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International Virtual Offices - INTRODUCTION, BACKGROUND, MAIN FOCUS OF THE ARTICLE, Area 1: Making Contact

individuals cultural ivos communication

Kirk St.Amant
Texas Tech University, USA

INTRODUCTION

Communication technologies are continually expanding our ideas of the office into cyberspace environments. One result of this expansion is the international virtual office (IVO), a setting in which individuals located in different nations use online media to work together on the same project. Different cultural communication expectations, however, can affect the success with which IVO participants exchange information. This article examines three cultural factors that can affect communication within IVO environments.

BACKGROUND

Virtual workplaces offer organizations a variety of benefits, including:

  • Increased flexibility and quicker responsiveness (Jordan, 2004)
  • Better organizational information sharing (Ruppel & Harrington, 2001)
  • Reduced absenteeism (Pinsonneault & Boisvert,2001)
  • Greater efficiency (Jordan, 2004; Salkever, 2003)
  • Improved brainstorming practices (Salkever, 2003)

It is perhaps for these reasons that organizations are increasingly using such distributed methods of production (Supporting a Growing, 2004; Pinsonnealut & Boisvert, 2001). The online nature of these workplaces means that they allow for individuals in different nations to participant in certain processes.

This openness is occurring at a time when more of the world is rapidly gaining online access. Taiwan, for example, has the world’s fourth highest rate of broadband penetration, while 70% of South Korea and 50% of Hong Kong have broadband access (Global Perspectives, 2004; Taiwan’s Broadband, 2004). Such international access, moreover, is expected to grow markedly in the near future. Indian Internet access, for example, is projected to grow by as much as 11 fold in the next four years (Pastore, 2004), and the number of wireless local area networks (WLANs) in China is expected to increase 33% by 2008 (Wireless Networks, 2004). This increased global access brings with it quick and easy connections to relatively inexpensive yet highly skilled technical workforces in other nations (The New Geography, 2003; Weir, 2004). For these reasons, an increasing number of organizations is now examining different ways to use IVOs to tap this international labor force and lower overall production costs (The New Geography, 2003).

To make effective use of such IVO situations, organizations need to understand how cultural factors could affect information exchange among international employees. The problem has to do with differences in cultural communication assumptions. That is, cultural groups can have differing expectations of what constitutes an appropriate or effective method for exchanging information, and these variations even can occur between individuals from the same linguistic background (Driskill, 1996; Weiss, 1998). For example, individuals from different cultures might use alternate strategies for proving an argument (Hofstede, 1997; Weiss, 1998), or cultural groups could have varying expectations of how sentence length (Ulijn & Strother, 1995) or word use (Li & Koole, 1998) contributes to the credibility or intent of a message. These differing expectations, moreover, transcend linguistic boundaries and can affect how individuals interact in a common language (Ulijn, 1996).

While relatively little has been written on how cultural factors could affect IVOs, some research indicates that differing cultural communication expectations can lead to miscommunication or misperception in online exchanges (Artemeva, 1998; Ma, 1996). It is these basic communication issues that organizations must address before they can begin to explore the knowledge management potential that IVOs have to offer. To avoid such problems, employees need to understand how cultural factors could affect online exchanges. They also need to develop strategies to address cultural factors affecting IVO exchanges.

MAIN FOCUS OF THE ARTICLE

Three key areas related to successful communication in IVOs are making contact, status and communication expectations, and the use of a common language. When addressed early and effectively in an IVO, these factors can create the environment essential for effective information exchanges.

Area 1: Making Contact

Successful international online interactions are based on one primary factor—contact. Contact is essential to exchanging information and materials among parties. Making contact requires all parties involved to have similar understandings of how and when exchanges should take place. Yet cultures can have varying expectations of how and when contact should be made. For example, cultural groups can have different expectations of the importance or the exigency associated with a particular medium, a factor that could influence how quickly or how effectively different IVO participants can perform their tasks. Many Americans, for example, believe that an e-mail message merits a quick and timely response. In Ukrainian culture, however, face-to-face communication tends to be valued over other forms of interaction, especially in a business setting (Richmond, 1995). Thus, e-mail to Ukrainian co-workers might not provide as rapid a response as American counterparts might like or require, a factor that could lead to unforeseen delays in an overall process (Mikelonis, 1999). The effects of this delay could be compounded, if others need to wait for this Ukrainian counterpart to complete his or her task before they can begin their own work.

