Collaboration in a multi-cultural environment

First, let’s define collaboration: people working together on something, they could be collaborating in real-time in a meeting or using tools like Webex, or even micro-blogging. Or they could be collaborating asynchronously (not real-time) using email.

Collaboration as we are using it includes working together, brain storming, creating a common vision, bringing people on the same page, or coordinating with each other to fulfill an objective, mission where tasks are interdependent, or the last category that they are all cooperating.

Culture is more than simply your nationality or ethnicity.

Culture as we are using it is not limited to different ethnicity, or different countries but also the culture of east coast vs. west coast, people working in engineering firms to people working in a design firm, all of them different cultures and even if they all speak English, they have different interpretation of what they hear.

Moving beyond the Industrial Age mindset.

In the US we have been moving from an industrial economy, where it was all about personal productivity, how fast can you make a widget, or bolt a nut to a very collaborative economy, where to fulfill an outcome you have to work with others (knowledge workers). Your personal productivity cannot fulfill the outcome, and you need to learn and develop skills in collaborating with others.

Collaboration has its stumbling blocks.

In most cases the “others” that you “have” to collaborate with are a mixture of different cultures. You cannot depend upon, being a great communicator, but have to start recognizing and learning how others interpret what you are saying, and what are their cultural differences. I have seen many examples of this, coming from India 15 years ago, and working in the Bay Area where every one is nice and polite; Sally and Ram work for the same organization, Sally is in the Bay Area, Ram is in Bangalore, India. Sally says “Can you please send me the report as soon as possible”, Ram interprets the request as “oh, Sally is not really in a hurry for the Report.” This is an example of classic mis-coordination.

So the big question is how do we close the gap between the speaker’s intention and the listener’s interpretation in a multi-cultural collaborative economy?

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