Edición 48, Human Resources

Global Virtual Teams

Una Idea Comparada con los Seis Errores de los Negociadores Eficaces de SebeniousBy: Dra.Eva Lira
Universidad de Valencia

Today, no one doubts the fundamental role played by Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and the term “globalization” in the global economy. The “information society” defines the entry into the 21st century and it is the safe bet for socioeconomic development, according to the Global Information Technology Report (GITR, 2013).

The full development of the information society has as its central axis the use of ICTs in organizations that operate in any part of the world and at different time zones in a “global” manner. This picture is not the same in all countries, and with regard to the business use of ICT in Mexico, it is not a very promising place. (World Economic Forum, WEF, 2013-2014). As a result, the competitiveness of organizations is reduced. As evidenced in the new WEF report (2013-2014), Mexico went from No. 53rd in the previous ranking to No. 55th today. That is, this year it dropped two places from last year. Although a priori the situation is not very encouraging, this data shows some economic stability. The report notes that the momentum of ICT is crucial for competitiveness in Mexico, which continues to occupy very low levels in the rankings (83). In contrast, the GITR presents a more hopeful picture. Mexico is ranked 63 of the 144 economies analyzed. This represents an increase of 13 positions over the previous year, indicating an improvement in the inclination of the Mexican economy to take full advantage of ICT. The vice president of Global Technology Policy for Cisco Systems, a sponsor of the GITR, said that economies that do not apply comprehensive national broadband strategies run the risk of losing ground in terms of global competitiveness and will perhaps lag behind in achieving the social benefits provided by ICT. (Pepper, 2013)

Therefore, organizations with higher levels of competitiveness in the market are able to react and respond effectively to the changing environment, which is increasingly rapid and complex. The growing trend of organizations to work in teams, along with the progressive introduction of ICT, has enabled the emergence of Global Virtual Teams (GVT) or transnational distribution work teams. The most competitive organizations in the world use GVT to raise the quality of their products (for example, by maximizing the use of talent from around the world) at low cost (Furst, Reeves, Rosen and Blackburn, 2004). For a team to be considered a global virtual team, it must be located in at least two countries (Anawati and Craig, 2006; Horwitz, Bravington and Silvis, 2006; Staples and Zhao, 2006). These teams, which traditionally are formed in multinationals, increasingly operate in less complex organizations due to the lowering of price of ICT and improved Internet connectivity (one of three people have access to Internet [World Bank, 2011]. This work or telecommuting (Chronos Consulting, 2008; CISCO, 2008) requires personnel with knowledge and skills such as languages and flexible hours (for example, on weekends or nights). Non-working days differ with each country and must be taken into consideration (for example in Israel people work on Sundays and in Australia people do not work on Mondays; Glazer, Kozusznik and Shargo, 2012). However, research has shown that nontraditional hours, such as night shifts (Barton, 1994), work in isolation (Maruping and Agarwal, 2004) and intercultural communication (Brislin and Yoshida, 1994; Storti, 1994) are possible causes of stress in individuals. So, although GVT clearly have their benefits, we must ask whether they are a sustainable solution for organizations (Glazer et al., 2012). Knowing the characteristics of these teams is essential so that they are both environmentally friendly and sustainable. Thus, for example, work between people of different cultures requires verbal and nonverbal communication, and even the same language has different nuances and meanings between countries (Molinksy, Krabbenhöft, Ambady and Choi, 2005). Even a person who is competent in a language other than their native language needs background cultural information to establish effective communication (Gudykunst, 1998). Therefore, members of a GVT must know the verbal culture, norms and values (Bhawuk, 1998), gestures and behaviors (Molinksy et al., 2005) and nonverbal aspects of the culture. The communication required to do a good job includes, in addition to adequate verbal expression, emotions, gestures and body language as a means of relating to people (Matsumoto and Juang, 2008), which differ from one culture to another and are restricted to synchronous computer systems (such as instant messaging) and asynchronous (such as email). Therefore, the worker must be both skilled and competent to understand verbal and nonverbal aspects of a culture in the transmitted messages (Li, 1999; Molinsky et al., 2005). Thus, when a person is competent in the language and cultural norms of communicative discourse, communication is more effective (Glazer et al., 2012). This aspect is a crucial element in intercultural communication and critical when communication is done through ICT.