Another factor is the time at which contact can be made. Many Americans, for example, expect to be able to contact co-workers or clients between the hours of 9:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M. during the standard work week. In France, however, many individuals expect an office to shut down for two or more hours in the middle of the day for the traditional lunch period (generally from noon to 2:00 P.M. or from 1:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M.) (Weiss, 1998). Such a discrepancy could lead to an unexpected delay in contacting an IVO colleague and in getting essential information quickly.

Similarly, most Americans think of vacations as two- or three-week periods during which someone is in the office to answer the phones. In France, however, it is not uncommon for businesses to close for four to six weeks during the summer, while all of the employees are away on vacation (Weiss, 1998). In these cases, no one may be available to respond to e-mails, receive online materials, or transmit or post needed information.

Additionally, the meaning individuals associate with certain terms can affect information exchanges in IVOs. That is, words such as today, yesterday, and tomorrow can have different meanings, depending on whether they are based on the context of the sender or the recipient of a message. If, for example, a worker in the United States tells a Japanese colleague that he or she needs a report by tomorrow, does the sender mean tomorrow according to the sender’s time (in which case, it could be today in Japan), or does the sender mean tomorrow according to Japanese time (in which case, it could be two days from the time at which the message was sent)?

To avoid such contact-related problems, individuals working in IVOs can adopt a series of strategies for interacting with international colleagues:

  • Agree upon the medium that will serve as the primary mechanism for exchanging information and establish expectations for when responses to urgent messages can be sent. Individuals need to agree upon the best means and medium of contacting others when a quick response is essential and then set guidelines for when one can expect an international colleague to check his or her messages and when/how quickly a response can be sent, based on factors of culture and time difference.
  • Establish a secondary medium for making contact, should the primary medium fail. Certain circumstances could render a medium inoperative. For this reason, individuals should establish a backup method for contacting overseas colleagues. In Ukraine, for example, what should individuals do if the primary method for making contact is e-mail, but a blackout unexpectedly happens at a critical production time (not an uncommon occurrence in many Eastern European countries)? The solution would be to establish an agreed-upon secondary source that both parties can access easily (e.g., cell phones).
  • Establish a context for conveying chronological references. IVO participants should never use relative date references (i.e., tomorrow or yesterday), but instead should provide the day and the date (e.g., Monday, October 4), as well as some additional chronological context according to the recipient’s time frame (e.g., Netherlands time). For example, tell a Dutch colleague that information is needed by Monday, October 4, 16:00 Netherlands time.

By following these steps, employees in IVOs can increase the chances of making contact with overseas co-workers and receiving timely responses.

Area 2: Status and Communication Expectations

In some cultures, there is the flexibility to circumvent official channels in order to achieve a particular goal. In the United States, for example, a person with a good idea might be able to present that idea directly to his or her division manager instead of having to route that idea through his or her immediate supervisor. In other cultures, however, structures are more rigid, and employees must go through a set of expected formal channels if they wish to see results. In such systems, attempts to go around a hierarchy to achieve an end could damage the reputation of or threaten the job of employees using such methods. Hofstede (1997) dubbed this notion of how adamantly different cultures adhered to a hierarchical system of status and formality as power distance. In general, the higher the degree of power distance, the less permissible it is for subordinates to interact with superiors, and the greater the degree of formality expected if such parties should interact.

IVOs, however, can create situations that conflict with such systems, for online media remove many of the cues that individuals associate with status and can contribute to the use of a more information tone in online exchanges (St.Amant, 2002). Individuals working in IVOs should adopt, therefore, certain communication practices that address factors of culture and status:

  • Learn the hierarchical structure of the cultural groups with which one will interact. Once individuals identify these systems, they should learn how closely members of that culture are expected to follow status roles. Additionally, cultures might have different expectations of if and how such structures can be bypassed (e.g., emergency situations). By learning these status expectations, IVO participants can determine how quickly they can get a response to certain requests.
  • Determine who one’s status counterparts are in other cultures. Such a determination is often needed to ensure that messages get sent to the correct individual and not to someone at a higher point in the power structure. IVO participants also should restrict contact with high status persons from other cultures until told otherwise by high status members of that culture.
  • Avoid given or first names when addressing someone from another culture . In cultures where status is important, the use of titles is also expected (Hofstede, 1997). For this reason, IVO participants should use titles such as Mr. or Ms. when addressing international counterparts. If the individual has a professional title (e.g., Dr.), use that title when addressing the related individual. One should continue to use such titles until explicitly told otherwise by an international counterpart.

By addressing factors of status, IVO participants can keep channels of cross-cultural communication open and maintain contact.

