Global communications--what does it mean in today's business ?

Abstract

Today’s business is global, many companies have locations around the world and others use resellers, partners, or subcontractors to deliver products and services wherever needed. In all cases, being able to communicate effectively and in the manner expected at each location is critical and often overlooked. There is a natural assumption that if one is a good communicator they will be equally as successful when communicating with people from another country and culture. Communicating without sensitivity to another country’s culture, norms, and values often leads to misunderstandings, frustration, and a lack of motivation. How does one learn how to communicate across cultures? This paper provides insight into best practices from global operations and project leaders gathered from personal interviews. Real situations will be presented to the audience for their ideas and suggestions or observations that will lead to active discussions.

Introduction

The current workplace is no longer defined by its brick and mortar walls. Its boundaries are as far reaching as the other side of the world. Time zone differences no longer hamper productivity as resources often take advantage of the 24-hour clock in delivering to expectations. Managing a global workforce is challenging, interesting, rewarding, and frightening at times. Knowing how to motivate resources from other cultures is something that must be learned in order for a global leader to be successful. What are the challenges managing a global workforce or team presents? How does a global leader motivate a team that lives and works in a variety of countries? What are the nuances and complexities a global leader must understand in this 24 hour a day workplace?

Global teams include people who come from different cultures and have unique experiences that companies often do not often stop to consider. These differences may be seen in cultural communications styles, and their frames of reference. One example of a cultural difference may be that many U.S. non-exempt employees spend approximately 50 hours or more per week working. Their day is not eight hours in length but more often it is a 10- or 12-hour day where working remotely from home is a part of the job. A non-exempt worker in England, Germany, or France may not work a minute over eight hours and their mobile devices may be turned off when they leave the office. What issues can these work ethic differences have on a global team? How do global teams find out about one another’s work practices and cultures when they are distributed around the world and may never met one another?

Nuances and Complexities

Leading and managing distributed resources in today’s workplace means understanding the nuances and complexities globalization has imposed. This means that resources may reside in many locations and in order for work to be completed it may require using staff or contractors from around the world. An example may be a software development company that needs Flash programmers for a project and using U.S.-based resources is too expensive. They find a partner organization in India that specializes in Flash development and contract work through them. The nuances and complexities now become apparent as the U.S.-based manager tries to explain the scope of work and the final deliverable to the contracted organization. Explaining what is expected means understanding the Indian cultural nuances. Part of the nuances is understanding that the Indian manager may be trying to build a relationship with the U.S. manager and commits to the work even though he does not really understand what he has committed to do. The U.S. manager assumes that because the Indian manager said, “yes,” he explained the requirements clearly enough and will receive work based on his expectations. Unfortunately often, the Indian developer concludes the work according to the local manager’s understanding of the scope and requirements, they deliver the work and the U.S. manager receives something he did not expect. There is a miscommunication between what each party understands is the expectation for the deliverable, there is a cultural nuance in communication and understanding. This nuance may be that the complexity of the work may not have been explained in a way that resonated with the Indian manager because the U.S. manager did not understand the Indian cultural subtleties. The U.S. manager may not have taken the time to build a relationship for mutual trust, to understand that “yes” does not always mean agreement and therefore miscommunication occurred.

One complexity that globalization has added to is the volume of emails that people receive and are expected to read daily. With global resources email messages are sent while people are sleeping so this may increase to the number of messages that normally come in everyday. Some people say that they receive over 150 emails daily and cannot possibly read and understand them all. When asked how they manage this, they say they read only the ones from people they directly work with and leave the others that seem informational only unread. Do the emails that come from global team members stay in the priority to be read? Why are people wasting their time sending emails that may never be read nor responded to? Why do the receivers not ask to be removed from the information only distribution list? Are critical emails not being read and responded to in a timely manner? These are important questions that must be addressed when managing a global team.

Another complexity is the demand for real-time information has increased. People located in other countries need access to the same information as the U.S. resources need. How have companies accommodated this need when the resources are scattered around the world? The demand for real-time information has also increased the need for performance measurement tools. Measuring the effects of the demand and response on business is increasingly important. In addition, technology innovation has increased the demand for new and better ways of communicating with one another. Exhibit 1 shows the rate of technology adaptation that is impacting global business and increasing organizational complexity.

