※”Managing the Flow of Technology”(T.J.Allen)
VIRTUAL TEAMS: HOW TO CONTRIBUTE AS A JAPANESE TEAM MEMBER
Research shows that there are significant hurdles to performing effectively in global, dispersed teams (hereafter, “virtual teams”). In fact, most past studies conclude that co-located teams achieve better performance than dispersed teams. However, global collaboration in virtual teams will become increasingly important for Japanese firms as they strive to grow. Researchers at MIT offer some hope; they discovered that virtual teams could outperform co-located teams, if they have effective, task-related and relationship-building processes. These processes are the key to enabling team members to communicate and contribute effectively no matter where they are in the world. MIT also found that virtual teams have some key advantages such as 24 hour working (based on different time zones), access to heterogeneous information sources, knowledge about local markets, cost advantages and diverse skills and experience. As Japanese firms seek growth in overseas markets and make record acquisitions of foreign firms, Japanese employees will increasingly need to work on virtual teams. Improving the communication of Japanese virtual team members, who are on the front lines of global teamwork, is an important step to ensure Japanese firms can reap the benefits of global team collaboration. So what are the challenges for Japanese virtual team members and what can they do to overcome them?
Challenge: Virtual communication in English
I often hear from my Japanese clients that communicating in teleconferences and email in English is the most difficult aspect of working on a virtual team. Many complain that, with so many different native and non-native English accents, it is sometimes impossible to understand what team members are saying. Below I’ve highlighted some solutions to this challenge.
Suggest a process to utilize your English communication strengths.
Since most Japanese professionals have a good command of written English, Japanese team members should suggest a communication process for teleconferences that enables them to “see” the English conversation in real time. Now, through the use of computer desktop sharing tools, teams can record discussions as if they were face to face using a whiteboard. Ask the meeting leader, or someone they assign, to write key words or “bullets” from member comments on the shared desktop as they are being discussed. This will enable all non-native English speakers to follow along visually, catch topic changes and decide when and how to jump in to the conversation appropriately. In addition, team members can use a real-time “chat” tool to provide their comments or questions in writing directly to the meeting leader or the entire team. To get buy-in to these ideas, remind the meeting leader and/or native English speakers the benefits to them of slowing down and writing key points, e.g. avoid miscommunication, make decisions faster, increase contributions from non-native English participants.
Don’t rely too much on email – pick up the phone and call.
In my experience, Japanese tend to rely on email too much when communicating with their overseas colleagues. Emails often do not accurately convey your tone, sincerity or sense of urgency, especially in cross-cultural situations. As a result, email may sometimes cause more problems than solve them. Often a quick call, even in broken English, can save days of back and forth emails while also helping you to make a more human connection with a team member. In many cases this can be the most efficient and effective way to allow someone to respond to your request, resolve a miscommunication or sincerely convey thanks or an apology.
A quick conversation on the phone with another team member can also help you make a personal connection and build trust. Having built a more trusting relationship, you can then rely on your colleague for support and feedback to enhance your contribution to the team.
Help team members understand your situation. and what you are doing when you are not communicating with them. This is particularly important when you receive an email that will require significant time for you to reply. Instead of a long silence that can confuse the other party and make them question your commitment; send a quick email explaining how and when you will get them the information they requested. For example, “There is an inter-departmental meeting on Wednesday where I can get the information you requested. I will add my analysis and reply to you on Friday afternoon your time.”
Ask for help to jump into virtual conversations. Prior to your next teleconference, contact a colleague overseas to enlist their help during team discussions that are too fast for you to keep up. Like the setter position in volleyball, this colleague is someone who will support you during these fast-paced discussions and “set” a question up for you to answer or provide your opinion. However, remember that when you do get the chance to speak up, be concise and direct. Use a simple model like P.R.E.P. to state your opinion. Say your Point (conclusion first), then give a Reason, use an Example to be concrete and then reiterate your Point.
Challenge: Demonstrating your individual value to the team
It is well known that many Japanese tend to be self-effacing, indirect, and non-confrontational relative to members of other cultures. These traits can be a virtue in many situations. However, when working in a global, virtual team these same traits can be a barrier to being recognized as a valuable member of the team and making a concrete contribution. Below are some ways to demonstrate your individual value to your virtual team.
Explain your value to the team.
Don’t apologize for your level of English skills, lack of experience or junior status if you are working with more senior overseas members. First, consider carefully why you are on the team, clarify your goals and determine what you can offer the team to contribute to its success. Then explain to your overseas team members the value you bring to the task at hand or to achieve the team’s goals. Don’t expect other team members to be able to read between the lines and understand this. You must speak up for others to recognize you and the value you bring to the team.
Contribute to making decisions in meetings.
Do other global team members view you as a messenger that must always go back and get approval from your manager or entire team before you can you make a decision? Does this delay your virtual team’s decisions and inhibit team problem solving during teleconferences?
My Japanese clients often complain that their own company’s internal structure, culture and traditional Japanese communication inhibit them from making a concrete contribution to global, virtual teams. Thus, you may need to change how you communicate internally with your Japanese manager and colleagues before you can fully contribute to a virtual team. For example, discuss with your manager and determine what you can decide as a representative of your company, department or function. Be proactive and anticipate some of the questions and/or requests you may get from your overseas team members. Get pre-approval from your Japanese boss or colleagues based on a logical hypothesis, “If they request A, then we can we do B & C”, “If the key issue is X, then we can offer Y”. All the above will help you contribute to solving problems and making decisions during virtual team teleconferences.
If Japanese firms are to be successful overseas, Japanese virtual team members will need the courage and flexibility to face the above challenges by leveraging their strengths and adapting their communication to the needs of a global, virtual team.