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Communications of the ACM

Global Applications of Collaborative Technology

Cultural Perceptions of Task-Technology Fit

How can organizations create global virtual teams (GVTs) that work effectively across space and time? Providing technologies—such as videoconferencing or groupware—which match communication task requirements appears a reasonable starting point. The reality, however, is different technologies may be better suited for communications needed to convey information versus converge to decisions. At the same time, GVTs are separated not only by space and time, but often by culture.

Cultural differences have important implications since culture is a boundary condition for all interpersonal communication. Studies at two global organizations suggest cultural variability does affect the difficulty (or ease) with which GVTs communicate. Air Products & Chemicals, Inc., creates culturally diverse GVTs for their global technology transfer process. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) uses culturally homogeneous (Indian) GVTs to provide software development services to global clients. While the communication processes and available technologies were similar, Air Product's GVTs resorted to travel between sites since they perceived technology as a hindrance to communication efforts. Conversely, the GVTs at TCS reported no communication difficulties. Perhaps, negative and positive reactions to communication and to technology may be more understandable when we take culture into account.

Collectivist cultures tend to prefer completing tasks together, whereas members from individualist cultures tend to be more comfortable with loose ties and the division of tasks. Individualism–collectivism is the preference to act as individuals rather than as a group. Collectivistic cultures also lean toward high-context communication in the majority of social interactions, whereas individualistic cultures lean toward low-context communication. Contextuality is the amount of additional information required to make decisions versus the straight facts. Furthermore, collectivist and high-context cultures tend to be high in uncertainty avoidance characterized by a lower tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, conflict avoidance, and a strong desire for consensus.

Based on these cultural dimensions, it may seem reasonable at first glance to assume certain cultures will prefer richer technologies while others will be satisfied with leaner forms of communication. However, our field studies and a follow-on experiment (discussed here) suggest this perspective does not fully capture the unique challenges inherent to GVTs. It is not always feasible to communicate with real-time technology and it is not always necessary. But, since culture partially predetermines an individual's communication behaviors, it likely influences perceptions of fit between communication tasks and any given technology.


In an experiment involving 150 participants located in the U.S., Japan, and Europe, we found significant cultural differences in perceptions of communication task-technology fit. Of the participants, 78 were of U.S. origin, 26 were of European origin (Netherlands, Finland, and Germany), and 46 were of Asian origin (Japan, Korea, and China). The countries represented were sufficiently similar with regard to the three cultural dimensions to warrant grouping. Using Lotus Notes groupware, 30 GVTs interacted for eight days on an exercise requiring the conveyance of information and convergence to a decision. Participants of U.S. origin perceived less difficulty conveying opinions than did participants of Asian or European origin. Groupware supports a sender-oriented communication style inherent to individualist, low-context cultures like the U.S. Such cultures also have a greater tendency to express and accept communications at face value. However, those of Asian origin perceived groupware to be a better fit for explaining themselves. Individuals from high context cultures (Asia, for example) need to know whether others understand them and whether they can understand others under the same communication circumstances. For participants of Asian origin, the asynchronous groupware allowed more time to compose messages and explain oneself.

Results also indicated that participants of Asian and European origin perceived groupware to be a better fit for convergence-oriented communications than participants of U.S. origin. When the team disagreed and conflict emerged, participants of U.S. origin felt it was more difficult to reach agreement. Collectivist, high context, and higher uncertainty avoidance cultures (Asian) tend to prefer to reach decisions through indirect communication with a calculated degree of vagueness to avoid conflict. Conversely, individualist, low-context, and lower uncertainty avoidance cultures (U.S.) tend to prefer to reach decisions through more exacting communication that values confrontation and debate—a practice not easily enacted through asynchronous groupware. Overall, the groupware technology both enabled and hindered certain culturally driven communication behaviors.

While multiple communication options can be provided to GVTs, organizations must recognize a technology can evoke different reactions among individuals with different cultural orientations. The first step is to acknowledge these differences. The second step is to work toward creating common team norms. Organizations should require GVTs develop explicit and mutually agreed upon operating guidelines for how the team will work. Guidelines define how, when, and which technologies will be used (for example, when to work separately vs. together), and how the team will deal with conflict and make decisions. Establishing norms of behavior regarding communication task-technology use will enhance the performance of GVTs separated by space, time, and culture.

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Anne P. Massey ( is an associate professor of information systems in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

Mitzi Montoya-Weiss ( is an associate professor of marketing in the College of Management at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC.

Caisy Hung ( is a doctoral candidate in information systems in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

V. Ramesh ( is an assistant professor of information systems in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

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©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/1200  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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