RSS icon

Top Stories

Global Teams The Ultimate Collaboration

September 1, 1995
Related Topics: Managing International Operations, Featured Article
The scene is one of sharp contrasts. Ten people—geophysicists, geologists, engineers, oil-drilling pros and production experts—meet in a modern boardroom looking out onto a lush, equatorial garden of palm trees, ferns and tropical shrubs. But the tropical paradise isn't all it appears to be. A tall brick wall topped with jagged pieces of broken glass surrounds the compound.

The team of people inside mirror the contrasts of the environment. They're from Dallas-based Maxus Energy (a wholly owned subsidiary of YPF, the largest Argentinean corporation in the world) and Maxus-Southeast Sumatra (SES). Teaming up are Americans, Dutch, British and Indonesians—people whose cultures are as contradictory as the serrated wall to the tropical garden of the office complex. Some of these people believe in individualism, others believe in collectivism; some believe in equal opportunity based on achievement, others believe status is inherited. Politically, culturally, religiously—this group is composed of disparate elements.

The team is one example of how two Maxus groups formed a cross-functional, cross-cultural unit to pursue a common goal: To maximize oil and gas production. As if working together wasn't formidable enough, they faced an enormous business challenge—to stave off the typical drop in production that occurs after the first few years on an oil field. The companies expected a 15% decrease in production.

Could the team stabilize production and avoid the dramatic decline that was anticipated? Working together, they did. Capitalizing on Maxus's technical expertise and SES's cultural tradition of teamwork and worldwide experience, the team not only avoided the 15% reduction, but leveled off production and even helped the companies add oil reserves to their stockpiles—an almost unprecedented achievement.

Indeed, work teams already have become an established institution domestically, and now they're making their way into international projects. It's little wonder. Global teams address certain problems and affect the bottom line in ways that are fundamentally different from the ways individuals approach the same situation. They maximize expertise from a variety of people, provide companies a more accurate picture of international customers' needs, and profit by the synergy necessary to unify the varying perspectives of different cultures and different business functions. It all adds up. "You've got to utilize your human resources much more efficiently today if you're going to stay on top of it. That's why everyone is heading toward the team concept," says Steve Ginsburgh, manager of Organization Services and Employee Development at Maxus Energy. "When a project requires brain power, teams are much more efficient."

Because of these factors, global teams will become as prevalent as Hondas manufactured in America, Motorola beepers marketed in China, and Big Macs™ made and served in Saudi Arabia. HR managers with international responsibility know that global teams will become an integral part of the developing global work force. The fundamentals of global-team success aren't very different from the practices that work for domestic work teams. But there are more variables. Overlay cultural behavior and expectations on the roles of communication, team leadership and group dynamics, and you immediately understand. Moreover, there are logistics to overcome: challenges inherent in working in different time zones, lots of travel and busy, conflicting schedules.

"The beauty about global teams is that they're reaching for the next stage," says Tony Barnes, director of human resources development at the Japan Center in England. Barnes, who worked for decades with Edward Demming on team process in Japan, believes that global teams are the next wave of corporate development. "I think corporations as we've known them have actually run their course and are beginning to break into autonomous business units, so the decisions are in the hands of the people carrying out the work. Global teams are one way of cross-pollinating—they move people who are successful in one branch of the organization to work with people in another country and another branch of the organization."

In these situations, people develop themselves as well as help develop others. "It's a program of both learning and teaching that enhances the ability and taps into the creativity of all people in an organization," says Barnes. And like any other successful organization, teams evolve as business conditions change, and as their members' comfort levels with one another grow.

To become productive units, global teams must evolve.
Sylvia B. Odenwald, chief executive officer of Odenwald Connection Inc., a Dallas-based international consulting firm, knows about global teams. As author of "Global Solutions for Teams," she has studied them for years. Her analysis: GlobalWork teams (her phrase) move from being an assortment of individuals on a chaotic collision course through a state of coexistence into a collaborative phase where they truly work together as a team.

There are four phases. In Phase One, each team member comes with his or her own expectations, culture and values. Most people take their cultural values for granted—they often do not think of them as being specific to their society and different from other people's expectations. So the first step involves team members recognizing that values are merely a set of norms particular to their society; they're not universals.

Phase Two comes after this self-awareness. Individuals begin to respect the cultures of other team members. While acknowledging problems and differences, they're willing to listen to others and move into a neutral zone where they appreciate others and work together.

"Tap team members who can contribute excellent communication skills—bilingual employees a plus."

During Phase Three, team members begin to trust each other. They start to share knowledge. At this time, they begin to focus on achieving team goals. And then, in Phase Four, the team begins to work in a collaborative way. Corporate vision and strategy infuse the team with energy. Cross-cultural differences become a competitive advantage. "During this phase, people begin to truly work together. They learn day by day how to negotiate team milestones, develop reporting procedures and meet deadlines. The real challenge is to find something that works for everybody. It might not be exactly what everybody wants, but it allows the team to accomplish its goals in a collaboration that works," Odenwald says.

