Communication Technology and Sound Management Skills Provide Hope for Managers

An increasing number of lab managers now supervise people working hundreds or even thousands of miles away. This is nothing new, but the practice is now more common than ever due to globalization of R&D and modern communications technology. Why establish remote laboratories in other countries? These laboratories can foster success in the global marketplace.

DuPont provides an interesting example of why companies establish R&D centers around the world. In discussing the expansion of DuPont’s Knowledge Center in Hyderabad, India, last February, Mark Vergamamo, DuPont executive vice president, explained his firm’s rationale for building laboratories around the world: “The expansion at the DuPont Knowledge Center demonstrates DuPont’s focus on growing in emerging markets, such as India, by addressing local market needs. The goal is to help us better understand the unique market needs here and develop solutions tailored to these needs.”

Also, markets in some developing countries are growing more rapidly than markets in developed countries. “The establishment of the DuPont Knowledge Center in India is consistent with our company’s strategy of going where the growth is,” said Balvinder Singh Kalsi, president, DuPont India. Uma Chowdhry, DuPont’s senior vice president and chief science and technology officer, explains, “We have seen time and again that we accelerate revenue growth in a region when we augment our sales presence by strengthening local technical expertise.”

Management challenges

Forming and managing effective global research teams with members located in far-flung countries and different time zones is a major challenge for lab managers at multinational companies and at companies outsourcing lab work overseas. It is also a challenge for lab managers working with their employers’ other remote personnel, such as sales representatives.

Establishing a common laboratory culture among labs in different countries and continents is a huge challenge. Several factors contribute to the complexity of the problem. One is differences in the countries’ cultures. For example, some cultures have particular concepts of time that can foster varying attitudes toward deadlines and punctuality.

Language differences are often a barrier to effective communication. Age is another. At many firms, employees at Asian labs are substantially younger than employees in U.S., European and Japanese labs. These younger employees have different outlooks on R&D and life in general.

Accepting such diversity and even embracing it is important. The members of a diverse laboratory workforce approach problems in different ways and will generate a broader array of potential solutions than a more homogeneous workforce can.

Communications

Effective communications are essential in understanding and accommodating these differences. English is the common language of international business and science. However, for most workers in international laboratories, English is their second language. Your ability to understand them may be hampered by their accents when speaking English. Of course, communication is a twoway street. Staff members of an international laboratory will appreciate your efforts to speak their language. However, when doing so you will have an accent as well. And of course, when speaking a second language, one’s vocabulary is often limited.

Even when countries share a common language, different cultures can result in different meanings for the same words and result in miscommunication. While some argue about the attribution, it was supposedly Winston Churchill who said, “Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.” For example, what Americans would call the trunk of a car their British cousins would call the boot.

Most companies rely on more than just written reports to promote technology exchange between their employees located in far-flung laboratories. For example, Procter & Gamble organizes an annual analytical laboratory conference for managers and staff members. Analytical chemists from around the world come to P&G research centers in Cincinnati to attend this conference and interact with their peers. Besides research topics, they also discuss corporate issues. For instance, when P&G acquired Gillette a few years ago, I gave a workshop on new human resources policies to be instituted as part of laboratory consolidation.

When communicating through conference telephone calls and videoconferencing, time zone differences can be a challenge in scheduling and conducting these calls. For example, one lab manager I know has monthly calls with team members located in Houston, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Bangalore (India) and The Hague (the Netherlands).

Videoconferencing between groups

While e-mail and long-distance conference telephone calls still dominate oral communications between project teams working at research centers in different countries, videoconferencing is now often used, particularly in larger companies. Videoconferences permit virtual group and team meetings that bridge multiple locations. Members of project teams located at two or even three laboratories will meet with their images being displayed on large monitors set up in conference rooms. Videoconferencing technology has improved; projected images are clearer and delays in the transmission of images and sound have become shorter. While conversation is often stilted initially, after two or three group meetings, team members become more natural and relaxed when speaking to each other.

Makers of videoconferencing gear, such as U.S.-based Cisco Systems Inc. and Polycom Inc., are likely to see a long-term increase in equipment sales according to telecom analyst Aapo Markkanen at IHS Global Insight. Polycom’s Robert Stead said the videoconferencing market could grow at a compound annual rate of around 17 percent in the coming years, to reach some $8.6 billion by 2013.

Videoconferencing can serve as a backup to face-toface meetings when weather conditions close airports. For example, when many European airports were closed for an extended period in April 2010 by the volcanic eruption in Iceland, videoconferencing experienced significantly increased use.

