team members, but to think about and facilitate a process by which the other contextual factors are examined and understand them,” Hinds said. “It’s pretty rare that best practices in one context are in fact best practices in another context.”
Culture and language
Language is an obvious challenge in cross-cultural contexts, yet language issues can be subtle. Hinds described one very functional, dedicated team divided between the US and Germany to develop a prototype for a hardware product. After a year, the team hadn’t made progress. It turned out that prototyping had differing meanings to the two teams. The US team believed the prototype would be used to evaluate the product design during its development; the German team thought it would be used to establish product requirements. The two sides of the team were pursuing different outcomes.
Language issues can arise even if team members are fully bilingual and they can occur even on executive teams. Hinds cited a study with a major corporation in which numerous French executives, all fluent in English as a second language, were emotionally distressed over business practices requiring communication in English. For example, despite being fluent in English, they said it could take hours to compose an important or business-sensitive email in the language when it would take only 10-15 minutes to write in their native French. It was frustrating and a waste of company time. The situation begs the question, should an individual be expected to spend extra time writing an email in English if the recipients all use another language in common with the sender?
“People assume that fluent means fluent,” Hinds said. “People have to understand that fluency doesn’t mean native.”
The cultural liaison
Kathleen Swigger, a professor of computer science at the University of North Texas, says that every team should have a cultural liaison or facilitator, someone who is familiar with the cultures and languages involved and who is a good communicator, to help the rest of the team manage the communications needs that may come up. The cultural liaison should be the person identified as best-suited for the role, and not necessarily the team manager.
“That’s the most important thing,” she said. “Have that person there.”
Creating a successful team
Linda Cohen, vice president of research at Gartner Research, has also done extensive research on how to mitigate some of these issues. Successful organizations, she said, will pilot test a few projects before fully launching a new offshore program. The pilot project can be used not only to identify the cultural sensitivities involved, but to determine how best to transfer knowledge from the onsite to the offshore team.
For the pilot, Cohen recommends picking a project where good discipline, change control technology, and documentation are already established, because these attributes make it easier to train the internal and external team to work together. Bring at least part of the team from the chosen destination to the home site for training and to become acquainted with the local team. The transfer of knowledge needs to take place locally, on-site, in the beginning. Later, over time, knowledge can be transferred to the remote team via video conferencing and other distance-working techniques.
Once the project is in process, a certain amount of travel is necessary to ensure that the teams can get together. Travel must be periodic, not just at the outset of a project, and should absolutely be used as project milestones are being reached, she says.
While many companies have restricted travel in the economic downturn, it is essential to global team performance and should be given priority. “There has to be a budget for that,” Cohen insists.
Trust and control
Not only does travelling help global teams meet their deliverables more effectively, it helps create a balance of trust and control that will help everyone involved.
“This issue of balancing trust and control is very important,” Cohen said. As she described it, we tend to over-control work that is done far away, and in doing so we disrupt the effectiveness of the offshore team. Yet if we get too comfortable, and trust too much, we can lose control of a project. Cohen said that Gartner has a methodology companies can use to determine if they’re using the right balance of trust and control. If the balance isn’t right, a cure plan must be launched.
“If you get to the point where there is organizational distrust, where the teams don’t trust each other, it’s very hard to correct,” she said.
A culture of collaboration
One problem common to global teams is the emergence of subgroup dynamics, an us-versus-them situation that emerges because workers get to know and bond with those they’re collocated with. It’s one of the bigger problems teams face and undermines the need for everyone to feel like they’re all on the same team.
“Good managers have their finger on the pulse of that at all times,” Hinds said.
A reward system can do a lot to instill a sense of team spirit and collaboration and cooperation, suggests Cohen. But to work most effectively, rewards should be given not for finding problems, but only for solving problems. And the reward must go to everyone on the team.
Travel is another means of making sure the different groups feel valued and that their contributions are noticed. Team members feel more valued if they’re exposed to and have a relationship with their manager and the manager, in turn, can gain strategic information and details about the team’s work they might not have otherwise gained.
The next generation
As part of her research, Swigger is looking ahead to how the industry’s future computing professionals could be trained to deal with these issues.
One of the weaknesses she has found is that today’s professionals haven’t been exposed to these cultural challenges earlier in their careers or while in school. She’s developing course materials to help teach future computing professionals how to deal with cultural and language issues, allocate tasks and manage tasks, and to learn to generally communicate better, a skill that isn’t necessarily, but should be, emphasized in the engineering community. (CW, 16 September, 2009)