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~ January 2007 ~ Topics

Communication Tools for Intercultural Teams

Communication Tools for Intercultural Teams

Whether working with volunteers or staff, volunteer directors are increasingly managing remote groups of people who might not interact face-to-face very often, if ever. Technology tools such as email, instant messaging, and conference calls help facilitate previously difficult collaboration among people spread across the country or around the world. We all have times when our email inbox gets full and we can’t respond to everything immediately. But an unanswered message or message overload, when filtered through different sets of cultural experiences and expectations, can quickly become a personal slight or show of disrespect. And as all volunteer managers know, it takes trust, respect and ongoing communication to facilitate a strong team.

A recent study conducted by Cisco Systems found that using computer-mediated communication in cross-cultural teams takes special attention, especially in the beginning stages of relationship-building. Researchers found that it takes a minimum of 2 weeks for computer-mediated teams to build as much trust as teams with face-to-face interaction. That time increases up to 17 weeks if the team comes from a diverse range of cultures!

Don't despair! The study recommends knowing and utilizing the advantages of the many different communication tools available. In the initial stages of a project, use richer media, such as video conferencing or telephone calls, which add body language and voice tone, to speed up relationship building. Once a relationship has formed and communication is more task-related, such as sharing guidelines and documents, leaner communication such as email is preferable.

Other tips to improve your team’s effectiveness:

  • Plan extra time for relationship and trust building in virtual teams.
  • Facilitate trust building early by sharing information about each team member's accomplishments, experience, competence and integrity.
  • Help teams to develop a shared identity by encouraging socializing and the use of spontaneous communications, such as instant messaging, virtual coffee breaks, or online chats.
  • Ensure team members are able to establish their own ideal level of communication and signal availability to avoid over-communication and interruption.
  • Give the team access to a range of communications media and guidelines to help them select the most appropriate media to meet the objectives and tasks at hand.
  • Be aware of the negative effects of 'silence' – explain expected delays in responses and communicate your availability to team members.
  • Provide guidelines and establish protocols for communicating within multi-cultural teams, including response time and message acknowledgement.

To see the complete study, "The Psychology of Effective Business Communications in Geographically Dispersed Teams," or to download an executive summary, visit: http://newsroom.cisco.com/dlls/2006/prod_091906.html.

Interested in more information on International Volunteering? Check out our online bookstore for Isto da Samba, Corporate Volunteerism: the Brazilian Way by Monica Beatriz Galiano & Barnabe Medeiros Filho and Al Tatawae, Volunteering in the Arab World by Dr. Lobna M. Abdelmagid and Mr. Izzat Abdul-Hadi.

Details for Isto da Samba Book Details for Al Tatawae Book

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Washington State University offers a Volunteer Management Certification Program through the Internet. Individuals around the world can earn a certificate in managing or coordinating volunteers, without leaving home. For more information, visit Volunteer Today's Portal site, Internet Resources. Look for the Washington State University listing. There is a hot link to their Web site.

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Roxanne Hanson is the author of the International Volunteering page. She works at and can be contacted at: The NonprofitCenters Network, P.O. Box 29125, San Francisco, CA 94129, 415-561-6365, rhanson@tides.org.

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