Global teams need mix of technology to work

Research by occupational psychologists has shown that 'virtual' teams spread out across the world need to use a variety of technologies to communicate if they are to be effective.

The researchers at Pearn Kandola found numerous problems in getting dispersed teams to work effectively and estimate that if different cultures are in the team it can take 17 weeks for its effectiveness to match a team working in the same location. The team recommend that managers use a variety of communications methods to combat the problem.

"Videoconferencing should be used at the outset and sporadically thereafter to allow people to build trust face to face," said Carolyn Shearsmith, who co-authored the report "The Psychology of effective business communications in geographically dispersed teams."

"Email is really best for documenting actions rather than group communications, while audio calls are excellent at promoting useful discussion."

She found that a number of cultural differences must be combated to make dispersed teams work effectively. Context is key, with many Eastern cultures such as Japan expecting co-workers to understand basic concepts without explanation compared to US and UK practices of providing more detailed explanation.

Societies also distinguished themselves by being more collectivist or individualist. Collectivist cultures, like Japan and Indonesia shun negative comments to avoid embarrassing co-workers while individualist systems such as the Nordic region were less reticent about criticism.

These differences make misunderstandings much more likely when using technology like email or instant messaging to communicate. Email was also a fairly ambiguous medium, and comments can be misinterpreted more easily.

"Difficulties like this make different modes of communication vital," said Steve Frost, market manager for Cisco's unified services division, which sponsored the research.

"Teams need to mix the most suitable technologies rather than relying on the phone and email."

The research was commissioned to promote Cisco's multi-mode communication platform, which mixes videoconferencing, email, messaging, SMS and phone conversations.