DETECON Consulting


Challenges of Global Collaboration

Cultural Impact on Knowledge Sharing Practices in the Context of Global Virtual Teams

Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success. In this context knowledge sharing in a global team is a challenge. Different cultural mindsets have to be considered.

In an economic context characterized by competitiveness, short product life cycles, dynamic and growing strategic and economic pressure, organizations have to establish efficient global collaboration regardless the geographical, social or political barriers they may face. To deal with the fast changing environment, global virtual teams (GVTs) gained importance over the last several years. Knowledge sharing within the company as well as in cooperation with external partners depends on following crucial success factors: technical, relational and cognitive dimension.

Knowledge Sharing is a competitive advantage

In this context knowledge is viewed as the competitive advantage for business success nowadays. Each team member holds unique information that might be critical for future decisions of the organization and should therefore be made accessible through knowledge sharing practices. Knowledge is generally derived from thinking and it is a combination of information, experience and insight. It is transferred to others mainly via communication. The distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge is the ability to be formulated directly and communicated to others via words or symbols. Explicit knowledge can be put into words and explained to others. Tacit knowledge, quite unlike explicit knowledge, is rooted in individual experience and personal skills, ideas and thoughts that people have in their minds. It is difficult to be accessed because it is neither tangible nor codified.

The challenge transnational enterprises have to face this: How can global knowledge transfer be generated in today´s business world which is characterized by the collaboration of different nations and various educational as well as cultural backgrounds?

Cultural influences have therefore taken into account. If the mindsets of both parties differ from each other, there will only be a small chance that the message will be interpreted and decoded correctly.

GVT are in addition to that characterized by unique challenges regarding knowledge sharing due to diverse working situations, geographical distance, dependence on virtual collaboration tools and different cultural backgrounds:

  • Diverse working situations: Team members are not familiar with each other and often do not share a common organizational or team identity.
  • Geographical distance: As GVTs work in geographically distributed environment across time zones.
  • Virtual collaboration tools: Team members communicate mainly electronically. Information transfer occurs mainly through analogue and digital media e.g. Videoconference.

These above mentioned challenges can easily hamper the global knowledge transfer due to following consequences.

Figure: Challenges and Consequences of Global Knowledge Transfer

These consequences are crucial and needs to be solved in advance to establish successful global communication and hence knowledge transfer.

Technical, relational and cognitive dimension

Following three dimensions have to be considered: Technical dimension, relational dimension and the cognitive dimension.

The technical dimension is based on technical tools and software for knowledge sharing practices. Despite the rapid development of ICT and its ongoing innovation, the issues to consider here of are still many. Among other things it is important that team members have access to reliable equipment. This means technical disruption and software bugs should constitute a rarity, connectivity and compatibility as well as ease of use of systems have to be ensured from day one.

The relational dimension is centered on the role of building up direct ties and trustful relationships. Trust is therefore a key element in the willingness of team members to share information freely. As trust develops over time and needs close personal interaction, face to face meetings which include space for socialization and small talk opportunities like common coffee or lunch breaks have to be established on a regular basis. Team members will become more familiar with each other and may develop a common work identity and commitment.

On one hand, open communication positively influences trust; on the other, trust eases communication.

The cognitive dimension involves common expectations and understanding. Different mindsets, educational and professional paths as well as the lack of common work practices reduce knowledge sharing practices and result in tension, distrust and misunderstanding. Therefore cultural awareness is of utmost importance. GVTs are characterized by their diversity of spoken languages. English is likely not the native language of many or most team members and may easily lead to language barriers and misunderstandings due to wrong or incomplete translations and different semantic meanings. The absence of gestures and facial expressions limits the interpretation and understanding of verbal communication. In addition, differences in communication styles influence the way issues are addressed and often reduce the smoothness of communication and mutual exchange. It might be difficult for other members of the team to detect the actual message. Hence, the fact that communication, behavior patterns and social norms vary across cultural borders should be carefully considered.

In order to ensure successful knowledge sharing following key measures have to be implemented:

  • Reliable ICT tools to grant access to everyone and set up f2f meetings, e.g. via WebEx and business lunch.
  • Cultural awareness to avoid misunderstanding and distrust. Establish the understanding for different mindsets, e.g. intercultural workshops and guidelines
  • Offer language courses to abandon language barriers and set up one common business language e.g. English as business language

Concrete Example: Different working styles between Germany and France

Different cultural mindsets hamper the communication, mutual understanding and therefore the knowledge transfer. Various cultural mindsets result in diverse ways of communication and working habits.

Deep-diving into a German-French collaboration following differences have to be considered:

Figure: Deep-diving into a German-French collaboration

Knowledge Sharing @ Detecon

Detecon as an international management consulting company works with customer despite the geographically distributed places. With different national backgrounds Detecon presents a multicultural team. With more than 20,000 successful projects in Germany and abroad, from San Francisco to Beijin, Detecon gathers experience with different national cultures. Although the official project language is English, team members speak in different other mother tongues. Despite the absence of time gap, Detecon serves as great example for facing multiple challenges regarding knowledge sharing practices. Key elements for successful knowledge sharing, besides the access to stable collaboration tools, are trust, reliable relationships and common understanding. Knowledge sharing takes a lot of personal effort. Improvements regarding communication channels, group identity and team spirit have to be done continually.

The authors

Ralf Upmeyer is Management Consultant and advises the People Readiness Division of Deutsche Telekom, which is responsible for the preparation and execution of trainings, change and communication.

Zaiad Akrami is dual student and work in Detecon for several month.

Larissa Strohfuß is dual student and works in customer project together with Detecon.