Number of Years It Took for Major Technologies to Reach 50% of Homes (2009)

Exhibit 1. Number of Years It Took for Major Technologies to Reach 50% of Homes (2009).

Global Differences

Global teams mean that people come from different cultures and have unique experiences that companies often do not often stop to consider. These differences may be seen in cultural communications styles, and individual’s frames of reference. One example of a cultural difference may be that many U.S. non-exempt employees spend approximately 50 hours or more per week working. Their day is not eight hours in length but more often it is a 10-or 12-hour day where working remotely from home is a part of the job. A non-exempt worker in England, Germany, or France may not work a minute over eight hours and their mobile devices may be turned off when they leave the office. What issues can these work ethic differences have on a global team? How do global teams find out about one another’s work practices and cultures when they are distributed around the world and may never met one another? With companies having a presence around the world, their operations have become truly global. In some cases in order to support different time zones, companies employ evening or early morning shift workers. An example of this is a support center in the Philippines managing U.S.-based calls that may be in a time zone that is 10-18 hours different. This work schedule differentiation has major implications for global teams with resources around the world. One implication is the need for enough real-time communications to ensure the teams have what they need when they need it. The need for real-time communications is complicated by the time-zone differences and deciding on the best time for a conference call or online chat is not always easy. Reaching beyond each country’s frame of reference means understanding inconveniences that could occur with distributed resources.

An implication of change is the effect on leadership and the ability to lead across cultures. In the U.S. it is not uncommon for an excellent engineer to be promoted to a leadership role without any guidance or training. This person may try very hard to be a good leader but is lacking the fundamental skills and knowledge surrounding quality leadership. The result is that untrained leaders often do not know how to engage others and find that in order to accomplish things they do it themselves. With the new demand to lead globally, this same person who has difficulty leading in the U.S. now must interface and influence people in cultures that he has never been exposed to nor understands.

The opposite of this is a leader knows what needs to be done and makes things happen. This leader can see reality, size up a situation, and make appropriate and needed decisions. Leaders are the change agents, the people who know what and when change should be done and support the change. They are tasked with motivating people and helping them to be more effective in their work. One of the most significant things leaders do is to model the way things are done. A leader shows good judgment by making quality decisions, inspiring others, challenging the way things have are done, and enabling others to act and be successful (Merriam, 2003).

Kotter (1999) suggested that leadership is about coping with change especially in today’s competitive and stressful economy. As Kotter (1999) said, “More change always demands more leadership.”

The lack of good leadership has both short- and long-term effects on global organizations. Short-term effects are that the quantity of work produced could be lower than anticipated, staff motivation may be low, and all parties are discouraged by the lack of good communication. Long-term effects may be that organization loses its window of opportunity in its market because the team has no leader, it has no cohesion, and the expected projects are delayed or incomplete. Other indications of poor leadership are that customers do not receive the support they desire because the staff is not experienced or motivated to support an angry customer.

Many Tools, Little Communication

At a PMI San Francisco Bay Area Chapter meeting, the attendees were talking about how tethered people are to communication devices and how commonplace it is to receive instant communications. Discussion arose about the positive and negative effects of these devices and whether or not communication has improved. Many said that they use email or online chat frequently, and both are considered robust communications tools. Some noted that, unfortunately, many people tend to send short, convoluted messages that leave the recipient questioning what action to take. They added that often the message is unclear, and that the recipient could totally misinterpret it. Some people said that there is no real protocol shared among users as to how to compose a message or how to respond. One person said he sends return receipts on emails and assumes that people read them if he receives a confirmation. He later said that he realizes this only means they have opened it. Someone else said that he thought a quick response told the sender that he read it and would take some kind of action. Everyone agreed these types of communications often are either unanswered or misinterpreted.

Audio conference calling has been used for years, and now video conferencing from the desktop and from designated rooms has become important as well, especially within a company or in the form of a webinar or online presentation. Conference calling was discussed at the PMI chapter meeting as well, and one participant remarked that during an audio conference call, he heard typing and wondered if one of the participants was doing something else. The room was queried and almost everyone stated that often they are working on something else during these calls. This generated discussion on what is more important, the current situation, the conference call, or the interruption. They asked, “Are we so afraid to lose a message regardless of its importance and relevance to our current situation?” This example is a conference call where information was shared but the participants often felt that other information or work took precedence. Does this mean people cannot differentiate between priorities as well as importance and relevance?

