Intercultural Communication & Management in the Digital Age

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, „the only thing that is constant is change“. Indeed, the world in which we live and work is continuously changing, and we have to adapt if we do not want to stay behind. One of the biggest challenges today is digitalisation and its impact on how we work together. This article tackles this issue from an intercultural point of view. In this essay, (1) I will first explain how digitalisation impacts our everyday work life. Then, I will continue by (2) defining my understanding of culture. Lastly, I will provide you with some insights on how we can apply intercultural knowledge in the business world.

(1) into the Digital Age

Before.

Before the industrial revolution, each individual product was almost always made and crafted by hand by one artisan. The same artisan made the entire product, and he or she had a comprehensive understanding of the production process. With the ongoing industrialisation, the production of goods shifted from handmade manufacturing towards factory-based mass production. This trend of specialisation did not only increase efficiency and save cost, but also had a considerable impact on organisational structures of businesses. Gradually, companies grew larger, and different departments of the company became specialised in specific areas (e.g. Finance, Marketing, HR, R&D etc.).

After.

And today? The digitalisation is challenging this over many years grew organisation structure:

  1. The Digital Everywhere. Digitalisation does not only provide a golden business opportunity for product innovation, but also impacts the way we work. Today, documentation processes and analogue tasks (e.g. mechanical drawing) tend to be digitised, and new tasks are also created as a result of digitalisation. This leads to a situation where people who had little knowledge of the digital field, now need to deal with a lot of technology and work in cross-functional teams. For example, someone in marketing very likely need to collaborate closely with a web developer.
  2. Methodology. The increased amount of digital products, such as software, has led to a change in project management methods (from sequential to agile methodologies). Contrary to sequential project management styles, agile styles are marked by constant changes. Therefore all participants are continuously involved in the project.
  3. Perceived Loss of Distance. In recent years, the way how we communicate has changed drastically. Because of technological advancements (phone, email, online chat, and video conferences), we can work with colleagues living around the world, and virtual teams have become relatively common. On the one hand, it seems that we have overcome geographical distance, but on the other hand, this does not mean that we have overcome cultural distances. Moreover, digital communication also means that the person we are interacting with become more abstract, and that makes it easier for us to depersonalise them consider that we have never met them face to face. Therefore, modern technology paradoxically makes us more distant from one another.

Based on these developments, it’s is not difficult to imagine that various problems can arise (see my case study of the #1 of the course).

2. Culture & Interculturality in the Digital Age

Culture.

My interested reader will probably ask me now „yes ok, but didn’t you want to talk about interculturality?“. And yes indeed, I will. Let me first define the term culture. In its broadest sense, culture can be understood as: a group of individuals sharing ethnicity; nationality; location (geographical area, e.g. Nordic countries; East/West); language; religion; skills/abilities; profession; gender; etc.“ Helen Spencer-Oatey defines culture as “a fuzzy set of attitudes, beliefs, behavioural conventions, and basic assumptions and values that are shared by a group of people, and that influence each member’s behaviour and each member’s interpretations of the ‘meaning’ of other people’s behaviour.” It can affect us on multiple levels;

  • our values (e.g. liberty, freedom, etc.)
  • beliefs (the reason for our assumptions)
  • practices (e.g. greetings, the way we celebrate different things)
  • discourses (e.g. how we talk to one another)
  • shared knowledge (e.g. particular vocabulary, theory).

It helps us to understand our world, to predict the behaviour of others, and to reduce uncertainty in day to day interactions. In its most common understanding, we identify culture as a national culture (e.g. German). For example, I am born and raced in Germany, and my parents have thought me how to act in German society. When we encounter a new culture, we discover that our cultural values, beliefs, and practices do not always apply. Why is this so? We experience this „new culture“ through our own „cultural lenses“. When our internal cultural codes cannot guide us, we encounter culture shock and uncertainty. Everyone who has lived, worked, or travelled abroad has probably encountered those kinds of situation.

Culture Beyond Nationality.

At the same time, it is important to remember that we are not only determined by our nationality because we all have multiple identities: we are more than just „German“ or „Finnish“. Our identity comes from our experience. I would argue that sometimes, professional culture or organisational culture can be more influential than our national culture. Our education, career, and experience also have a great impact on us as they strongly shape our values, beliefs, practices, discourse etc.

For instance, economics students might share the values „liberty“ and freedom“; they might share the belief that „an unobservable market force helps to regulate the demand and supply of goods“; they might share their methods of problem solving as well as some study-related technical vocabulary. In contrast, an engineer, a graphic designer, or social scientist could have their own cultural values and beliefs that differ from those of the economists. They might have another way to approach problems and to set priorities. At this point, I invite you to think for a moment about your own professional values. How do they affect you? How might they be different to someone else’s working style?

If I would ask an engineer, a designer, and an accountant to define what is a good product, I probably would get four different answers: the engineer would emphasise on the technical aspects; the designer would highlight the aesthetics; the accountant’s priority would be „cost efficiency“. This being said and still keeping in mind that cross-functional working is more crucial than ever before, it is not surprising that (intercultural) conflict situations make our everyday working life more difficult.

