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10/18/2006
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It's Not the Technology, It's the Culture

One of the biggest roadblocks to the adoption of a distributed work scenario has little to do with technology or infrastructure. It's the culture.

In this case I'm am referring to the external, international culture, rather than internal, organizational culture. (That will be the topic of another blog item in the future.) Ignorance of differences within international cultures causes a host of challenges that can, in fact, drive companies away from using a "follow-the-sun" model. Earlier this year, fellow Collaboration Loop blogger David Coleman and I had a conversation about this topic and the types of issues that make many managers fearful of using workers around the globe to get the job done and speed time to market.

David's experience is that international culture clashes supply the biggest issues. "Often when you’re working on a team, it may be with people outside the company," Coleman said. "Your company is here doing the design and someone outside your firewall is doing the manufacturing. Often what happens is that cultural issues get in the way. They’re not used to your corporate culture. You’re a western culture and they’re an eastern culture. You end up making assumptions that often get in the way. When I used to work in Japan, I found that the Japanese avoid conflict, they may say yes when they mean no. That also comes up in India, where they say you’ll have it on Friday, but they don’t really mean you’ll have it on Friday. As someone from the US, we just assume that people mean what they say. It doesn’t always work that way, and all the technology does in this case is exacerbate things."

To be successful on a large scale, you must be flexible enough to change your thinking and behavior to fit within many diverse cultures, especially ones you don't know well. What this means is that you now have to be very clear with your language. No colloquialisms. And, more importantly, make no assumptions.

In a time when nearly all our distributed work "conversations" happen either within a collaborative platform or via email, it is even more important to clarify exactly what you mean. David explains, "The cues that you would normally get if you were in front of that person, you’re not getting. If you’re using IM or another online tool, your bandwidth is less. We get about 70% of our cues from body language and things like that, which you’re obviously not getting."

There are numerous books and twice as many sites on the Web that deal with cultural diversity and how to work with international colleagues and customers. As it becomes increasingly more important to work in a global way, I strongly suggest visiting a few of those sites and investing in a book or two.

If you are an American reading these words of advice, please also remember why we have been called "The Ugly American" in so many places around the world. William Lederer and Eugene Burdick wrote their landmark book of the same name to point out not only American policy errors in Southeast Asia, but the general arrogance of Americans who enter and try to take over a culture they know nothing about. If you haven't yet read the classic (published in 1958), you should. It was required reading in my high school.

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