Creating a collaborative work environment

One of the examples in Crossing the Divide www.harvardbusiness.org is that of Yamada, a Japanese project manager whose work requires him to work for short stints in countries throughout the Asia Pacific. His role as a boundary spanner demands that he quickly build productive and task-oriented cross-national teams to launch new IT (information technology) initiatives, describe Chris Ernst and Jeffrey Yip, the essay’s authors.

“On assignment in Korea, Yamada frequently created neutral zones through after-work events for his team members from Australia, Indonesia, Korea, and New Zealand. Over time, team members discovered that the cultural stereotypes they held did not apply to members of the team.” By providing space for personal relationships to develop, Yamada was able to build the level of trust needed to launch IT projects in a timely fashion, the authors add.

Building bridges is, however, not always easy. For example, in Yamada’s case, there was resistance to after-work activities in Hong Kong. “He found that even though his expatriate colleagues from Europe enjoyed going to an Irish pub, his local Chinese colleagues preferred the karaoke bar.”

These inter-group boundaries were reinforced in the workplace, Yamada found. “Project delays, workarounds, and behind-the-scenes in-group conversations were the norm. The actual technical work was not the problem.”

Finding himself in the middle of ‘a clash of civilisations between East and West,’ Yamada struck upon an elegant solution, the authors chronicle. “Hong Kong is a city blessed with some of the finest cuisine from all corners of the globe. By organising weekly ‘Dine Around the World’ events, Yamada used food as a medium to develop personal relationships across cultures, which in turn created a more positive and collaborative work environment in the office.”

Another essay in the book, edited by Todd L. Pittinsky, is about ‘creating common ground,’ by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. She speaks of many examples, including the initiative by Sam Palmisano, IBM’s CEO, to reinvent the values for the twenty-first century through a Web-based chat session with more than three hundred thousand employees.

One of the innovative projects was of IBM Egypt, which partnered with the Egyptian government to create new technology for a Web site www.eternalegypt.org in three languages, software programs to download information from handheld devices at tourist sites, and a school curriculum, as the essay describes.

“Innovation came from ideas exchanged between engineers in Cairo and Chicago. The Egypt team also relied on IBM’s Israel research lab, ignoring political and religious hostilities between the countries.”

Eternal Egypt became a model for IBM China’s Forbidden City project, Kanter continues. “Visiting Beijing in November 2006, Palmisano announced to IBMers worldwide that a global ‘Innovation Jam’ (a Web dialogue among one hundred forty thousand IBMers) had identified virtual worlds as a top priority, which he demonstrated by showing his own avatar entering the Forbidden City…”

Recommended addition to the global leaders’ shelf.

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