But, we should be cautious to define all appearing problems in cross-functional settings as „cultural problem“. Indeed, some might be cultural, some might depend on the context and other might be simply due to interpersonal issues. It is thus always important to take the context of each interaction situation into account.

3. So, What Can We Do?

  • Developing an understanding for the “other“. When working in a team, some might have distinct cultures and habits that we are not used to. Because of these unknown cultural codes, we tend to classify them as “the other”, and misunderstand them. It is thus a good idea to try to understand one another. To do so, we could, for instance, shadow a team member who works in a different department for a day. By doing so, we gain an understanding of their business style, which priorities they set, and why they make decisions in a specific way. Furthermore, we can try to make an effort and put ourselves in other people’s shoes. For example, we could try to speak the „other’s language” by learning some specific terminologies.
  • Emphasise on the WE rather than on the OTHER. We are often tempted to emphasise on differences. It is natural to see what makes us distinct from each other. Nonetheless, we should focus on what we have in common. Team-building exercises and a clearly-defined common goal are effective and easily achievable measures. Hereby, it is important that each team member develops a thorough understanding of the project and feels that his or her tasks matter.
  • Cultural Hybridization.In cross-functional teams and intercultural settings, we often adjust to the dominant culture. As a result, some might feel left out or unheard. An effective way to avoid „cultural dominance“ is to let the team create its own culture. Certainly, this is a rather slow process, but the ultimate goal is that the group identity is so strong that other cultural differences become less important. In the best case scenario, the team would work together in their own office.
  • Cultural Bridging. Especially in big corporations, it might be not so easy to implement structural changes as fast as it is necessary. Another way to overcome cultural difference is through „Cultural bridging“. This could mean an „ambassador“ in each department. Ideally, these ambassadors have a cross-functional background and have both an understanding of their own subject (e.g. engineering) as well as of the „others“ (e.g). These ambassadors can promote collaboration, prevent conflicts, and in the worst case when conflict arises, intervene and mediate.

5. Last but not least

5. Last but not least

  1. Be, aware, don’t walk around with closed eyes!
  2. Don’t judge in the first moment!
  3. Assume rather the best than the worst!
  4. Communicate, problems can be solved!
  5. If nothing helps, drop me a message!

Thank you for taking the time to read my article. Should you have any questions regarding the the article or the presented topics, do not hesitate to contact me. Also, I would be more than happy to discuss with you any other matter related to intercultural, organisational communication, project management, as well as negotiation strategies.

Lastly, I would appreciate your feedback (positive and negative) so that I can improve my writing skills in future articles. Drop me a message, write a comment and feel free to share this article.

This Friday you will find the analysis of the CASE STUDY.

5 Keys to Successful Virtual Project Management

In today’s highly globalised world, working in intercultural teams have become more and more common. Because of this, the success of projects is highly dependent on the ability of a manager to use diversity as an asset rather than an impediment.

In the past, new managers had the opportunity to learn through the experience to lead traditional teams, communicate while sitting down the hall from one another, plan as a group in a conference room, incentive and manage conflict by asking the parties to meet in the office and confront face to face. Today’s increasingly global work environment does not always afford that luxury and first-time managers have to develop strategic tools to be able to lead a team of subordinates to disperse all around the world.

With the rise of technology, the challenge of handling intercultural teams has become more complex. Different talents and skills are recruited from all over the world which is why team members are now globally dispersed. A manager has to lead motivate and control cross-cultural virtual teams…

And as Solomon argues rightfully, we should also take into account that „Virtual teams offer tremendous opportunities, and tribulations. Electronic communications allow companies to recruit talent without the constraints of location, and to offer scheduling-flexibility such as telecommuting and working at home offices. It also creates the potential for follow-the-sun 24-hour workdays and the ability to maintain close contact with customers throughout the world” (Solomon 2000, p1).

The challenge could be overwhelming for most “First-time project managers” as it demands to be able to drive through different types of distance such as geographical, temporal, contextual and linguistical directly related to the cultural background and conditions of each team member. This along with National culture dimensions specifically influence the team dynamics, the interpersonal relations, thus an impact on goal achievement, task development, effectiveness and performance.

The ToolBox Team believes in the high potential of cross-cultural teams and their ability to deliver high performance using diversity as a powerful asset for success in project management. Also, that managers with the right competencies are capable of making the distance, may it be cultural or geographical, irrelevant.