Area 3: Using a Common Language to Communicate

IVOs often require individuals from different linguistic backgrounds to use a common tongue when interacting within the same virtual space. Such situations bring with them potential problems related to fluency in that language. That is, the fact that an individual speaks a particular language does not necessarily mean that that person speaks it well or understands all of the subtle nuances and intricate uses of the language (Varner & Beamer, 1995). Even within language groups, dialect differences (e.g., British vs. American English or Luso vs. Iberian Portuguese) could cause communication problems.

In IVOs, the issue of linguistic proficiency is further complicated by the nature of online media, which remove accents that are often indicators of another’s linguistic abilities (e.g., being a non-native speaker of a language). Additionally, communication expectations associated with different online media might skew perceptions of an individual’s linguistic proficiency. E-mails, for example, are often quite brief, and individuals tend to be more tolerant of spelling and grammar errors in e-mails than more conventional printed messages (And Now, 2001). As a result of such factors, IVO participants might either forget that an international counterpart is not a native speaker of a language or not realize that an individual does not speak that language as well as one might think.

To avoid language problems in IVOs, individuals should remember the following:

  • Avoid idiomatic expressions. Idiomatic expressions are word combinations that have a specific cultural meaning that differs from their literal meaning. For example, the American English expression “It’s raining cats and dogs” is not used to mean that cats and dogs are falling from the sky (literal meaning); rather, it means “it is raining forcefully” (intended meaning). Because the intended meaning of such an expression is based on a specific cultural association, individuals who are not a part of a particular culture can be confused by such phrases (Jones, 1996).
  • Avoid abbreviations. Abbreviations are like idioms; they require a particular cultural background to understand what overall expression they represent (Jones, 1996). If abbreviations are essential to exchanging information, then individuals should spell out the complete term the first time the abbreviation is used and employ some special indicator to demonstrate how the abbreviation is related to the original expression (e.g., “This passage examines the role of the I nternal R evenue S ervice (IRS)”).
  • Establish what dialect of a common language will be used by all participants. Certain dialect differences sometimes can result in confusion within the same language. For example, speakers of various dialects of a language could have different terms for the same object or concept, or could associate varying meanings with the same term. By establishing a standard dialect for IVO exchanges, individuals can reduce some of the confusion related to these differences.

Such strategies can reduce confusion related to linguistic proficiency or dialect differences.

While the ideas presented in this section are quite simple, they can be essential to communicating across cultural barriers. The efficiency with which individuals interact in IVOs, moreover, will grow in importance, as organizations increasingly look for ways to tap into different overseas markets.

FUTURE TRENDS

The global spread of online communication technologies is providing access to new and relatively untapped overseas markets with consumers who are increasingly purchasing imported goods. For example, while Chinese wages remain relatively low, there is a small yet rapidly growing middle class that is becoming an important consumer base for technology products (China’s Economic Power, 2001; Hamm, 2004). In fact, China’s import of high-tech goods from the U.S. alone has risen from $970 million USD in 1992 to almost $4.6 billion USD in 2000 (Clifford & Roberts, 2001).

Similarly, the Indian boom in outsourcing services has led to a growing middle class with an aggregate purchasing power of some $420 billion USD (Malik, 2004). Additionally, as more work is outsourced to employees in the developing world, more money will flow into those nations, and this influx of capital brings with it the potential to purchase more products (Hamm, 2004). Moreover, since much of this outsourcing work is facilitated by the Internet and the World Wide Web, these outsource workers become prospective consumers who are already connected to and familiar with online media that can serve as marketing channels.

Within this business framework, IVOs could be highly important for a number of reasons. First, they could provide project groups with direct access to international markets by including a member of a particular culture in an IVO. This individual could then supply his or her counterparts with country-specific information used to modify the product to meet the expectations of a particular group of consumers. Second, these individuals could trial run products in a related culture and make recommendations for how items should be modified to meet consumer expectations. Finally, this individual could also act as an in-country distribution point for getting completed electronic materials (e.g., software) into that market quickly. As a result, the adoption of IVOs will likely increase both in use and in international scope, and today’s workers need to understand and address cultural factors so that they can communicate effectively within such environments.

CONCLUSION

Today, the widespread use of e-mail and corporate intranets has begun to change the concept of “the office” from a physical location to a state of mind. This article examined some of the more problematic cross-cultural communication areas related to international virtual offices (IVOs) and provided strategies for communicating efficiently within such organizations. By addressing such factors early on, organizations can enhance the production capabilities of such IVOs.

Internet Adoption by Small Firms - INTRODUCTION, BACKGROUND, INTERNET ADOPTION, Innovation (Technological) Factors, Organizational Factors, Environmental Factors, FUTURE TRENDS, CONCLUSION [next] [back] International Cultural Communities

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