When global virtual teams share knowledge: Media richness, cultural difference and language commonality

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Authors: A. Klitmøller, J. Lauring

Publication Year: 2013

Source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1090951612000764

Journal: Journal of World Business

Volume: 48

Issue: 3

Categories: Information Management


The Technological developments and internationalization have made virtual communication a central part of everyday life in many larger organizations. In recent years this trend has been intensified by travel budget cuts imposed by the global financial crisis. Accordingly, the use of virtual media for internal knowledge sharing is now more important than ever before. Extant studies have provided useful theories and empirical documentation on how to manage global virtual teams. However, no prior research has examined the interaction of media type with the relation between culture/language and canonical/equivocal knowledge sharing. This is an important omission because cultural and linguistic variations are known to have a great effect on knowledge sharing. We use ethnographic field-study methodology for an exploratory examination of the effects of culture, shared language commonality and media choice on knowledge sharing in a large Danish MNC with particular focus on its Indian subsidiary. Results show that certain types of media are more useful for certain types of knowledge sharing depending on the cultural and linguistic variation between the communicating parties.

Critical Reflection

More and more companies today are expanding globally. Global presence is now a big term for the big companies. However having a global presence means collaborating more with virtual teams. For companies which are expanding from their home bases to a new country they are going thru the "New Combinations" phase. And for those companies to move to a potential "Equilibrium" phase, they have to learn how to get the best from this global virtual teams. In this regard, I find this article very interesting as it studies the interaction between virtual teams of two culturally very different countries, India and Denmark. In the authors view, which I share too, globalization has dramatically increased multinational corporations’ use of virtual teams as channel for organizational knowledge sharing. This development calls for studies that explore how key aspects of globalization, such as linguistic and cultural diversity, impact virtual teams’ knowledge processes. That is how to manage cultural and linguistic variation between organizational virtual team members.

The subject has become even more important after the financial crisis because many companies report on drastic reductions in travel budgets and therefore use virtual teams more intensively than earlier. Virtual teams are based on individuals collaborating in geographically dispersed work groups and who may reside in different time zones and countries . While virtual teams with members distributed globally hold the promise of increased organizational flexibility and resource utilization, existing research suggests that it is more challenging to manage communication processes in such teams than in co-located teams. In a nutshell the authors' focus area are the combination of the following: 1. Communication via rich media, such as video conferencing or tel-conferencing
2. Communication via lean media, such as e-mails.
3. Transfer of equivocal knowledge such as production process, machine functions, etc.
4. Transfer of canonical knowledge such as meeting dates, product specification, etc. The aim of this study therefore is to empirically explore how variation in culture and language affects knowledge-sharing effectiveness in global virtual teams using lean and rich media. Rich media enhances the verbal and non-verbal signs as well as it also enhances the cues that team members use for social categorization shown to have a negative effect on inter group communication. It has therefore been suggested that lean media moderates negative team outcomes such as increased conflict and social fragmentation in an intercultural context Media richness theory (MRT) prescribes using rich media for complex, equivocal messages, while using leaner media for sharing simple and explicit or what is often termed canonical information.

Their study included 14 global virtual teams consisting of 61 members with an average size of four members assembled for specific tasks and each working on separate projects. Participation in the study ranged from 100% in three teams to between 60% and 90% in the rest of the teams. The majority of the teams consisted of only Danish and Indian team members, albeit four teams had members from Germany and Sweden. During the course of the field study, it became apparent that challenges in virtual communication failure were linked to culture and language. They had the following propositions for each of the subcategory mentioned below: For Face-to-face and virtual knowledge sharing

Proposition 1a. Face-to-face communication is more effective for equivocal knowledge sharing than virtual communication.

Proposition 1b. In virtual settings cultural difference and low language commonality are negatively associated with communication effectiveness. For Media richness and cultural difference

Proposition 2a. In situations with high cultural difference, rich media communication will be more effective for equivocal knowledge sharing than lean media.

Proposition 2b. In situations with high cultural difference, lean media will be more effective for canonical knowledge sharing than rich media. For Media richness and language use in global virtual teams

Proposition 3a. In situations with low degree of language commonality, lean media will be more effective for equivocal knowledge sharing than rich media.

Proposition 3b. In situations with low degree of language commonality, rich media will be more effective for canonical knowledge sharing than lean media. Hence according to the authors, In teams characterized by a high degree of cultural difference and language diversity face-to-face interaction was preferable for sharing equivocal knowledge as these ways of communicating allowed the members to use non-verbal signs and physically move, touch and correct objects In teams characterized by high cultural difference, and where face-to-face interaction was not possible, a rich media was more effective than a lean media for equivocal knowledge sharing as it allowed members to address misinterpretations or lack of necessary information immediately In the literature, Finally they conclude that Their study, suggests that cultural factors, such as a cultural difference, are best addressed using the richest medium possible and also language use should be taken into consideration when choosing media to facilitate intercultural knowledge-sharing processes between geographically dispersed MNC units. In my opinion, this is a significant study as an organization can directly benefit from this study if they train the managers to implement the findings of this study before the embarkment of a new project which includes global virtual teams. This may ensure lesser conflicts among virtual team members and more productivity. Having said that, as per the adaptive cycle model each organization will more or less move towards a "Crisis" situation after a certain period of "Equilibrium", but in the context of virtual teams, I believe, the "Crisis" situation can be significantly delayed by the implementation of the findings of this study.