Loose coupling in global teams: Tracing the contours of cultural complexity
Jennifer Lee Gibbs, University of Southern California, United States
University of Southern California . Awarded
A key challenge in developing successful global teams concerns building trust and a common team culture across distances and time zones while utilizing cultural diversity to the organization's global advantage. This study examines ways in which such tensions between convergence and divergence are negotiated in global teams. Global teams are characterized as loosely coupled systems (Weick, 1976), challenging the traditional notion that shared understanding and frequent face-to-face interaction are prerequisites for team success. Findings are based on an international Web survey of 151 global team members, and an ethnographic analysis of a global software team spanning locations in North America, Europe, Asia, and South America that consisted of in-depth interviews, focus groups, document and email analysis, and participant observation.
The ethnography revealed that the global team was loosely coupled due to team members' multiple cultural identifications, geographical dispersion, time differences, and electronic rather than face-to-face communication. The resulting loose coupling of goals, expectations, roles, and tasks/activities posed both advantages and disadvantages for global team process and performance. On one hand, it buffered conflict and enabled a sense of “unified diversity” (Eisenberg, 1984) amidst conflicting goals and interpretations, as well as allowing for individual autonomy and flexibility in responding to organizational constraints. On the other hand, it resulted in low employee morale and motivation, high attrition, and inefficiencies in process and structure. Communication-based coupling mechanisms enabled coordination of team activity across time, space, and cultural boundaries, including informal liaisons, cultural identification, the rhythm of critical meetings, trust, and documentation.
Loose coupling was also evident in the teams represented by the survey sample of global team members, through the importance of both shared vision and trust, on one hand, and cultural diversity, on the other. Survey results suggest that global teams perceived as more successful are those in which team members perceive higher levels of trust, shared vision, and cultural diversity, lower collaboration and less importance placed on group-oriented technologies such as teleconferencing, videoconferencing, Intranet, Extranet, and groupware. A loose coupling perspective helps to explain necessary tensions inherent in global teams.
Gibbs, J.L. Loose coupling in global teams: Tracing the contours of cultural complexity. Ph.D. thesis, University of Southern California.
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