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 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.).
And today? The digitalisation is challenging this over many years grew organisation structure:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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
- Be, aware, don’t walk around with closed eyes!
- Don’t judge in the first moment!
- Assume rather the best than the worst!
- Communicate, problems can be solved!
- 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.