For as much we talk about globalization, rarely do we mention the difficulties of effective global communication.
In fairness, most people share an immediate cultural understanding with the majority of people they work and live with. However, in an exceedingly global society, this comfort isn’t a guarantee.
More than ever, employees are likely to work with people different than they are; coworkers may come from different racial or ethnic backgrounds. They may work in an entirely different country. Businesses opening global offices don’t usually consider how effectively they can communicate with potential employees. This oversight is concerning, considering 85% of United States- and United Kingdom-based tech businesses intend to expand to global markets. The same applies to businesses recruiting from underrepresented groups, like racial or ethnic minorities.
Businesses must understand the importance of multicultural collaboration to ensure multicultural spaces are inclusive and fruitful. That means considering important questions like: How can technology bolster multicultural collaboration, and what do companies have to gain from instituting it?
What is multicultural collaboration?
What can a business do to adequately support collaboration and communication between employees with different cultural backgrounds? The first step is understanding what multicultural collaboration is and what typically prevents it from happening.
“A multicultural collaboration is between two or more groups or organizations, each comprised of members from different cultural backgrounds and orientations (e.g., Latino, Native American Indian, white) or with goals or missions oriented to populations with differing cultures (e.g., African-American, Asian-American).”
Multicultural collaboration stresses the active involvement of a variety of viewpoints, not just their passive presence. This involves businesses preparing employees to enter situations with the expectation of absorbing and considering the cultural background of the people in the room before speaking.
Doing this has myriad benefits. First, it’s a baseline standard for effective inclusion efforts. Employees from underrepresented groups mitigate cultural blunders and enhance international market success. When a room is filled with people from diverse cultural backgrounds, there is more group knowledge to pull from, preventing cultural missteps.
These types of mistakes have lasting and broad impacts on companies. There are countless examples of businesses making decisions or products that are culturally insensitive. In December 2018, Dolce & Gabbana were heavily criticized for an ad campaign they ran in China demeaningChinese culture and people. Similarly, in February 2019, Adidas and Gucci had to apologize for and pull products criticized for racist imagery.
We don’t know the cultural background of those who made these decisions; however, based on the decisions made here, it’s likely that those from the respective cultural groups were not present. Had they been, the issue may have been avoided altogether.
Culture and distance influence how people collaborate
We understand that cultural diversity and multicultural collaboration are important. Why isn’t every company on board then? Why do so many businesses have trouble implementing effective cultural inclusivity practices domestically and internationally?
The answer sounds paradoxical; having multiple cultural perspectives is a necessity when making major business decisions, but people from different cultures may have a more difficult time communicating with one another.
Temporal differences can change a person’s perception of deadlines and how they prioritize their time.
Self-construaldifferences impact someone’s perception of their role in social settings, responsibilities, and their perceived autonomy.
Reciprocal interaction norms influence the likelihood of exchange of information with those outside immediate circles.
Joint activity norms affect the likelihood of group participation.
Collaboration style differences might impact what type of collaboration exercises are the most effective.
Communication is shaped by a number of cultural factors, including uncertainty avoidance, the emphasis of indulgence or restraint, and the extent of power differences that are acceptable in a given culture.
This shows that it isn’t enough to only have multiple cultures at the table. Companies must take active measures to ensure cultural misunderstandings don’t happen inside or outside the office. Recognizing the variety of cultural voices in an organization is necessary for effective knowledge retention. Businesses shouldn’t risk leaving parts of their company in the dark because their messaging didn’t consider all the potential perspectives of the individuals consuming it.
It’s easy for one cultural voice to dominate others in the room. This is often the case when the majority of those involved in a conversation are from one cultural group (nationality, ethnicity, race, etc.). Leadership’s cultural background and collaboration style can be overrepresented in a company.
On top of the cultural impacts on communication, distance between people can impede fruitful collaboration. Juggling extreme time differences and lack of physical social cues, communicating from a distance is difficult even for people with the same cultural background. It can feel impossible to get an entire organization up to speed and build understanding when you add cultural differences into the equation.
Overcoming cultural dissimilarities can make or break an international expansion or merger. Falaitule recalls the rocky merger of Chrysler and Daimler-Benz, a German car company, in 1998 followed by Chrysler’s bailout in 2009. While the 2008 recession took the blame for the Chrysler bailout, failure to integrate American and German workplace norms also contributed to the company's downfall.
The cost of ineffective multicultural collaboration can be high. In Chrysler’s case, its 1998 failed merger cost an estimated $1.5 billion by 2006.
Technology helps or hurts multicultural collaboration
Experts have created plenty of guides for businesses to follow on what they can do to facilitate multicultural collaboration in their workplaces. Companies must leverage a variety of practices and methodologies to avoid the problems listed above. These take time and effort to yield results.
What role can technology play to bolster multicultural collaboration?
Enterprise wiki software, a knowledge management tool, collects and offers context to mixed cultural exchanges. Employees can document their own cultural norms on typical work procedures to give others context to their actions. Standard operating procedures software codifies certain processes so they’re understood regardless of cultural context.
One tool that comes to mind is machine translation software. A study found that machine translation-assisted conversations between native English and native Japanese speakers garnered more positive socioemotional messages than conversations without machine translation assistance. When people understand one another, their conversations are more successful.
However, machine translation isn’t always effective at relaying nuanced information. Many machine translation tools don’t account for language cues such as tone, sarcasm, vernacular, or slang. Machine translation might have difficulty with words that don’t have a direct, corresponding word in another language.
Even in the Japanese-English example above, there were times the software translated part of a message literally or in a way that wasn’t intended by the speaker. While these mistranslations didn’t always impact the exchange, the conversations were brief and straightforward so errors in translation weren’t very significant.
Conversations between business partners or colleagues will rarely be simple; longer, formal interactions can be accommodated with professional translators. However, this won’t be the case for casual or spontaneous interactions, and for better or worse, machine translation will be used for these types of interactions.
What we do see from this study is that despite the flaws in machine translation technology, having it is better than not; some effort is better than no effort at all. And while there’s no one-stop solution that can solve all of a business’ multicultural collaboration needs (yet?), the best move for a company is to employ a few solutions and tinker with those that don’t work.