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IC Communication Competency 1: Communication Management

Communication is vital to the success of any collaboration, yet effective communication does not happen by chance. In international partnerships, where people are geographically separated, may speak different languages, work in organisations that have different structures and procedures, and so on, the management of communication can be particularly challenging. In the eChina-UK Programme, it was one of the most challenging aspects of communication that the members experienced.

Communication management involves numerous elements, and in view of the importance of this competency for intercultural effectiveness, several of them are described and illustrated below.
 
 a. Finding the right person to talk to
 
Successful communication starts with identifying the right person/people to talk to. This involves some preliminary research into how the partner organisation is structured and functions, how decisions are made and who makes the decisions (cf. Information Gathering). However, when in a meeting with a number of unfamiliar people, it also involves the ability to sense which person holds the decision-making power. This process requires sensitivity and flexibility. People may need to alter their conceptions of who the interactional partners should be and may need to be flexible when faced with an unexpected situation.
 
Case Study Example: Mismatches in Negotiating Partners  
 
Academic staff from the British projects visited Beijing in March 2003 to meet their Chinese partners for the first time. They needed to get to know each other, and to agree a specific collaborative project that they would all work on for the next two years (the broad area for each project had been identified, but no specifics). The British members were expecting to meet fellow-academics with whom they could discuss and agree the project, but in several cases they found they were discussing and negotiating with institutional managers rather than academic counterparts. They found this very disconcerting – to be negotiating about academic matters with non-subject experts – and the Chinese partners found it equally unsettling.
 
Why was there this difference? It was due to structural/organisational differences between British and Chinese universities in handling distance/online courses. In Britain, online courses are typically handled by academic departments, and so the eChina-UK projects were organisationally ‘located’ in Faculties, Departments or Centres whose academic staff had the relevant expertise (e.g. Faculty of Education). In China, on the other hand, the projects were located in special units that were responsible for distance and/or continuing education. These units did not have their own academic staff, but rather had to buy in such expertise from other parts of the university when it was needed.
 
 
 b. Establishing the most effective modes of communication
 
A second important aspect of communication management is establishing which communication modes suit which purposes the best. Such decisions may include establishing when asynchronous communication (email, voicemail) is sufficient and when synchronous communication (telephone, video conference, face-to-face) is necessary. For example, weekly updates on the progress of a jointly assigned task could be conveniently and easily achieved through brief emails. On the other hand, deciding who is to conduct what research and agreeing joint research objectives can be handled more effectively in face-to-face meetings.
 
 

Case Study Example: Establishing Modes of Communication for Trans-continental Contact 
 
The British and Chinese project members were based at opposite sides of the world, and so they needed to establish effective modes of communication for different purposes. The options included:
tick.gif Face-to-face meetings (exchange visits – short stay or extended)
tick.gif Email
tick.gif Video-conferencing
tick.gif Telephone & fax MSN,
tick.gif Skype Chat
tick.gif Online collaborative platform
 
 
Shortly after the projects had their first joint meetings in March 2003, the SARS epidemic broke out, preventing further face-to-face meetings for several months. Some time later, a major computer virus affected Beijing universities, so that some project partners were unable to have email contact for about 3 months. Teams, therefore, needed to establish and agree effective modes of communication, taking into account practical constraints. In line with research findings (Maznevski and Chudoba 2000), they found that face-to-face meetings were necessary for complex discussions, and that email was efficient for straightforward, factual matters. People’s experiences of video-conferencing were less popular – partly because of poor connection quality, and partly because of the formal way in which they were arranged.
 
Comments by the University of Sheffield team
tick.gif We used a 'mosaic' of communication tools to support collaboration between members of the distributed team: email, a virtual learning environment (VLE), video-conferencing, and face-to-face meetings. This variety helps to cater for individual preferences, as well as take advantage of the value of each mode of communication.
tick.gif We decided to share key documents by email, so that all group members were circulated and had time to reflect upon key ideas without the immediate pressure of instant communication. We decided to use periodic video-conferences to enhance our sense of being together in a shared project. These often had an air of formality that made the exploration of details difficult to achieve.
tick.gif We decided that face-to-face contact was important to develop understandings that could not be achieved electronically.
tick.gif We used 'action points' in our face-to-face meetings to provide some continuity of working between meetings.

Comments by the University of Cambridge team
 
Although most of our academic developers were located in Cambridge, one of them was living in Austria at the time. So we not only had to ensure smooth communication between team members located in Cambridge and Beijing, but also between content developers in Cambridge and Austria. Regular face-to-face meetings were arranged for team members as follows:
tick.gif Weekly meetings in Cambridge between the academic developers and the online developers
tick.gif Monthly meetings, usually in Cambridge but sometimes in Beijing, for the academic developers and project managers

The team member in Austria came to Cambridge every month for the monthly meeting, and the Cambridge project manager telephoned him after each weekly meeting, so that he could keep closely involved with developments.

After each face-to-face meeting, points of agreement, questions and action points were documented and circulated by email for comments to those members of the team not present. This communication took the form of an annotated report for all members of the CUTE team. Such a procedure proved effective and valuable in tracking the project's phases, and for documenting all decisions during each phase. More detailed internal reports regarding the finer points of development plus feedback and deadlines were circulated among the content development team to work on before the final drafts of the materials were distributed to the whole team.

 

 
 c. Establishing suitable networks for communication distribution
 
Most people will have experienced what it is like to be drowned in a flood of mass-emails that do not concern them or to be disturbed by requests or questions on issues that are not within their area of responsibility or expertise. Likewise, it can be upsetting or infuriating if one is not informed of issues that one should clearly have been consulted on. It is therefore vital in a project, both for the sake of task effectiveness and smooth interpersonal relations, that – at an early stage – assessments are made as to who is responsible for what areas and which people should be informed and updated on which issues.
 
