|Communication Technologies for Global Teams|
Catherine Mercer Bing and Lionel Laroche
"Knowing when there are issues, analyzing the causes, and identifying solutions early – when problems remain small – can mean the difference between the failure and success of a virtual or global team."
Even before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 and subsequent world-wide events, many corporations were working to reduce the significant costs of travel usually associated with teams of people located in several countries. Increasingly, global teams are required to learn to work effectively in the absence of regular face-to-face interactions.While technology offers solutions for global teams, it also raises questions. What can help team members build trust and understanding and enable them get to know each other better when they cannot easily meet in person? What do we need to understand about cultural differences to choose appropriate technology? How can global team members reduce the frequency and magnitude of misunderstandings that naturally occur on teams? What team communication protocols improve interactions and reduce misunderstandings? How can teams use technology to keep track of what they are doing?
We begin this article with a discussion about forming global teams and about establishing trust and understanding on global teams that do not meet in person. We then examine a range of technologies from teleconferencing, which is most like meeting face-to-face, to internet. We provide tips on how to effectively use each of the technologies and how to choose technologies that respect cultural differences. In addition, we suggest how global team leaders can keep informed of the effectiveness of team interactions using web-based global team assessments.
TECHNOLOGIES FOR GLOBAL TEAMS
Meeting face-to-face is important on newly formed teams, regardless of cultural preferences. It is also important to those team members with a cultural preference for relationship — those with a cultural preference to get to know someone before trust can be built.
The groups that have most difficulty using any technology to conduct meetings will be new teams who have not yet met and teams whose members have a preference for relationship. The groups who find it easiest are more likely to be the ones who already have met face-to-face, and know the others on the team. It helps if they have worked together for some time and have had the opportunity to develop a level of trust and under-standing between members of the group. Those who value task higher then they value relationship adapt to the work quickly also.
We will now examine several time and money-saving technologies, focusing on how to use them effectively and with respect for cultural differences.
This method of technology creates the closest thing to personal interaction because it gives team members an opportunity to at least see other team members. Those included in the conference can watch body language and make some judgments about the congruence between body language and verbal expression. For team members communicating in a second language, visual cues including the ability to see the speaker’s mouth make the speaker easier to understand.
What else helps videoconferencing work on global teams? Send out an agenda well before the meeting. This helps every-one prepare for the meeting especially those for whom English is not a first language. An agenda sent out a day or so in advance of the meeting will give those who need it an opportunity to look up key words in a dictionary and help them think through what they may wish to offer to the group interaction.
When managing a videoconference, introduce all participants to each other as they join the call. The repetition of participants’ names and titles or responsibilities as new members join the call can help team members remember each other.
When discussing any topic, specifically ask for input from each person represented, to ensure that everyone gets a chance to participate and appear on the video screen.
Sounds, even coughing or paper shuffling, cause the camera to activate or jump to the location causing the sound. Reduce visual jumping by suggesting that locations put their speakerphones/microphones on mute until the time to talk.
Audio conferencing is much less expensive than videoconferencing. Even small and mid-sized companies often have it in-house. Teleconferencing may make full participation difficult, however, for new team members or those who prefer face-to-face interaction, especially if there are many people they do not know.
Prior to a teleconference, team leaders can suggest that team members call one or two others and introduce themselves in advance. Teams can begin to get acquainted by putting together a series of questions they would like to ask each other and the team leader (including information about their back-ground, whether they know other team members, how long they have been with the company/division/function, where they work, etc.).
Prior to a teleconference, share resumes and photos via the internet or email, or physically mail a “face book” or photos of team members. This gives team members a context within which to interact.
Provide presentation materials in advance in electronic or hard copy so participants have something to look at while they or others talk. As with a videoconference, use an agenda and introduce everyone as they join the call. Ask everyone to identify themselves before they speak. Eventually those on the call will get to recognize each voice.
In some cultures, like in the US, the usual pattern of speech is to talk over the end of the previous speaker’s last sentence. In some cultures this could be perceived as interrupting. There are cultures (e.g., French) that expect participants to interrupt each other, sometimes even finish the other’s thought. In Oriental cultures specifically, the opposite occurs — there is usually a pause between speakers. People from cultures that value pauses and silence are less likely to interrupt or talk over someone who is finishing. It also means they may never find an opening to say anything unless specifically invited to comment.