With so many forms of connectivity available, we still are not communicating well. There is audio, video, asynchronous email, synchronous instant chats—and yet there is still a communications gap. Communications devices abound with mobile handheld multipurpose phones, Bluetooth headsets, wireless computers, and global positioning devices, yet people still are not communicating well. Perhaps it is that we do not know how to communicate clearly or that we do not know what to communicate. Some people are afraid that the information could get into the wrong hands and prove fatal to themselves or their organization. An executive from Serena Software once said that the reality of what most employees can access is not confidential information. He added that about 3% of company information truly is classified and confidential, and therefore he is not afraid of sharing the other information and encouraged his staff to do so. This could support the idea that people do know what to communicate well and use confidentiality as an excuse.

When current information about a project is essential, email is the first choice for teams to communicate. Email is a universal tool and, with today’s “any place and any time” business practice, it provides communication and documentation of a message. The use of email helps to overcome some of the barriers that distance creates. People check email multiple times during the day because they realize that vital information can be transmitted in this media. Does this mean they understand what and how to communicate?

In addition, the Internet is a vital communication tool for daily work, such as file transfer protocol (FTP) for sharing files, web conferencing for visual communication, and search engines for finding information rapidly. Some Internet sites are vital for collaboration as each team member adds to or changes a shared document, conducts a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) conversation, or participates in an online blog or wiki for ongoing thought-sharing. Instant conversations changed from voice calls to computer chat sessions or mobile text messaging. Are these tools enough to be connected and communicating well?

Clear Communications

Technology and network access points allow for connection, but the bigger issue remains—lack of clear communications. There is an assumption that because there are technologies, there is improved communication quality. These technologies aid to communication, but if the people conducting these communications do not have the right skills, the quality of their communications will not improve. This means that the best tools and technologies cannot ensure quality communications. Agreements must be made to ensure communications best practices are put in place to deliver the expected improved communications. It is the combination of technologies and quality messages that allow for success in communications.

Communications is the most important component in managing projects and global teams. It is critical to the success of most projects, whether handled by a dedicated project team, a cross-departmental team, or a globally dispersed project team. It is important for global leaders to build communications plans that incorporate technologies and best practices for disseminating information at the right time to the right audience.

Elements of a project communications plan strategy may include:

  • Planning the kickoff meeting
  • Developing clear roles and responsibilities of the team
  • Identifying project status meetings and frequency
  • Identifying project communications (email, chat, video)
  • Determining the level of detail to the level of management
  • Developing communications standards
  • Developing a plan for transitioning from deployment to operations
  • Debriefing the project.

A well-planned project has a communication strategy and a plan. Sample communications plans are presented in Exhibit 2. They show what, who, why, and when communications might occur and be managed.

Technical Project Communications Plan (Mayer, 2010)

Exhibit 2. Technical Project Communications Plan (Mayer, 2010).

Managing Global Teams

Managing global teams means that employees must be effective over distances. It is not uncommon to be part of a flexible team where laptops, personal digital assistants (PDAs), cell phones, wireless access, email, voicemail, video conferencing, and web-enabled databases are utilized to conduct business. Global teams can be homogenous and within a company, can have subcontractors, or can be aligned but across companies (Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000). They have been successful when:

  • There is a thorough understanding of the project’s objective, benefits to the organization, and the problem that they are solving is clarified
  • Team members follow through on objectives and milestones with the understanding of how each group delivers benefit to the project
  • Team members exchange information, share dependencies, and provide assistance to one another as needed
  • The team provides a current snapshot of the project for stakeholders, along with issues and challenges.

If communications are inconsistent, fragmented, or out-of-context, confusion sets in. These types of communications briefly identify a problem and expect a resolution quickly, often without necessary details. In reality, problems require research, analysis, discussion with others, and critical thinking to come to a quality resolution. Misunderstandings develop because assumptions and expectations are not identified and stated. Most often a phone call, online chat, or in-person meeting is required to discuss the pros and cons of various solutions.