Communicating via the Internet

More recently, the combination of Web cameras and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) has made it common for people located many miles apart to communicate while seeing each other’s images and trading images sent over the Internet and displayed on computer screens. Staff members can make reports to their supervisors and managers can conduct performance reviews using these technologies. For example, team members located around the globe can present oral reports and show slides during webinars.

While communication is still usually more effective face-to-face, videoconferencing and Internet technologies are increasingly used to reduce the expenses associated with business travel. Many laboratories have substantially reduced their travel budgets as a result of the recent recession. Reducing business travel also increases managers’ productivity, since time spent in airports and on airplanes is seldom as productive as time spent working in a laboratory office or a home office.

For example, a former manager of mine later supervised all surfactants-related research conducted at three laboratories located in the U.S., the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. She spent at least half her time traveling and often sacrificed part of her weekends traveling to Europe for Monday meetings. Eventually she and others made the transition to conducting much of this communication by videoconference.

Building teams

In terms of managing people located in distant laboratories, the challenge of videoconferencing and other communications technologies is getting to know what makes people tick, what motivates them, while being many miles apart. The various technologies discussed above are not conducive to relaxing and engaging in the informal conversations that build familiarity, trust and a sense of common purpose between managers and their staff members and between staff members themselves.

Trust and a sense of common purpose are essential to having effective teams whose members work well together. The cultural differences and communications challenges discussed above make building long-distance teams both more difficult and more rewarding than when all team members have similar backgrounds, outlooks and work habits. The reduced effectiveness of communications technologies—compared to routine, very frequent face-to-face contact—adds to the challenge of building effective teams.

To compensate for this, managers have to frequently remind team members of how each person’s work plays an important role in achieving the common mission of the team. Praise and recognition for work well done is even more important when working with long-distance teams than when team members are all located in the same laboratory.

To help build a sense of common purpose and trust between team members, managers should design small projects within large ones in which two or three team members from distant laboratories will work together to achieve a goal. Such “mini-projects” could include having team members jointly write research reports, articles for trade magazines or research papers. Other joint activities could include working with patent attorneys on preparing patent applications or planning the next phase of a project. Managers could assign two or three team members to develop solutions to potential problems, identify toll manufacturers or handle other projectrelated activities.

Managers should work with each team member to set both individual and team goals. These goals should have mutually agreed-upon deadlines. Be sure every team member knows the others’ goals and deadlines and how each person’s tasks contribute to achieving overall project goals. Monitor progress in an effective way without implying a lack of trust or respect for team members.

Frequent and effective communication, particularly by the manager, is essential to establish a clear sense of common purpose between team members located long distances from each other. Distance reduces team cohesion. Managers should encourage team members to communicate using the technology best for the immediate purpose: e-mail, VoIP telephone calls, etc.

Lab managers should work with team members to decide the most effective means of communicating with each other. Keep your oral and written communications clear, concise and straightforward. In oral communications, pause frequently to conduct a process check to be sure everyone understands what has just been discussed or agreed to. Accurate e-mail summaries of the key points of meetings are another way of ensuring that everyone understands what has been agreed upon during oral discussions.

Develop cultural sensitivity. Some cultures are more task oriented while others are more relationship oriented.

As always, managers must lead by example. Say what you do and do what you say. Communicate clearly and concisely. Meet commitments you make to team members. Don’t have hidden agendas; team members will usually sense this if you do. Demonstrate respect for every team member. Don’t let them see or hear you become angry or frustrated. These emotions are counterproductive in terms of building effective work teams.

New international laboratories

Establishment of new laboratories overseas can create major communications and trust issues, particularly if laboratory employment is stagnant or declining in your company’s home country. For example, robust economic growth in China, India and elsewhere has led chemical, oil and pharmaceutical companies to establish new laboratories in these countries. These new laboratories are often quite large. Deciding what projects should be transferred to new laboratories in China and India is an important issue currently being faced by laboratory managers at large chemical and oil companies.

The challenges of efficiently managing laboratories located many miles apart will confront lab managers for a long time to come.

References

  1. J.K. Borchardt, “Project Management for Teams,” Lab Manager Magazine, November 2005 (http://pubs.acs.org/ subscribe/journals/tcaw/11/i05/html/05work.html).
  2. J.K. Borchardt, “Staying on Schedule,” Lab Manager Magazine, August 31, 2009 (http://labmanager.com/ articles.asp?ID=332).
  3. K. Williams and P. Hughes, “Validating Processes,” Lab Manager Magazine, February 23, 2009 (http://labmanager. com/articles.asp?ID=217).