Cross-cultural collaboration

by Carol Hilderbrand

To faster a true group effort among global teams, project managers need to tackle issues of time, trust and culture.

evenunder the best of circumstances, cultivating collaboration among project teams is a delicate act. But when those teams are scattered across different countries, cultures and time zones, things get even more complicated. From finding convenient—or at least not wildly inconvenient—meeting times to sharing information with colleagues who exist only in the electronic ether, team members wrestle with figuring out ways to work together.

The heart of collaboration lies in team members’ ability to share and exchange information, a process deeply rooted in trust, says Bryan McConachy, PMP, president of Bramcon Project Consultants Ltd., Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. “Collaboration is a creative communications process,” he says. “If there is no trust, there is no communication.”

And with virtual teams, forging that trust can be even more important, “because the project manager may not always be on site and will have to rely on the local technical lead to ensure that the work is progressed to schedule,” says David Prowting, project manager at Motorola, Swindon, Wiltshire, U.K.

The trouble is, most people traditionally rely on their ability to “read” team members physically, verbally and socially to develop trust. Removing face-to-face access lengthens the time to gain trust—and hence, delays effective collaboration.

“Most people have had a lot of training on reading nonverbal cues, and the only cue you have on virtual teams is a voice on the teleconference,” says Jim Joiner, PMP, director of project management in the School of

Management at the University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, Texas, USA. “You have to toss out a lot of the things you've been taught.”

Project managers must find ways to incorporate the social interaction that can accelerate the bonding process, says Jake Stewart, PMP, assistant professor of IT in the College of Business Administration at Harding University, Searcy, Ark., USA. “You can try to work time for small talk into the discussions, but it's a juggling act,” he says. “It can frustrate the people who are task-oriented.”

Still, project managers who do research upfront can successfully manage globally dispersed teams. “The same fundamentals apply, for the most part,” Mr. Joiner says. “There are no pills to take that solve the issues of [virtual] teamwork.”

No magic pills, perhaps, but the following tactics should help:

Build a communications protocol. Project managers can't make assumptions about the way team members prefer to communicate. One person may be addicted to instant messaging, while another finds it horribly annoying. “It's very important to set forward a communication mechanism,” says Yan Bello Mendez, PMP, an international consultant based in Barcelona, Spain. “Trust and communications are very much intertwined.” When he worked on a virtual collaborative project verifying the translation of PMI‘s Spanish-language A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Third Edition, for example, the team agreed to use the PMI communities website infrastructure as a common communications platform.

At the beginning of any virtual project, Mr. McConachy gathers data on how each team member likes to communicate. “They need to be candid about their preferences of tools—whether e-mail, mobile phone or instant messaging—and their personal style—do they want highlights only or do they need to know everything?” he says. Mr. McConachy then distributes a protocol detailing each person's communications practices.


Project managers should also assess team members’ ability to speak the common language of the team. “Accents can be a major impediment, and although you have to be diplomatic about it, often it's clearer to communicate in writing,” Mr. McConachy says.

Work the time zones. The most obvious issue for dispersed teams is dealing with the myriad time zones people are working in, which can complicate setting up meeting times, for example. “If you make Tim in south Russia get up at 2 a.m. this week, he shouldn't have to do it next week,” Mr. Joiner says. “But the truth is, if you have people in [various] time zones, somebody is going to be up at 3 a.m. That's the price you pay.”

Mr. Prowting allows some leeway in schedules. “We have flexible working arrangements to cater to working across different time zones,” he says. “Otherwise, we share information via e-mail or the company data repository.”

But multiple time zones also have their benefits. When Mr. Stewart was developing enterprise resource planning systems for HP and Compaq, it wasn't uncommon for code to be written in the United States and then handed off to team members in Singapore for testing. “If you schedule properly, you can actually gain time and turn the project into a 24-hour operation,” he says.

Control the teleconference. As one of the main tools of a virtual team, the teleconference must function efficiently. And it's up to the project manager to set and enforce ground rules for team meetings.

“You have to have somebody controlling the meeting, with an agenda and time boundaries, and you have to be very sensitive to make sure that people are participating,”

Mr. Joiner says. “It's easy to hide on a teleconference.” Project managers need to keep tabs on team members by asking specific people for their input or having them identify themselves before speaking.

If there are problems with individual team members, Mr. Stewart suggests addressing the issue offline to avoid wasting teleconference time.