Therefore, we have identified the five key competencies;

  1. VIRTUAL PLANING
  2. CULTURE INTELLIGENCE
  3. E COMMUNICATION TECHNIQUES
  4. CONFLICT MANAGEMENT ACROSS DISTANCE
  5. ACCOUNTABILITY & TIME MANAGEMENT

1. VIRTUAL PLANING

Design your project kick out (Virtual or not) and begin by collecting all the information available. Define the scope of your project. Decide how and when to start and when to end. Design your plan B, C or even Z. Don’t forget to involve everyone. Build together and share your project Brief! Assign roles and responsibilities. Get to know your team members and assign roles and responsibilities according to their abilities, capabilities and interests. Associate each role with particular tasks and responsibilities to satisfactorily complete the assigned task. Define temporary and permanent roles according to your project needs. Create smart objectives. Determine a symbolic presentation of your scheduling which everyone understands. Be sure everyone is trained on the IT tools you decided to use.  Determine the tasks that should be done, how they will be done, who will be in charge of each task, when and in which order. Don’t forget to use SMART objectives: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound. Manage risk. Monitoring what has been done during the process and compare actual performance to the initial plan identifying any variances to determine the impact of changes in project goals. Decide whether to change the strategy or execution of the plan. Keep planning. Planning should be performed during the whole project and is a constant process, but if you can plan correctly at the beginning, then you will spend less time as the project develops.

4. CULTURE INTELLIGENCE

Gain international experience. There’s nothing better than learning by doing. The best way to learn more about other cultures is to travel. Whether it is a business trip, education abroad, vacation or volunteer work, any type of cultural exposure will be a learning experience for you as a new project manager. Virtual international job experiences can also be a cultural exposure and may even help you with your capability to adapt to different cultural contexts online. Take cross-cultural management classes. Lifelong learning can be very helpful to project managers, whether new or old. There is always room for improvement and learning new skills. Taking CCM courses in universities or business schools can be beneficial, especially for new project managers. Take intercultural training. If time is limited, another good option is intercultural training. MOOCs are available online through websites like Coursera. Other than that, private coaching is also an excellent way to develop your skills, especially when specific problems are encountered during the project management. Be open-minded. Studies have also shown that open-mindedness, extraversion and diversifying your social groups can develop cultural intelligence.

3. E-COMMUNICATION TECHNIQUES

A project manager of a virtual team has likely experienced periodic challenges associated with team members being physically located in various places with different cultural backgrounds. Communication, or therefore the lack of communication is the top challenge for virtual-team effectiveness. What should a project manager do, in a multicultural virtual community, to ensure that his/her virtual team is highly productive and focused on accomplishing their goals and building a healthy team culture?

Use the right tool. Text messages, instant messaging, emails: Effective time-saving tools that can sometimes lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretation. However, there are some tricks. Agree together which communication tools you will use. Provide feedback. The mutual demand among the members for succinct communication is entirely out of necessity, and honest feedback about the effectiveness of communication is of high importance. Design a watercooler. Setting up a virtual “water cooler”: creating an online space (a chat room, blog or Facebook group) for sharing non-work-related and just-for-fun content. Celebrating successes: keeping up team morale and reward good work by publicly recognising accomplishments, both at the individual and group level is an effective communication method of a project manager. Celebrate the successes. Keeping up team morale and reward good work by publicly recognising accomplishments, both at the individual and group level is an effective communication method of a project manager.

4. CONFLICT MANAGEMENT ACROSS DISTANCE

Manage relationships. A manager’s priority in any conflict situation is to take control early and maintain good relationships within the team. Make sure that everyone understands how the conflict could be a mutual problem, and that it’s important to resolve it through respectful discussion and negotiation, rather than aggression. Isolate the Issue. At this point, it’s important to let team members know that conflict is rarely one-sided and that it’s best to resolve it collaboratively, by addressing the problem rather than the personalities involved. Neither person causes the problem, but they do need to work together to resolve it. Listen actively. It’s important that everyone understands each party’s underlying interests, needs and concerns. So, take a positive stance, keep the conversation courteous, and avoid blaming anyone. Encourage everyone to use active listening skills, such as looking directly at the speaker, listening carefully, nodding, and allowing each person to finish before talking. Focusing on listening will also help to prevent the conversation from becoming heated and getting out of hand. Let them speak- then answer. Encourage each team member to listen to other people’s points of view, without defending their position. Make sure that each person has finished talking before someone else speaks, emphasise that you want to resolve the situation through discussion and negotiation, and ensure that listeners understand the problem fully by asking questions for further clarification. Be sure to focus on work issues, and leave personalities out of the discussion. Set out the facts. A team member will need to agree on the problem that you are trying to solve before you can find a mutually acceptable solution, and you should agree with the facts that are relevant to the situation. Sometimes, people will see different but interlocking problems. So, if you can’t reach an agreement, you should aim to understand the other person’s perception of the problem. Explore options together. By this stage, you may have resolved the conflict. Each side will likely understand the other’s position better, and the most appropriate solution might be obvious. By asking each team member to help generate solutions, you ensure that everyone feels included and that they’re more likely to be satisfied with the outcome. Brainstorm ideas and be open to all suggestions, including ones you might not have considered before

5. ACCOUNTABILITY & TIME MANAGEMENT…

 

More ?

Soon  I will share here my ideas about interculturality in the digital age. Articles in progress are at the moment;

  • Intercultural Sales Techniques – Be careful!
  • Intercultural Negotiation Techniques – 5 key competencies
  • Intercultural Project Management beyond nationality
  • Project Management in cross-functional teams
  • Intercultural Communication beyond interculturality
  • Diversity – Chance or Issue in project teams?
  • Crowdculture as a marketing instrument