MIT Sloan Professor Stresses the Role of Firsthand Experience in Building Trust in Global Collaborations

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 4, 2009 — In today's economic environment, one of the first expenses often cut by companies is travel. After all, technology can connect people around the world without ever meeting face-to-face. However, research by MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Mark Mortensen and Harvard Business School Professor Tsedal Beyene finds that forgoing first-hand experience may come at a significant cost.

Studying a multinational chemical company, Mortensen and Beyene used a combination of interviews and surveys to explore the challenges of global collaboration. Specifically, they examined the role played by on-site visits and long-term assignments at foreign offices, finding them valuable ways to bridge cultural divides and facilitate smoother cross-cultural interactions.

While it comes as no surprise that global collaboration presents numerous obstacles such as cultural and language differences, misaligned time zones, and uneven access to information, Mortensen and Beyene found that in-person interactions play a critical role by fostering both “direct” and “reflected” knowledge, which help to build trust in different ways.

Mortensen explained that the benefits of “direct” knowledge typically include information about the other site's location such as norms, roles, culture, work processes, people, relationships, and even physical space. “When I travel to Japan and spend two weeks in the Tokyo office, I see what life is like there and gain an understanding of our cultural differences. I also see the physical space so when someone says they need to go to the ‘other office,’ I know if that is a 10-minute walk or a two-hour drive,” he said. “Learning more about the other location and the people within it allows us to better adapt to the norms of our collaborators.”

In this study, however, Mortensen and Beyene identified a second equally important, but often overlooked form of awareness which they call “reflected” knowledge. Also gained through firsthand experience, reflected knowledge captures how the members of a distant office see the home office. “Reflected knowledge enables actors to see how their home office was both presented to and perceived by others,” wrote the authors.

This type of knowledge is particularly powerful because it provides insight into behaviors under one's own control. “You can't learn this just by talking to someone on the phone,” said Mortensen. “They can't describe to me how my home office comes across, but if I spend time at their location and observe the interactions with my home office, it opens my eyes to how people in my office relate to people in this office, information I can share with colleagues back home.”

For example, while language barriers may result in employees in a foreign office not fully understanding a colleague's presentation, they often feel uncomfortable asking for clarification. As the presenter has not been told otherwise, he assumes that his presentation was clear and everyone is working on their assigned tasks. Following up two weeks later, he finds his instructions appear to have been ignored, leading him to question the extent to which he can trust those colleagues.

Alternately, in another example an employee's request for more background on decisions made by colleagues in a foreign office is interpreted as implicit criticism, leading to inter-site tensions and a breakdown in communication.

“Reflective knowledge gives you the ability to avoid misunderstandings as well as the tools to adjust your behavior. Misunderstandings are key antecedents to breaking down trust and once you've broken trust it is hard to build back, especially across distance,” said Mortensen.

The authors concluded, “For managers, our findings suggest a means of addressing some of the problems that arise in cross-cultural collaborations. Managers may want to consider some combination of short-term expatriate assignments and longer-term site visits as a means of establishing firsthand experience and inter-site knowledge.”

They continued, “This is of particular interest given the recent surge in technologies designed to support telepresence. Our findings suggest a key obstacle to the success of such systems may be their inability to provide reflected knowledge. While technology may be designed to mirror the other's view, it cannot provide the full breadth of reflected information typically gained while on-site.”

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