Tap into technology. There's no doubt collaborative tactics such as brainstorming and information-sharing are more difficult for a virtual team. ”It's harder and takes more discipline ; Mr. Stewart says. He relies on collaboration software for sharing documents and running virtual meetings. “While it's more awkward and time-consuming than having everyone in the same room, ideas can be captured with software for everyone to see virtually and expound on from there,” he says. It also creates “a document trail that the whole team can benefit from.”

For this to work, however, all team members need to be on the same technological page, so to speak. “Make sure that everybody has access to the same technology,” Mr. Bello says. “People having different versions of the same tool can be a particular issue when you are working across companies and countries. If one person has developed information in one version of Excel and it doesn't work properly in somebody else's version, you run the risk of losing information.”

Consider cultures. Project managers need to do their homework on the cultures represented across the team—and how they affect work styles.

“Be very careful of stereotyping, but there are certain characteristics of every nationality that project managers should be aware of,” says Mr. Joiner, who ran global project teams during a long career at Texas Instruments. U.S. project managers, for example, have a reputation for “cutting to the chase” and taking quick action, while the Japanese typically prefer upfront planning and deliberation. Project managers should work these traits into initial discussions, so team members understand some of the cultural forces behind certain behaviors.

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When it comes to bringing far-flung teams together for some “face time,” the consensus is clear: It may be expensive, it may be time-consuming, but it's also incredibly helpful.

“The cost of not getting people together may be difficult to calculate, but it's real. On the other hand, the ROI of doing so is substantial,” says Bryan McConachy, PMP, Bramcon Project Consultants Ltd. “It helps people understand inherent personalities and to respond effectively.”

Kicking things off with a face-to-face meeting makes it easier for teams to more quickly build the bonds of trust necessary to collaborate, says Lynn Crawford, DBA, professor of project management at ESC Lille School of Management in Lille, France, and director of the project management research group of the project management program at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia.

If project managers can't get the entire team together, there are some work-arounds to help mitigate that loss. Jake Stewart, PMP, at Harding University, says when he worked at Compaq with international teams, he would at least try to get a few of the key contributors to meet each other. “It always paid dividends down the road,” he says.

Mr. Stewart also recommends creating an online forum for project managers. “You can put a face with a name and get to know each other,” he says.

HP Services offers several courses designed to help its 4,000 project managers deal with different cultures. In addition, the company maintains directories of experts on key topics, and links to websites that give specific information for individual countries. “For example, if they know they'll be dealing with the Pacific Rim, Malaysia or Colombia, project managers can find out general information, such as time zones and holidays, as well as data about cultural biases,” says Ron Kempf, PMP, director of project management competency at HP Services, Commerce Township, Mich., USA. “One of the things we found is that you can't teach someone all the details. What you do is make them aware of the topic and then give them places to go to get the information they need.”

Mr. Stewart suggests tapping into local expertise. “If you know somebody who has worked in different cultures, try to bounce ideas off them,” he advises. “When I had team members in Singapore and Brazil, I would find people who had worked in those countries to make sure that things I wanted to do wouldn't cause immediate conflict.” For example, he told Brazilian team members that if they wanted to take two weeks off before Christmas, they needed to get their work done, and it proved to be a great motivator.

But when he considered applying the same technique in China for the New Year, he was advised against it. “I was told that it wouldn't work—they were going to go home no matter what, and it could actually offend people,” he says.

Amalgamating cultural differences also usually involves more one-on-one offline communication on the part of the project manager. “It means having to spend more time working with individuals to ensure that any communication is received and understood,” Mr. Prowting says.

If you know somebody who has worked in different cultures, try to bounce ideas off them.
—Jake Stewart, PMP, Harding University, Searcy, Ark., USA

Project managers can even run into cultural differences within different regions of the same country. Mr. McConachy works on construction projects in Canada with team members from Newfoundland, and the language barriers are significant. “I have to get somebody to translate— their variety of English is very difficult to understand,” he says.

Although such cultural issues need to be addressed, they are hardly a deal-breaker. “It just takes a little diplomacy,” he says. “I just try to ask what people want. Everybody is so different that we try to find out in a non-threatening way what's the best way to proceed.”

And finally, don't overlook the simple fix. “I finally broke down and bought a watch with 23 different time zones on it,” Mr. Joiner says. “I just push a button to find the time in each country.” PM


Carol Hildebrand is a freelance writer based in Wellesley, Mass., USA. A former senior editor at CIO, she has written for Computerworld, Baseline and other publications.




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