Cultural diversity is something that is never far away in any discussion of virtual teams. Culture must be considered in the planning of any virtual team in much the same way as cultural fit should be considered in hiring a new employee for a co-located team. There are, of course many different forms of culture to consider; the culture of the organisation as a whole, the culture of an individual office within that organisation, the culture of the team or department within each office and within each organisation, then the cultural views of the individuals themselves.
Frequently, organisational culture is either assumed or takes a much lower priority in planning discussions to the question of individual culture, and then, when individual culture is discussed, the debate is frequently focussed on national cultures, where individuals are often grouped together by the typical cultural traits from their nature of origin. This discussion does have some merit but as national cultures blend more and more into one another the focus should really be on the culture of the individuals.
There is, however, a lot to be learnt from studying the research into national cultures, and for this, one of the best resources I have found for an understanding of some drivers is Organisations and Cultures: Software of the Mind by Geert Hofstede. I have placed a link to this book at the bottom of this post if you are interested in reading it for yourself, it is a very accessible book and introduces the reader to many concepts and ideas that can help clear some of the fog of cultural understanding.
Categorising Cultural Diversity
From his research, Hofstede developed five principle variables he used to classify and examine similarities and differences between national cultures;
- Power Distance – how hierarchical the society is, whether there are strict cultural norms of who may speak to whom or the culture is relaxed and lines of communication are more open.
- Individuality – how the culture considers individuals relative to groups, in some cultures it is common for individuals to take precedence over groups and in other cultures the groups have the priority.
- Uncertainty Avoidance – how a culture regards and treats issues such as ambiguity, whether they prefer things to be clear and precise or are more forgiving when things are flexible and variable.
- Cultural Masculinity – refers to how the society values and demonstrates assertiveness as against modesty, for instance, whether arguments and disputes are held in public or in private.
- Long Term Orientation – is a measure of a culture’s perspective of the future, how it impacts on life and business and how life and business impacts on the culture.
While this list may not necessarily address all of the variables between cultures (other researchers have added numerous additional variables over time.) It is sufficiently comprehensive to provide the majority of personnel exposed to different cultures with a framework to help conceptualise some of the differences they observe. It also provides a common language to describe differences and makes us more conscious of the ways in which people can differ yet at the same time be very similar.
Hofstede’s book, is available from amazon should you be interested, and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting a better understanding of cultural influences.
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