Maxus' teams are a good example of moving from phase to phase. Its self-directed teams received clear guidance from the company, which helped in its success. The company established the following principles: Limit team size to 10; create representation on each team of varied functions and cultures; clearly define the role of the teams; understand the function of the team leaders and team managers (that of facilitators); allow experimentation with rules and structures; establish clear operational guidelines, including specific times for meetings and finished reports; and thoroughly monitor the team's progress through updates and reports. Equally important, Maxus provided its teams with technical, verbal, monetary and decision-making support that helped them to meet their objectives.

Pivotal to their philosophy: Each team is multi-dimensional in function and in culture. In other words, Maxus promotes cross-functional solutions and gets input from all members, regardless of their discipline. In this way they value—and make use of—differences.

Choose the right team leaders and members.
In order to create an effective team environment, companies must begin by selecting the right team leaders. According to Odenwald, leaders must be flexible, be willing to support the team process, have a desire to help the team work together, understand team cultural factors, be able to listen and communicate, and be able to understand other members' behaviors.

"To keep an edge on the competition, team members must remain creative. Praise, and reward, innovative ideas."

Team leaders are facilitators. They help with goal setting and actively seek input from all team members. They're not, however, decision makers. They're responsible for holding and conducting meetings and producing careful reports that keep everyone informed.

Team leaders must also develop a global mindset or cross-cultural competence, according to Danielle Walker, co-author of "Doing Business Internationally" and president of Princeton-based Training Management Corp., a global management and cross-cultural consulting firm. Leadership qualities for global managers will include the capability to work in and with international teams. This means they must respond quickly but thoughtfully to the complexities that demand joint problem solving and a more collegial style of leadership.

Once a team leader is selected, companies must also choose the right team members. Neglecting this step will diminish optimal performance. Indeed, selecting the right people (as well as training them later) for team performance is as crucial as hiring the best employees to begin with. Managers frequently take people into the company and simply move them into a team slot.

But, to be successful, there's more to it; skills count for a lot, but they aren't everything. "You can teach technical skills more easily than you can change a personality or develop a good communicator," says Odenwald. Interpersonal skills, flexibility, good communication skills and the desire to understand other cultures are easily as important. Successful teams have members who come from a variety of functions, experience levels and cultures.

Allergan Pharmaceuticals, with global teams throughout its organization, selects its team members carefully. These teams help Allergan improve its products' time-to-market, create effective marketing strategies for all of its customers around the world and develop an organization that taps into the resources of its entire employee base.

The Irvine, California-based business has several different types of teams: new-product development teams, product-launch teams, regional-management teams and functional-guidance teams. And these teams are all cross-functional. For example, the regional teams are comprised of the functional heads—HR, compensation and benefits, organizational development, finance, and marketing—for that region.

As teams form, the role of human resources is critical. "One of our goals is [to determine] how HR can support and accelerate the business objectives of the organization," says Lorna Larson-Paugh, director of human resources for the Northeast Asia and Pan Asia Regions. "Part of that is through dovetailing our strategic plan with the business's strategic plan and translating that to establish the foundation of a human resources group to hire and develop people. I can't do it by myself. I need to utilize other team members and, sometimes, to leverage resources."

Teams also shorten the learning curve. For example, for Larson-Paugh, teams are an efficient way to quickly understand companywide compensation and benefits issues and align them with the business philosophy to create reward systems that make sense on a local level. "When I can talk with people in a similar situation from different parts of the world, I'm not reinventing the wheel; I'm gaining leverage from their experience." Sometimes that means talking with the team members about compensation and benefits policies—other times it means talking with people about recruitment possibilities for 50 individuals in Hong Kong. Whatever the issue, it's always critical to have present the team members with the skills and knowledge you need.

Many of Allergan's employees are on six or seven different teams. Development teams are made up mostly of research-and-development people; product-launch teams are composed of marketing people and others chosen by their regional representatives. "Allergan is quite a global company. More than half our sales come from countries other than the United States," says Hans-Peter Pfleger, director of therapeutic strategic marketing. "International business people know they have to understand countries around the world. We have training on communications skills, diversity, different cultures. Bringing people together in a team always takes more time than having those same people work on their own, but it pays back later on when you have a development plan or a launch plan that fits global needs, not just the needs of one or two countries."

Aim for a common vision.
Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, California, learned that helping team members achieve success requires shared vision and defined responsibilities. The company has been using global teams for more than a decade. It's one tool in the company's arsenal for continued achievement as a high-performance organization. Teams are used for a medley of projects: they formulate and deliver sales strategies for specific products; they develop new products; they manufacture and produce microprocessor elements. Whether they work on sales campaigns or quality-test procedures, Intel's teams are frequently composed of a combination of employees from many of the company's locations in Ireland, Israel, England, France and parts of Asia.

