About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Lessons Learned in Working with International Virtual Groups

Christine Martel's blog last week journaled about her participation in a course on culture, technology, and communication. Each day, as she worked in cross-cultural groups, she gave her insights into working with an international group in a virtual environment. Many of her insights mirrored my students as they worked in on international projects in France, Peru, and Italy. I promised her I would give some of those insights after she completed the course (I am sure her instructors gave her the project so the class could experience the difficulties first hand).

So here are some of the most common "lessons learned" my students have come up with in the past:

  1. Don't assume anything
  2. Outline the communication and work process at the beginning, including ways to communicate, communication contact information and back-up information (in case of problems with primary contacts, another person that can track down what is happening), expectations of quality and quantity of work, and a tentative schedule.
  3. Build in sufficient time into the schedule. There should be regularly scheduled updates and work should be divided up and planned in pieces, with early milestones given priority over other work.
  4. There should be multiple channels of communication which allows for regular updates. If one system or process does not work, groups should be flexible enough to change it so it does work.
  5. Analyze "silence" to make sure that everyone understands what is going on. What is causing the "silence": cultural differences? technology problems? problems with the group (dynamics)? Other problems that can't be seen?
  6. When setting up a virtual group consider: time differences (time zones, including the change from summer to winter time), seasonal differences (there are different business systems for those in summer time and winter time--vacations, whether related work delays---between those in the northern and southern hemisphere. Those around the equator have differences between the dry and wet seasons), holidays, work schedules (how long the work day is, time for lunches, days of the week), access to technology (types of technology, training, accessible power sources--some countries turn off power in the night or early morning, others might have unannounced blackouts on a regular basis), and communication structures (gatekeepers to authority, organizational structure, language ability).
  7. Have patience. Plan that things will go wrong and develop a plan of how to troubleshoot when that happens. This is especially important for language and cultural misunderstandings.
  8. Be sensitive to differences in culture, values, concept of time, office relationships, and language. Ask, don't tell. Realize that others in the team are trying to figure you out as much as you are trying to figure them out, so be explicit and explain EVERYTHING. Don't be insulted about ANY questions that might be posed to you and don't assume that any question is dumb as long as the intent is to make the group work more efficiently. Put yourself in the others situation.
I have been doing international projects on and off for over 20 years now, and still these same issues come up. You will notice that Christine came up with almost the same issues. While I am very committed to international communication and business, I also feel I am successful if some of my students conclude that they just are not suited to international work. Often my students come into my courses either anticipating that they will be able to jet set around the world if they work in international business or they will be able to save the world with the "American way". By the end of my courses they have a much more realistic idea of the frustrations, challenges, and exciting new opportunities that working in a global context presents.

I feel that these are experiences that all new workers in the US should be exposed to. As the world economy shifts to Asia, Americans need to start recognizing that English may not stay the world language of business, and at the very least, more and more decisions and groups may have members outside of the US.


Bill Chapman said...

Have you ever thought about a possible wider role for Esperanto? There's a good introduction to the language at www.esperanto.net


V Yonkers said...

I am a firm believer in the organic development of language which I don't think Esperanto is (which is why it never took off). Instead, I see English becoming the "new Latin" in that it is a very visceral language which allows for many versions. Already there are multiple versions of English in societies where English is a second language (Indian English, Singaporean English, Jamaican English). As long as English maintains flexible rules, it will stay a dominant (although not necessarily a primary) language. Americans need to recognize that American English is not the same as the English being used worldwide.

Brian Barker said...

Hi v yonkers!

I am not certain where you received the information that Espeanto never took off?

In fact Esperanto is now a living language.

The Pope used it in his Easter address from the Vatican and the Beijing Olympics have appointed an Esperanto translator.

Nine British MP.s have have nominated Esperanto for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008. The nomination was made simply on the basis that Esperanto has become a living language.

You can see detail at http:www.lernu.net

V Yonkers said...

Brian, perhaps I should rephrase that. My experience (I have taken a number of linguistic courses, taught ESL, and worked and lived internationally in both private and government funded projects) worldwide has never resulted in someone asking me if I could translate or communicate in Esperanto. A quick google search came up with a maximum number of speakers of Esperanto at 2 million (although many had much less). When you compare this with the number of English, Hindi, Chinese (Mandarin) and Spanish speakers, this is a very small number.

I will grant you, however, that given the age of the language, this is a proportionately a large growth in speakers, it does not compare to Indonesian for example, which was created for use as a common language so the multiple language groups in Indonesia could communicate with each other. I guess I just don't see it being a language that takes off in the near future as most people will look for a second language in which a large population (over 100 million) would have in common.

Bill Chapman said...

I think that you and I will disagree on this.

Esperanto works! I've used it in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years.
Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I've made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there's the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries.

In the past year I have had guided tours of Berlin and Milan in the planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I've discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers.

I'm teaching on an ESL (Esperanto asd a Second Language) course in Plouezec, Brittany shortly. I have taught ESL courses myself and worked, using Esperanto, in a number of countries. I'm really surprised that you have managed to avoid Esperanto. It could be, of course, that you have met Esperanto speakers without knowing it. My guess is that people assume (perhaps unfairly) that there's no point trying Esperanto with you. But I may be wrong, and I wish you well.


Christine Martell said...

This list is an affirmation of what we experienced in class. It's great to see it after we discovered so many similar things through living it. I keep thinking about whether seeing it first would have prevented any of the messes we got ourselves into. I hate to say, I think we would have done it anyway. Understanding is a long way from changing deeply rooted behavior. My big take-away: Facilitation skills + technology skills + some cultural competency does not equal the ability to lead or even participate on a global virtual team.

I so appreciate you taking the time to share with us. It was a great addition to the class. Most of the participants are not accustomed to going to the blogosphere for input, so it was great to be able to demonstrate it, and esp getting high quality material.