As in teleconferencing, audioconference leaders may want to check in with each participant during discussions to encourage them to participate. Specifically ask those who seem to be just listening if they have additional input. They may be from a culture that values silence or one that comments or responds best only when a leader asks questions. (Also, participants may have been dropped from the call and you may not know unless you ask.) Leaders who expect input from people who may find it difficult to interrupt might assign a topic for comment or report and/or actually put this on the agenda so others respect the time and presentation or report.
Following both video or audio conferences, send a draft email of meeting minutes which includes agreements and action items. Allow for responses, disagreement, edits and corrections. Circulate the changes. This helps those for whom the business language is a second language to compare their recollections with formal notes.
The new technology of communicating simultaneously via both telephone and the internet requires a high level of sophistication. Internet conferencing enables participants to talk on the telephone while showing PowerPoint, Word or Excel files. Some of the technologies even let any participant on the call take over the presentation and manipulate the application.
To help virtual teams use these interactions effectively, use techniques like those suggested for teleconferencing. Distribute small photos of each participant on the call. These can sit on the desktop during the conversation so participants can visualize a real person, not just hear a disembodied voice.
When a team is functioning at a high level and has developed trust, email can be an effective means of sharing information. To help teams effectively use email, get them to agree to standards, such as who gets copied on what information; how often information is shared; what goes into the body of the email; what if anything gets attached; and finally, what is a reasonable time within which to expect a response.
How one composes the message may be culturally learned (inductive vs. deductive reasoning). Some people prefer to start with the main point or the message and then explain how they arrived at this. Others prefer a chronological report of events that lead up to a conclusion. Some want more details. Others want only an overview.
Savvy global team leaders may set up team web pages. On these pages include some personal information such as pictures of team members (and perhaps their families) and a brief description of the team members' outside interests. You may also include descriptions of each team member’s past and present work, and characteristics of successful teams on which each team member has worked in the past. This approach is particularly well suited to teams that include people from Latin America, Latin Europe, Eastern Europe and the Far East. Specific information about educational background is generally valued more highly in Asia and Europe than in the US, unless the person graduated from an Ivy League school or received an MBA.
Scheduled web-based teamwork postings can provide global team leaders with updates available to them at a time convenient to their workday. Web based team measurement tools also can be used to collect data on team interactions. Such data can help the team leader identify team interactions that need his/her attention.
Watching your time
Sensitivity to time zone differences also supports good global team process. A late morning meeting in the US can occur in the middle of the night for someone in Asia (e.g., India) and late afternoon or early evening for someone in Eastern or even Western Europe. Global meetings using technology almost always have someone participating at an hour that is not convenient or within their regular work hours.
Whether or not technology is the primary means of communication between team members, establishing communication protocols, especially by including all team members in the discussion to share their preferences, will go a long way to reducing the frequency and magnitude of misunderstandings that regularly crop up in global or virtual teams.
Knowing when there are issues, analyzing the causes, and identifying solutions early — when problems remain small — can mean the difference between the failure and success of a virtual or global team. The new global order may require data collection from team members world-wide, using electronic questionnaires/assessment products. Gathering input from the team, providing results and discussing what the team members think about how to make necessary changes will facilitate improvement in team effectiveness and productivity.
Since global teams represent significant corporate investment, periodically measuring teams that cannot meet together is a proactive way to protect this investment. Team leaders unable to visit all locations find increasing value in periodic measurement and structured discussion around team issues and improvements. More and more turn to collection of data and dissemination of results over the internet prior to team discussions.
As companies pull back on international travel, global teams replace face-to-face meetings with remote interactions via telecommunications or the internet. Team leaders need to ensure that their teams use the right electronic tools to facilitate project work. Team leaders need to pay close attention to the needs of team members, particularly when the team includes people from very different cultural backgrounds. They need to adapt their leadership style to the needs of their teammates; and team members need to be mindful of the style preferences of their team leaders and react accordingly. Team leaders need to test their own assumptions for cultural biases when considering whether communication within the team is effective, how to delegate work, and how to resolve issues.
CATHERINE MERCER BING has more than thirty years experience in the field of learning and development in both profit and non-profit organizations in the US and abroad. She held corporate HR positions and has extensive external consulting experience. Catherine is currently the VP of Human Resources and New Business Development at ITAP International, a global consulting firm.