"Global projects must be carefully managed. Strategic planners are an important component of success."

The composition of the teams is always business-oriented. For instance, a microprocessor may be manufactured in one facility and assembled in a plant in another country, which requires interaction among various people. Or, a design process may require people from multiple sites to be working simultaneously on the same project. Many of the teams come together quickly, do their work, then disband and regroup with other team members. Typically, Intel's teams work across great distances, geographic borders and cultural boundaries. It's not unusual for people from six or seven different national cultures to work together to complete a project.

This situation prompted Sharon Richards, intercultural training program manager at Intel's Santa Clara headquarters, and other Intel University training managers (from France, Hong Kong, Israel and the United States) to form a global team and study some of the company's high-performance teams. Richards' team was trying to determine specifically what made those high-performance teams so successful. They interviewed more than a dozen such teams. "One of the most important discoveries we made is that teams need very simple, basic processes and procedures," says Richards. "It's very important to set clear expectations and to have clearly defined goals, roles and responsibilities."

Although this may seem obvious, when people are working with others of different functional backgrounds and across cultures, the complexities of interaction become even more difficult to manage. Clear goals need to be established and constantly reinforced. Having a focused vision is critical if the team is going to move forward. Whenever the vision is unclear, says Richards, "the Intel culture is the glue of global teams. It's the umbrella that enables them to get their work done by always providing a point of reference."

Intel's teams, like Maxus's, view the use of cross-cultural differences and cross-functional expertise as strengths. "For the team to be effective, the members had to really identify and harness the different cultural strengths and what contributions each member could make to the team," says Richards. Intel has a strong intercultural training program to facilitate cross-cultural adeptness. The culture-specific training exposes team members to some theoretical underpinnings of intercultural communication and societal expectations.

Another way in which Intel's successful teams assure clarity of vision and group understanding of each person's responsibilities is to have several face-to-face meetings early in the development of the team. These early meetings build trust and develop relationships that establish the interpersonal foundations that help make later long-distance meetings—through such means as teleconferencing, videoconferencing and electronic mail—go much more smoothly. "If you've had early face-to-face meetings, then you've established a ground work to move from and it's easier to work with the remote technologies to accomplish a task," says Richards.

The meetings themselves must have a clear agenda. They must include the correct people—involving not only the people who will implement but also those people whose input is important. In other words, successful teams invite key players to meetings, even if they don't really need to be there, because they'll be helpful throughout the group process.

Furthermore, written minutes of the meeting must be distributed immediately afterward. These minutes help ensure that everyone understands the tasks and agreements that were made during the meeting. These records give individuals direction about checking back to monitor progress. Intel's teams schedule regular, ongoing meetings, conducted through a variety of technological formats, such as videoconferencing and teleconferencing.

"Every successful global team must include workers who have cultural, interpersonal, and technical expertise."

Sound complicated? Global-team logistics are manageable. Most experts agree that those first face-to-face sessions are crucial in overcoming later logistical problems. The complications of time zones and travel pressures make it even more challenging to ensure team members clearly comprehend goals and begin to develop a bond of trust and understanding among one another. "This is the time to develop the group's charter, to project milestones and critical success factors," says Jill George, a senior consultant at Development Dimensions International in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania. This planning minimizes the frustrations when cultural differences and language barriers begin to emerge.

Logistically, says George, before you can have an effective global group, you have to have an environment that makes it easy for people to share information, get feedback from one another, and communicate clearly. "If the technology isn't there—if team members don't have groupware so they can share documents, or E-mail and videoconferencing capabilities so they can communicate rapid-fire—people will find it a physical barrier. I think employees become frustrated when they're asked to work together but encounter some delay based on technology," she says. This is especially the case when people are dealing in languages other than their first language and when they're negotiating cultural differences.

Other aids to logistical problems: a group-based publication which serves to inform all team members and keep them feeling empowered and part of the work processes, meetings that take place in conjunction with other conferences, standard meeting times that are sacred and that are never changed. For gatherings that require travel over long distances, greater lead time lessens the frustration for participants and ensures that they'll be able to attend.

"Although the logistics are more difficult, it's rewarding to be part of a global team," says Intel's Richards. "It's really a learning experience. You get exposed to other ways of thinking and problem solving, other ways of proceeding, and when you are working on a big project, you get the opportunity to develop several lasting, long-distance relationships," she says.

And, from the company's perspective: "It's only through their people that companies are going to take the customer's breath away and give added value to the customer beyond what their competition offers," says Barnes. "Businesses can't stand still. They've got to be continually working on this and fine-tuning it to stay ahead."

Personnel Journal, September 1995, Vol. 74, No. 9, pp. 49-58.

Recent Articles by Charlene Marmer Solomon

Comments powered by Disqus

Hr Jobs

View All Job Listings