Working in a group can be difficult at the best of times. Identifying the expertise of the various group members, making sure everyone has a chance to contribute, and facilitating the sharing of knowledge among all participants are concerns common to collaborative endeavors. In today’s high-tech global world, the dynamics of group interpersonal relationships and knowledge sharing can have crucial ramifications for the success or failure of a project or even the company itself.
“In modern society, the knowledge economy is different than it was in the past,” says Y. Connie Yuan, Communication. “If you worked for a company in the past, a lot of resources you needed were hard materials, such as steel or natural resources. In the knowledge economy, however, the key resource for production is people, specifically, their brainpower or expertise.”
Intercultural Knowledge Sharing
Yuan has been working for many years on research involving transactive memory systems, the way in which groups collectively encode, store, and retrieve knowledge. Recently her work has focused on how cultural differences affect people’s judgments of group members’ expertise and how technology can help inform that process. “Coming from an Asian culture, I found this an intriguing question,” Yuan says. “Asian students are typically perceived as quiet. We grew up in a culture where you only speak when you know what you’re talking about. But in American culture, the more you talk, the more you’re perceived as an expert. Here, if you don’t speak up, how will other people evaluate you?” Making direct eye contact is also discouraged in most Asian cultures, Yuan continues. “But in the U.S., if you don’t make eye contact that can cause the other person to judge you negatively. They might wonder if you’re incompetent or if you’re hiding something.”
To investigate the dynamics of intercultural knowledge sharing within groups, Yuan and her fellow researchers set up a controlled experiment with Chinese and American graduate students as subjects. The students, who all had equal levels of expertise, were assigned into two culturally mixed group conditions. In one group condition, the students relied on face-to-face communication as they engaged in collaborative work. In the other, the students used text-based Skyping to communicate.
“We grew up in a culture where you only speak when you know what you’re talking about. But in American culture, the more you talk, the more you’re perceived as an expert.”
The researchers found that, in face-to-face communication, the Americans were judged to have higher expertise and were more influential than their Chinese counterparts even though they had comparable levels of actual expertise. But in the computer-mediated setting, where communication was done through texting, the differences in perceived expertise and influence on group decision making between the two ethnic groups narrowed, and group performance was improved overall. “For people who speak English as a second language, texting is very helpful in the group setting,” Yuan says. “It gives them time to rehearse what they want to say and also more time to process other peoples’ work while everyone is typing. They can also easily jump into the conversation because all they have to do is to hit ‘enter’ and their text is out there for everyone to read.”
The International Business Setting
Yuan’s findings have important applications not just in international corporations and organizations, but in all situations where there is a difference in the communication styles of participants. There are many reasons why some group members may have less input, including shyness or a lack of comfort asserting their opinions over a more dominant member, she says. “Our recommendation is that in a group setting you need to make sure everyone contributes equally. When you have a face-to-face setting, you need to seek out input from the quieter ones. If you are the manager, you should make sure you have more than one way to solicit input. Be mindful of who has been dominating the discussion, and try to have roughly equal air time from everyone. In an intercultural collaboration, in particular, it’s better to have more than one channel of communication.”
The immediate benefits of this type of approach in an international business setting—for instance when an American company enters an Asian market—becomes apparent when local customs and preferences are crucial to the success of the venture. “The local people’s input may be more important than that of outsiders because local people know the context better,” Yuan says. “They can give you a more tailored opinion about how things should work in that market, but if you assume that the person who speaks the most during the meeting is the expert, that can lead you in the wrong direction.”
When Knowledge Isn’t Shared
In continued research, Yuan has also investigated another aspect of today’s knowledge economy. Knowledge belongs to the individual who must then share it with the group. But what if the individual doesn’t want to share? “A lot of people presume that people are rational and willing to share their information with you,” Yuan says. “But that is not the case. Some people are difficult and won’t share, so you can’t assume organizational knowledge is available to everyone. If you ask me for my knowledge, you don’t know what I know, so you won’t know what I don’t share. Knowledge is a very interesting resource. It’s invisible, and it’s mobile. It goes with the person.”
In this context, interpersonal ties are very important. There’s a balance between using technology, such as a Google search, to gather superficial immediate knowledge and the forging of strong relationships with others which will yield the sharing of in-depth knowledge, Yuan explains. An important driver of this type of willingness to share knowledge is happiness in the workplace. When people are dissatisfied, they are not as creative. They may even go so far as to hide their creativity from the organization and keep what they know to themselves. When this happens, the whole organization suffers and productivity declines.
“You really have to pay attention to people’s psychological wellbeing,” Yuan says. “That’s why Google Inc., for instance, has so many perks. They want to make sure their people are happy.” She quotes Lewis Platt, CEO of Hewlett Packard, who said, “If HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.” Yuan says, “When people are happy and willing to share, individual knowledge becomes collective knowledge. When they are not happy, individual knowledge remains individual knowledge.”