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Global Virtual Teams (GVT): How to Bridge the Cultural Divide

Mukesh Sharma
Mukesh Sharma
Founder & CEO, QA InfoTech
Mukesh Sharma is the founder and CEO of QA InfoTech. QA InfoTech (an ISO 9001:2008 and CMMI Level... more>>
As globalization expands its reach and technologies advance at a dizzying rate, new and exciting opportunities exist for businesses to grow and expand. At the same time, business customers have heightened expectations for innovative and high quality products and services. And these customers have become increasingly savvy and impatient. Global competition and increased alternatives require today's companies to understand what customers want and to bring it to market quickly and efficiently.

In the IT world, where these products and services are developed, it has become imperative that businesses respond to these societal changes and advancements to meet the demands of today's customers. In the realm of software development, this has spawned a movement towards geographically distributed development, where organizations with specialized skills, knowledge and expertise join forces to produce high-quality best-in-class products for the marketplace. Unlike the traditional method of software development, relying on the co-located company IT staff to build applications, businesses, global virtual teams, have the ability and flexibility to assemble the best talent for their particular project, often at lower cost. A worldwide, competitive talent pool puts an expansive choice of specialized talent, at competitive prices, at the fingertips of today's companies.

Although the benefits of this geographically dispersed virtual team concept are indeed significant, there are, as you might expect a number of potential pitfalls that need to be recognized and addressed. As you can imagine, blending multiple organizations that include globally outsourced software development and testing teams for a common purpose, especially when those organizations may be separated by distance and time, requires a high level of coordination and communication. Much has been written about the particular challenges these issues present, and the managerial and technological approaches suggested to deal with them. Not as much attention however has been devoted to problems that cultural differences in global virtual teams can present and how to best resolve them.

GVT Cultural issues

The degree of difficulty encountered by global virtual teams differs from situation to situation depending on the particular geographical regions involved. Virtual teams whose geographical distances are confined to the United States for instance present fewer and less severe issues than those situated in different countries or continents (although East coast and West coast virtual team members might disagree).

The biggest challenges are encountered when working with countries with divergent social behaviors. For example, in Western cultures, it is natural for people to challenge each other to improve upon ideas. On the other hand, Eastern cultures, which tend to value conformity and harmony, may regard the western method as confrontational. At the same time, individualist cultures may have a perception of teamwork that varies greatly from collectivist cultures. Problems here can result in deeper trust issues and create an 'Us vs. Them' mentality that can have a severe negative effect on the project.
Another major source of potential problems are language barriers. The nuances of language often cause confusion when different cultures communicate; where subtle, and not so subtle, differences in the meaning of certain words, phrases and concepts, can cause confusion and miscommunication that have a negative impact on productivity and project success.

However, in addition to the challenges to be overcome in teaming with globally outsourced software development and testing teams, are some distinct advantages to the multi-cultural team. Different cultures can bring the kind of diversity to a project that can foster creative decision-making and spark innovative solutions... through broad-based and divergent perspectives. In instances where a project's application may have a global reach, ideas from one country or market may prove very adaptable to successful implementation in others.

Solution

To best leverage the benefits the various unique and broad-based perspectives multi-cultural teams can bring to a project, while also mitigating or eliminating the differences that can create confusion, miscommunication and loss of trust, management can and should take proactive steps to foster team unity. Training sessions designed to create awareness and model new behaviors should be a required part of any globally outsourced software development and testing team's project schedule. Sessions designed to understand these different cultures, their jargon and social behaviors, demonstrates respect for the values of these cultures and goes a long way towards fostering a team spirit. It is true that this adds to the overhead of the team that is already working on a very busy project schedule, however, it's an effort that pays dividends.

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