Another aspect of the study is the intercultural context (Glazer et al., 2012). Traditionally, individualistic cultures are considered “low context” (Hall, 1976) and collectivists “high context” (Gudykunst and Ting Toomey, 1988; Hofstede, 1991). Low-context cultures are characterized by an increased focus on substance rather than form when speaking or writing, and communication is direct, open, assertive, clear and explicit, with little room for interpretation (Brew and Cairns, 2004; Cinnirella and Green, 2007; Hall 1976; Yum, 1988). These cultures are characterized by being focused or task-oriented (in response to the content). Communication mediated by ICT enables teams to be more task-oriented rather than focused on the relational aspects, at least in part because the medium has a more limited bandwidth than traditional communication or in person (Culnan and Markus, 1987). In this sense, it can be said that “low context” cultures have more effective communication or take better advantage of the use of ICT.

In contrast, collectivist cultures communicate using a high-context style in their interactions, characterized by being less direct and expressive. The gesture is more subtle (for example, less use of body language, touch and eye contact (Brew and Cairns, 2004; Burleson and Mortenson, 2003). The speaker is more focused on form than on substance (Triandis, 1994), and the expected feedback is not so obvious (Korac-Kakabadse, 2004). Thus, collectivist cultures are characterized by issuing more implicit than explicit messages. This may require more information about the cultural background of these countries for effective communication. Also, given the objective characteristics of a means of communication mediated by ICT, which restricts nonverbal signals to a greater extent than traditional communication, this could also harm efficiency. However, the subtlety (for example, to think in the way in which a message is conveyed and expressed and to try and maintain some harmony) is an important feature in successful conflict resolution and negotiations (therefore, the effectiveness may depend on the task, which is a contingent variable to take into account). Moreover, in conflict situations, team members in high-context cultures (as in Mexico) will avoid or withdraw (Chua and Gudykunst, 1987). Negotiations of high-context cultures are characterized by being more covert and indirect than in low-context cultures, more organized, open and that share priorities and profits (for example, Adair, Okumura and Brett, 2001; Gelfand and Christakopoulou, 1999).

Another cultural aspect characteristic of the GVT is the distance from power (Glazer et al., 2012), which differs from one culture to another, depending on the degree to which employees perceive that there is a greater or lesser distance with their superior. There are cultures where hierarchy is much more marked and inequalities are greater. In this sense, participants of a GVT with a high status are treated with respect and rarely criticized in public, unlike those in a culture where the distance from power is not so marked and the treatment is more egalitarian (Offermann and Hellmann, 1997). Therefore, if in a GVT participants differ in their idea of the distance from power, tensions may develop, anger characteristic of conflicts in relationships that are more difficult to overcome in electronic means of communication (Lira, Ripoll, Peiró and Orengo, 2008).

In conclusion, the coordinators of the GVT have to meet the new challenges arising from these teams by providing employees the necessary tools to communicate effectively with people from different parts of the world, given the particular difficulties of virtual communication (Lira, Ortega and Latorre, 2014) and the cultural differences (Glazer et al., 2012). The training must take into account, in addition to conflict resolution, the management and coping with stress, because cultural differences and constraints imposed by the use of ICT can provoke physical and health problems, for example, adapting to time zone differences. These interventions to promote the physical and psychological well being of the worker necessarily have to have an affect on several levels (individual, team and organization). Therefore, a crucial aspect for the success and sustainability of the GVT is to educate people about ICT and the cultural differences they may encounter while working with colleagues from other countries.

References

  • Glazer, G., Kozusznik, M., y Shargo, I. (2012). “Global virtual teams: A cure for or a cause of stress”, en Pamela L. Perrewé, Jonathon R.B. Halbesleben, Christopher C. Rosen (comps.), The role of the economic crisis on occupational stress and well-being. Research in Occupational Stress and Well-being, 10, 213 -266.
  • Lira, E. M., Ortega, A., y Latorre, M. F. (2014). “Los equipos de trabajo virtuales en las organizaciones”, en R. Acuña (comp.), Multiculturalidad, Imagen y Nuevas Tecnologías. Madrid: Fragua.
  • Schwab, K. (2014). World Economic Forum. 2014. The Global Competitiveness Report 2013–2014. Ginebra: World Economic Forum.

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