Increasingly, engineering projects are crossing national boundaries. Groups working together are having to work in virtual, physically dispersed teams, making communication practices both more challenging and more essential to the success of a project. While the field is still young, communication researchers have started to catalogue challenges and identify key strategies for improving virtual communication across borders, such as Pam Estes Brewer’s book International Virtual Teams: Engineering Global Success.
Marjorie Rush Hovde’s 2014 IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication article, “Factors that Enable and Challenge International Engineering Communication” , provides a concise explanation of the nature of the challenges. From the literature in the field, she identifies cultural difference as one of these challenges, but breaks it down further into two categories:
- Assumptions, knowledge, etiquette: Cultures work on different sets of assumed knowledge and beliefs, and assuming a shared set of knowledge and beliefs amongst all members in an international team can be problematic.
- Communication styles: Cultures also have different communication styles, based on social conventions and accepted behaviours. Interrupting may be seen as rude in one culture, yet expected or even desired in another.
Her own research, observing engineering team meetings between a US and UK design team, revealed more specific differences creating challenges between groups.
Below are a selection of differences that you might not have considered:
- Work-Life Balance: Hovde found a difference in expectations regarding work-life balance which effected their availability and how they approached communication situations.
- Varying levels of reticence and assertiveness: Hovde’s interviews suggested that UK team members were less outspoken at meetings, preferring to sit back and listen rather than speak up while someone else was speaking, and instead, raise issues after the meetings.
- Varying levels of risk tolerance: US participants also seemed more willing to take on riskier strategies, even if outcomes were not guaranteed; UK participants, on the other hand, would be more likely to run more tests and gather more data before making a decision.
- Varying levels of optimism and pessimism: Differences in levels of optimism/pessimism towards project or task outcomes were also detected, meaning groups had different approaches to the project as a whole: the UK group, for example, spent more time preparing for the worst, as opposed to the US group, who assumed they would handle those problems if they arose.
Hovde also found differences in their approaches to and preferences for types of communication that had an impact on the project. Two are mentioned below, but Hovde describes more in her paper.
- Preferences for oral or written: US participants seemed to employ oral communication more often, rather than document discussions in writing; the UK group preferred written documentation to ensure a common understanding, with evidence that could be used in cases of disagreement.
- Preference for structure of argument: Hovde also noted major differences in the structure of argument preferred by each group of engineers, with the US group preferring starting out with an overview of recommendations, whereas the UK group preferred starting by framing the problem.
As Hovde’s research shows, even groups of engineers we might expect to be similar and that share the same first language exhibited significant culture differences that determined how they communicated and worked. Understanding these differences is really only the first step towards improving international teams; developing strategies to address these challenges is what will ultimately lead to more productive global collaborations, something we’ll look at in an upcoming post.