Case Study Example: Communication Networks and the Distribution of Information
 
Several of the projects were large, involving up to 35 people in Britain and 35 in China (including senior managers etc.). So for these large projects, establishing effective communication networks was important: i.e. deciding who should be kept informed about what issues. It was not appropriate to waste people’s time with issues that didn’t concern them, yet it was important that they felt involved and updated on developments. This was not at all easy to achieve, and we never really resolved this satisfactorily. One Chinese team member gave the following evaluation:
Chinese Researcher:
In your opinion, was the communication effective?
Chinese 20:
No, it wasn’t. Though both Chinese and British sides had their own project managers, they couldn’t do all the communications on their own. We should have embedded different communication mechanisms in the project at different levels.
Although this wasn’t necessarily a cultural issue, it was an important communication issue for the teams, and sometimes could entail cultural elements, as the following comment illustrates.

Chinese 02:

Sending mass emails is a good way. But when we send such emails, it will infringe Chinese principles. If I send such an email to a person in a higher position, s/he will feel offended. Nowadays we send various materials by email, but Chinese are special, superiors will feel particularly insulted. … Sending emails to superiors is not a good way, because it shows no regard for status differences between people. Some superiors dislike equality, so the best way to communicate with them is to submit a report, either in written or oral form.
 
 
 d. Agreeing on choice of language
 
To fluent speakers of English, choosing which language(s) to use in a project may seem uncontroversial, because English is widely assumed to be the easiest, most ‘natural’ and most convenient option. However, the reality is not so simple. The choice of a working language requires careful consideration, because it is not simply a question of practicality. Language is closely linked to power and often determines the degree to which otherwise exceptionally qualified participants will be able to contribute to the collaborative process and the decision-making process (Janssens and Brett, 1997). The following quotation demonstrates just how sensitive the selection of a working language can be:
“Choosing the working language can create winners and losers. Language is clearly associated with power, influence and emotional issues. Let us put it bluntly: the ability to master or not master English can create an unequal playing field. Sometimes language differences can be interpreted as personality problems and you can be treated as a deviant or simply ignored just because you do not seize all the linguistic subtleties ( Berry, 1990). Beyond discouraging participation, you tend to assimilate language fluency with scientific competencies. If you want to be the leader of the project, it is better if you have English as your mother tongue. Conversely, it is not always the scientific stars that represent a country or an institution but those who are relatively more apt in English.”
Bournois and Chevalier (1998: 207)
 
Case Study Example: The Impact of choosing English as a working language  
 
All of the British teams initially relied almost exclusively on the Chinese partners’ abilities to speak English. None of them had any Chinese-speaking team members at the start of the project, and so the burden of interpreting and translation fell almost entirely on the Chinese partners. For one of the projects in particular, this was a heavy burden. Language affected not only team interaction but also course development and mutual exchange and evaluation of each other’s materials (everything had to be translated from English to Chinese, and from Chinese to English, so that the Chinese and British academic developers could give feedback on each other’s work. This course was aimed at middle school teachers who were non-specialists in English, and so much of the final courseware needed to be in Chinese. This was problematic and unfair on the Chinese partners, and some of them felt quite strongly about this:
Chinese 21:
The working language was English. Due to the language problems, when we couldn’t express ourselves clearly, it seemed that we were disadvantaged. But as a matter of fact, the British were thinking hard to get what we wanted to say.
As the projects progressed, most of the British teams realised the importance of having a Chinese speaker to work with them in Britain, and so identified suitable people to bring in on an ad hoc basis. In addition, several of them started to take Chinese language lessons.

 

 e. Establishing communication protocols
 
It is essential for international partners to understand each other’s working practices, such as how group members usually make decisions, their preferred styles of interaction, and so on. Often these are different, and agreement needs to be reached as to how such differences in preferences are handled.
 
Case Study Example: Chinese perceptions of their British partners’ communication
 
Some Chinese partners found that the way in which the British handled the meetings was very different from what they were used to:
Chinese 06:
 
The UK colleagues are more likely to raise issues directly. Their logic is that issues should be raised first, then they’ll try their best to find solutions. Even if they couldn’t solve the problems immediately, at least they would know what the problems are. It’s their culture, I think. But one part of the Chinese culture is that we are too shy to open our mouths to talk about some things. It’s difficult for us to put some things on the table. … Sometimes the UK project manager sent some suggestions to us. When we got the suggestion, we usually got nervous and wondered ‘must we do it immediately?’ or ‘are they commanding us to do this?’ … But working together with them for a while I gradually realised that I could voice my opinions and take time to think. It wasn’t a big problem.
They also experienced differences in ways of handling meetings:
Chinese 14:
When we were in the UK, we found that the British side had a very clear cut meeting arrangement, like how often an update meeting should be held. And the plan was strictly carried out. … I think this working pattern was quite effective and efficient. In contrast, a regular meeting system was impossible here in China because each member had so many things to do and so little time for regular meetings.
 
 

cift_arrow.gif Tip: Take plenty of time in the early stages of a collaborative partnership to plan how you will manage your communication.



References
 
Maznevski, M. & Chudoba, K. (2000). Bridging space over time: global virtual team dynamics and effectiveness. Organization Science, 11 (5), 473–492.
Bournois, F. and Chevalier, F. (1998). Doing research with foreign colleagues: A project-life cycle approach. Journal of Managerial Psychology 13(3/4): 206–212.