Culture Clash

Closing gaps between different worlds is crucial to building team trust. By Mary Brandel

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But unlike in the U.S., where relationship-building may happen as much in the office as outside it, Danback has found that in Europe, business offices are not considered social settings. In countries such as France, where people work strict 37.5-hour workweeks versus 50 hours or more in the U.S., "there's a time to socialize and a time not to," he says. For instance, lunchtime and right after work are more acceptable times for building relationships.

Cowboy vs. Engineer

Another area that can lead to mistrust is in the different approaches toward software development. Americans tend to take an iterative approach toward programming, which is part of what Rosen calls a "cowboy culture," while Europeans, particularly German and Swiss programmers, tend to be more rigorous and process-oriented and manage to a spec that doesn't change.

"They can get tremendously frustrated that we don't have details worked out ahead of time, and we might think they've buried themselves in minutiae," Danback says. His firm has paired the engineering-oriented staffers with the more creative and iterative people.

Another approach is to compromise, Rosen says, and follow a formal process with standards and guidelines but with fewer steps than the Europeans might ordinarily incorporate.

These types of differences can even exist in the way people view meetings. In some cultures, people come to meetings prepared to discuss their opinions, having reviewed all materials and developed calculated positions, Davidson says. In other cultures, people expect meetings to be more spontaneous. "Setting expectations before the meeting regarding preparation and the desired outcomes can improve the productivity of the meeting and minimize the cultural friction that can occur," he says.

But the make-or-break factor for effective global teams is how well they collaborate. "You have to stop making assumptions that people understand what you mean and get some verification back to be sure they interpreted it correctly," Rosen says. Many people use collaboration tools such as WikiWeb from WikiWeb Inc. or Microsoft Corp.'s NetMeeting or Groove.

Schafer encourages lots of one-on-one communication in which people exchange instant messages while they are talking on the phone, since people are often better at reading a foreign language than listening to it.

And, of course, nothing substitutes for personal get-togethers. At Sunterra, Kubulis is kicking off a major project to migrate the company's European offices to a new enterprise system by getting U.S. process owners together with their European counterparts to create empathy between the two groups. "If I don't spend that time upfront, when I get to implementation, training and user acceptance, I'll be in trouble," he says.

It will also awaken people to the reality of cultural differences, because one of the biggest enemies of a well-oiled global project team is denial. "I often find people who say there are no cultural issues on their global teams, but I think it's because they don't associate the problems that crop up with cultural differences," Carmel says.

Indeed, says Crotts, "if you ever think you have the diversity journey figured out, you soon find there's another hill to climb or plateau to reach."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at

Special Report

Navigating Global IT

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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