Global teams have a common issue, time-zone differences. This means that real-time meetings must be carefully coordinated, and constraints such as time of day and day of the week considered. Morning for one location can be evening for another; Sunday for one location may be Monday for another. A global leader must understand and consider who and how often someone may be inconvenienced. Time-zone differences also include loyalty conflicts. What if the entire team is distributed? Teams from large, international companies or from different companies often result in team members’ loyalties being conflicted—are they loyal to the team or to the company? In other cases, team members indicate that their alliances are stronger with other employees in their own locations rather than the distributed team (Armstrong, 2002).

Many teams have members located in multiple time zones, and in those cases, communication and response expectation must be considerations. In many instances, multiple time zones can work to a company’s benefit. This could mean that a task is started in Australia, is picked up by a team member in Switzerland, and completed by another team member in the U.S. This global teamwork can be very effective for managing resources and meeting tight deadlines.

Cultural consideration may not seem critical, but can become very problematic if not considered. Team members from other cultures have different ideas of the same concepts. A few years ago, an online publisher was having his Flash programming done by his India-based team members. He wanted the pages to have a library feeling and a wizard introducing the viewer. This information was given to the India programmers and they set to work. When they sent back their work, the publisher was not pleased, the library did not look at all familiar and the wizard looked quite unusual. He assumed that the developers from India had the same cultural experiences that he had, and they clearly did not. Knowing one another’s cultural norms is essential when working on global teams.

Multicultural differences add to time-zone challenges. In many countries, there are formal reporting hierarchies where casual communication with managers is not acceptable. An example of a cultural difference is in the U.S. where individual recognition is sought, while in Asia teams are praised, rather than individual team members. Cultural differences also occur on teams located within the same country. Often team members located away from headquarters may wish to be left alone to complete their work, while those in the hub of corporate activity may wish more inclusion. It is critical that culture be considered when managing globally, as it translates into personal style, national and organizational culture, and even industry norms. What might seem normal in one industry may be totally unfamiliar in another industry. This may be seen in how messages are written and interpreted based on language, culture, assumptions, experience, and expectations.

It is so important to develop a communications strategy and plan and share this with others. Setting the right expectations at the beginning allows people to know what will be coming, when, in what form and to what level of detail. Putting such a plan in place takes the burden of remembering who needs to have access to information, if they have the information or how to share critical issues and ask for help when needed.

Conclusions

Leading any team requires an understanding of team dynamics, clear communications techniques, and the desire to actually lead. Managing a global team magnifies the need for these abilities and either supports leadership or provides an avenue for career change. This may seem trivial, but unless each person embarking on team leadership understands that the team is the main focus, he or she will fail as will the team and potentially the project. Here are some things to consider doing when embarking on global team leadership.

  • As a leader build a vision and set the direction considering cultural differences and set goals with team member participation.
  • Encourage brainstorming and feedback to obtain buy-in from people in distributed locations.
  • Develop a strategy to achieve the project objectives, and have team members participate on its feasibility.
  • Communicate the vision, goals and directions to the team.
  • Develop a communications plan to identify who, what, when, and how communications will be disseminated.
  • Organize online sessions using technology tools such as a project repository or website that show the vision, goals, directions, and plans.

Global leadership is not for everyone; it is much more complex then leading domestic teams. A global leader must be extremely well organized and supportive, strong and collaborative, and willing to make the extra effort global team require. These leaders must be really good communicators, facilitators, and problem solvers because distributed resources will expect this capability. Global resources just want to do their work; they expect the leader to manage everything else that comes up. Managing a global team means learning about other cultures, helping people take on self leadership, and knowing that the complexities of global leadership have been mastered. If this is for you, congratulations for joining the ranks of global leaders of the 21st century!

References

Armstrong, D. (2002). Managing distances and differences in geographically distributed work groups. In Hinds & Kiesler (Eds.), Distributed Work. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kotter, J. (1999). What leaders really do. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Maznevski, M., & Chudoba, K. (2000). Bridging space over time: Global Virtual team dynamics and effectiveness. Organization Science, 11 (5), 473-492.

Mayer, M. (2010). The virtual edge; Embracing technology for distributed team success, second edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Merriam, S. B. (1988). Case study research in education: A qualititative approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2010 Margery Mayer Ph.D
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings- Washington, D.C.

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