Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Gary David on Multicultural Teams

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Gary David on Multicultural Teams
March 2007 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary

Gary David
Associate Professor of Sociology at Bentley College.

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  • How do you define multicultural teams? Is it to do with nationalities alone? What are the defining characteristics of multicultural teams?
    In the traditional cross cultural literature multicultural teams imply work groups composed of people from different nationalities. However, culture can refer to any category of people that share similarities in traits, behaviors and beliefs. This can include regional groups, religious groups, professional groups, special interest affinity groups, etc. Therefore, any teamthat is comprised ofmembers of different groups can be multicultural. Since

    we tend to focus on nationality, this becomes the defining element of these teams; but it should not be the only element considered.

    Furthermore, companies only tend to consider teams multicultural when team members are perceived to be very dissimilar. For instance, in our research we found that a US organization which established work sites in Ireland ten years ago and in India three years ago introduced cross-cultural training for US and India workers only two and ahalf years ago. This suggests that the organization did not feel the need for cross-cultural training when the team was composed of American and Irish workers but needed cultural training when workers fromIndiawere added to the work teams. In the world of commerce, the phrase multicultural team implies team members come from countries where the visible differences are pronounced (such as language, dress, physical appearance, the majority religion, food, and the like).

  • In the increasing pace and reach of globalization (of markets and resources) and mobility no longer an impediment, do you think multicultural teams are to be viewed as an absolute necessity or are they avoidable phenomena?
    Our research is showing that advances in information and communications technologies combined with the dropping of trade barriers, more and more work will be performed by workers residing at different globally distributed sites. Also impacting this is the pressure for twenty four production cycles and diversified skill sets. Thus, the challenge of globalization is how to achieve a globally distributed collaborative workforce, which principally communicates through information and communication technologies. As a result, the term multicultural team is superseded by the phrase Global Virtual Teams (GVTs). With the increasing distribution of work, global corporations need tomanage not only the work but the social relationships that are essential to make collaborative work possible.

  • If you have to rate the necessity for globally distributed workforce for various industries, inwhich industries do you think GVTs would be absolute necessity? Why do you think they are absolute necessity for some of those industries? What are the benefits of GVTs to these industries?
    Our research has been in the area of IT in the financial sector. We have observed that the labor arbitrage triggered themovement of a variety of information processing, customer support and back-end business processes to locations with lower labor wage. In our judgment, tomorrows winners will be organizations that can take advantage of global talent to do tasks that are high on the firms value chain in an environment where team members work with people who they may not have seen, who live in places they have never visited, and whose lifestyle and societies they know little about. As organizations learn how to manage collaboration among distributedworkers in R& D andmore innovative activities, all industries will benefit from GVTs.

  • Should cultural diversity be looked at as an advantage or a disadvantage? When does it become an advantage and when does it become a disadvantage?
    Diversity of any kind can be a doubleedged sword. On the one hand, having diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and perspectives can add richness to any team. On the other hand, the presence of diverse groups can create conflict as team members see one another as members of competing groups. The key for organizations becomes how to leverage this diversity through building collaborative social relationships and a shared group identity.

    Traditionally, organizations have used cross cultural trainings to achieve this. However, cross cultural trainings designed to improve the cultural intelligence of teammembers focus on differences, and our research found that this focus on differences creates an environment where it is easy to fall in the trap of sophisticated stereotyping. Our thesis is that cultural diversity could be an advantage in certain situations such as in software developmentwhere a product needs to be configured for local use, but theway the cross cultural gurus have attempted to address the challenge of cultural diversity in global virtualwork teams, they have done harm.

  • What are the challenges in managing multicultural GVTs effectively?
    The major challenges of GVTs are addressing language/accent differences, managing time zones, building and sustaining trust and dealing with cultural differences. These challenges are complicated by other factors such as the effectiveness of computer mediated communications media, site maturity, demographic differences, talent retention, and a general intergroup orientation. Ultimately, organizations need to build virtual workplace communities in order to have these teamswork in an effective and collaborative manner.

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