Across the Divide
Distributed teams span time and distance to get the job done
BY SHARON TREGASKISIn 1999, NASA watched $125 million go up in flames when its Mars Climate Orbiter plunged through the Martian atmosphere, instead of entering into orbit around the Red Planet. The spacecraft – and its loss – was the product of a multi-year collaboration between Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Colorado and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. In its report investigating the failed mission, NASA assigned blame to project engineers who failed to convert English measures of rocket thrust – used by Lockheed Martin on some project components – to Newtons, the metric equivalent of a rocket thrust and the project standard used by JPL on other components of the satellite.
For business leaders faced with the challenges of an increasingly team-oriented, global workplace, heavily lubricated by technology, the Mars Climate Orbiter disaster stands as a stark and expensive reminder of how spectacularly dispersed teams can fail – and suggests the ease with which managers might facilitate success, instead.
Yet forging connections online can be excruciating. "To talk to someone in person, to share a drink or a meal – these are the things in most cultures that allow us to form personal relationships," says Holly Hulse, MBA '97, a China-based general manager for the Belgian Bekaert Corporation's Wire Asia division. For Hulse, who collaborates with colleagues in North America and Europe while supervising subordinates in Japan, India, Indonesia, Singapore, and China, twice yearly face-to-face meetings are worth every penny – and the resulting personal connections far exceed the physical costs of international travel. Michael Hostetler has seen similar results in his consultations with corporate clients around the world. "The distributed teams that do best on their projects are those that meet physically on a periodic basis while the project is underway," says Hostetler, lecturer of management and organizations. "It's really tough to maintain the team heartbeat when members aren't able to frequently get together."
On a Budget
For organizations that can't afford regular check-ins, an in-person project launch can go a long way to jump-starting such connections, says Beta Mannix, professor of management and organizations and director of Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences. "There's something humans have after they've met someone at least once face-to-face," says Mannix, "and I don't think any of us as researchers has been able to figure out what that is. It's not the sound of our voice, because it's not conveyed through the phone; it's not visual, because videoconferencing doesn't do it."
That ephemeral something may be related to predictability, says Jan Katz, senior lecturer in international management and marketing. "If we grew up in the same environment, went to similar schools, speak a similar language, I have a better guess as to what you will do than I have with someone from a completely different background," says Katz. And for virtual teams deprived of the rich, nonverbal cues we rely on in face-to-face interactions, it's even harder to confidently interpret information. "Virtual teams tend to focus on the technical aspect of communication," says Katz. "You take an international team that already has problems with creating a trusting environment, put them in a virtual environment, and you've got a double trust whammy."
Whether in person or virtually, the team launch introduces team members, establishes their credibility and lays the foundation for remote collaboration. "You should credential early on," says Katz. "People should say 'I worked on this project, this was the success level, this is what I did.'" Managers should also collect information on members' constraints – some cultures may set parameters on female employees' availability after dusk, for example, or there may be language barriers or limits to employees' off-hours access to the Internet or their electronic files.
The team launch also establishes a shared culture – setting norms, articulating standards such as response time for acknowledging e-mails, the meaning of deadlines, and even a shared understanding of the project goal. "It's a question of language, culture, and work background," says Joe Thomas, Noyes Professor in Manufacturing and professor of operations management. "Marketing people hear different things from the engineers. Chinese people hear different things from Thai people."
Once interpersonal relationships and work process expectations have been established, interactions mediated by such technology as e-mail and telephone can cover ground far more efficiently and confidently. "When it's someone you know, you don't worry 'Is it possible they'll misunderstand this thing I just said and be annoyed at me?' says Thomas. "And even if they are, they forgive you."
But for some work groups, face-to-face contact simply isn't an option – due to cost or other logistical limitations. In those cases, managers have to find other ways to help employees connect, says Sine, whose research investigates the role of technology. "One company is providing chat rooms as a way to help employees come together as a collective organization, to facilitate task communications by allowing lots of non-work interaction."
When cross-cultural difference further complicates team efforts, A little bit of education can go a long way. Holly Hulse says she's found reading up on national history and learning a smattering of the local language has been invaluable. "My team consists of people with at least six native languages," says Hulse. "I don't have time to learn any of them fully – and may never be as fluent in their languages as they are in English – but being able to speak even limited amounts of the other languages not only shows respect for that person but also may help for clarification in certain situations."
Yet being an outsider conveys its own benefits. "Being Chinese but not knowing Mandarin meant I could jump some steps or skip protocol," says Stanley Ting '94, MBA '01, who mines his own mixed heritage of Chinese, Brazilian, and U.S. influences to broker international venture capital deals. "I look like them, but they don't consider me fully Chinese, so I can make mistakes in the protocol, try to move things faster." Ting's insight mirrors Katz's frequent caution to students: "People who forget you're a foreigner think you understand their culture more than you do." In most cases, she says, it's best to ask lots of questions, instead. "There's no stupid question in international management," says Katz. "It's better to look stupid than to be wrong. People are usually thrilled that you're trying to learn about their culture."
Getting it Right
For the most part, guidance for distributed team management might read like a primer on successful leadership of any group effort. Yet cultural differences and the unique features technology introduces to any interaction can conspire to undermine an international collaboration.
Initially divide tasks into smaller pieces to promote increased interaction and speedy feedback, reducing anxiety early on. "As they see that this other person is dependable," says senior lecturer Jan Katz, "trust grows and you can have longer, more elaborate tasks toward the end."
Beware of technological glitches
For Americans, accustomed to reliable Internet service, an unacknowledged e-mail can be maddening. "It's not your first guess, when you're so used to dependability, but there are many reasons why people don't receive messages," says Katz, who collaborates frequently with China-based executives. "A significant percentage of the e-mail between Cornell and China – and, it seems, everywhere else between English-speaking countries and China – gets lost. China says very clearly that they scan messages; they say explicitly that they scan phone text messages. A certain percentage are randomly pulled, and a certain percentage just don't make it through." In developing countries, infrastructure fails frequently, and even in the United States, hacker attacks and computer crashes can wreak havoc.
Draw out individual members' expertise and cultivate a culture where dissenting perspectives – on ideas, not personalities – are welcome. If lower-ranking members might be wary of publicly contradicting a superior, collect input from each participant in advance of the meeting. "People have preconceived notions of how much or little any one team member is going to be able to contribute," says assistant professor Melissa Thomas-Hunt. "People who actually do have useful information are intimidated and don't contribute that knowledge, or when they do it gets discounted because people don't really expect them to be experts."
Create an easy-to-use central repository for information
At a call center, a U.S.-based employee may handle an initial contact, while a representative in India fields the follow-up. Each needs background on the caller's history and a simple strategy for updating the record to reflect the latest contact. A software development team may not exercise collective decision making, yet individuals working on different phases of the project affect subsequent choices. "You need to be able to go back three weeks to look at the widget's history and figure out who made the decision and what their assumptions were," says Katz. "Then you can figure out whether you can change it or not."