Two lab managers strike up a conversation at an international conference. Their research is complementary and their ambitions meld—surely they will do great science together. Gripped by great expectations, they agree to collaborate on a project. In the blush of their bond, the fact that they work at opposite ends of the Earth seems almost inconsequential.

Not so fast—distance matters. Conventional strategies that worked well enough when collaborators were down the hallway lose their efficacy in this greater global arrangement. Upon returning to their respective labs, the managers’ honeymoon glow is subsumed by a swarm of problems. Effective leadership of dispersed global teams is a critical competency for managers. But do they measure up?

Global collaborations are booming. In 2009 more than half of all papers published in Science were co-authored by international teams. According to the U.S. National Science Board, the percentage of worldwide science and engineering articles with international authorship worldwide rose from 8 to 22 percent between 1988 and 2007.

As international collaborations increase, so does research into improved performance. Critics say the task is a minefield for managers, arrayed with multiple layers of hazards. The practical problems of collaborating across temporal and geographic boundaries are exacerbated by cross-cultural issues, then subjected to confusing operational differences in national research systems and further complicated by assorted dilemmas arising from the use of virtual communication technologies that tether remote collaborators.

This trifecta of troubles—cultural, national, and communication issues—isn’t the sole culprit. In many instances, managers are their own worst enemies. Assumption is the mother of many problems. Managers who enter into collaborations in haste—not fully informed with eyes wide open— are prepositioned for a rude awakening. In sum, say many observers, the promise of international collaboration still exceeds the delivery.

“Scientists are more enthusiastic about these collaborations than their experience can [accommodate],” said Dr. Melissa Anderson from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Organizational Leadership.

“If lab managers are like other managers, they are woefully underprepared for global collaboration,” said Dr. Bradley Kirkman from Texas A&M’s Mays Business School, who consults for multinational business clients. Maybe more so, he adds, because of their inward orientation. “[More than] 80 percent of the Fortune 500 expressed concern that U.S. companies have a dearth of truly ‘global’ managers. We talk global a lot but don’t practice what we preach.”

“In my experience, researchers don’t have checklists they go through on how they will collaborate [on matters such as] authorship, intellectual property, and protection of animals and human subjects,” said Dr. Nicholas Steneck, director of the Research Ethics and Integrity Program of the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research, who consults for the Office of Research Integrity at HHS. “Training in the U.S. tends to focus heavily on the content and method of the science, not on how to manage a project responsibly.”

National research system issues

Rule number one is to anticipate challenges, say Steneck and Anderson. When things go awry, cultural differences are the usual suspect. Instead, they say, problems often stem from systemic differences in national organization, support, and conduct of research around the world. Their 2010 book—International Research Collaborations: Much to Be Gained, Many Ways to Get in Trouble—pinpoints four dimensions of national research systems that commonly trip up scientists.

  • Organization of national systems can vary by authority structures, communication networks, and decisionmaking methods, complicating researchers’ work. Nations have different levels of support—or nonsupport— for cross-cultural initiatives, both at the local and national levels. Management protocols become baffling absent harmonization.
     
  • When working domestically, researchers rely on institutional legal staff to deal with legal and regulatory matters. Abroad, legal staff can be out of their element. Most critically, collaborators must decide whose laws take precedence and when.
     
  • Integrity oversight becomes vexing because there is no central body to either investigate or adjudicate allegations of misconduct in human or animal research. Researchers often must adhere to different standards than their domestic policies require, and the project overall must meet the strictest provisions of all regulations brought to bear. Steneck, an authority on research misconduct, says scientists more than likely “will see the data. That’s not the problem. It’s the actual day-today collecting of the results. You can’t drop in and see what’s going on in their lab or check on a notebook.”
     
  • Graduate students and postdocs may have been trained in national systems whose methods and conditions are not in sync with the experiences of senior project researchers. Nations differ in terms of the extent of independent or individual doctoral study and graduate coursework and teamwork.

Communication issues

As teams become more geographically dispersed, faceto- face interaction is increasingly supplanted by virtual technologies. In turn, these technologies exert significant interpersonal and cognitive impacts—influencing team relationships and collaborative performance on the one hand and communication processes and performance on the other, says Dr. Patricia Holahan, associate professor of management at Stevens Institute of Technology Management. Her research interests include technology management and virtual team collaboration.

Virtual communications, she says, inhibit transmission of critical social information—visual and voice cues and body language—that humans rely upon to make judgments about one another. (Body language is a primary communication vehicle. Research results vary, but estimates of the percentage of face-to-face communication that is nonverbal range from 60 to 90 percent. Without face-to-face interaction, humans are flying blind interpersonally.) Holahan says there is “wide agreement that no technology can substitute for face-to-face [communication]” but the gap is closing.

Without the human touch that face-to-face interaction provides, it becomes difficult to establish trust. Interactions become depersonalized when team members operate under “situational invisibility,” says management researcher Catherine Cramton.

“People are always going through this process of making sense and making attributions, like why did so-and-so do this or that? When we lack rich contextual information, the default position is to make more dispositional attributions, and they tend to be negative,” said Holahan. As a result, virtual teams have more contentious communication and dysfunctional conflict than face-to-face teams do.

By not being on-site to observe lab staff attending to an urgent equipment failure, a distant team may erroneously conclude that colleagues who didn’t respond to an email query are uncommitted or unreliable. To prevent such misunderstandings, managers must ensure that partners are provided with a prompt explanation of the facts. Left unattended, negative attributions can wreak havoc with a team’s ability to learn, willingness to collaborate, group cohesion, satisfaction, and leader-member relations.

With experience, Holahan says team members achieve “behavioral integration.” By working together, virtual teams improve their ability to understand others and assess trustworthiness more accurately. They begin to cohere, and performance improves.

Geographically distant situations can differ greatly, said Cramton, requiring collaborators to communicate their local constraints and circumstances or risk inaccurate assumptions. These can include equipment quality and features, measurement processes and standards, distances people must travel to accomplish tasks, pressures from supervisors and co-workers, and local holidays and customs.

Underlying characteristics of communication technologies also affect interpersonal collaborative relations. Technologies that are “rich” and “synchronous”—that transmit information with greater clarity and are timely— provide superior social context and clues and improve shared meaning and group identity, says Holahan. TelePresence, a state-of-the-art video wall, is at the top of the scale. Email, leaner and asynchronous, is near the bottom. Email, said Dr. Gary Olson from the University of Michigan, promotes “(behaving) in a mostly selfserving way.”

Holahan urges managers to begin virtual technology training as soon as new employees come on board. Staff skills need periodic refreshing; personnel should be competent with all virtual technologies, she says, because communication improves when a variety of virtual media are employed.

Convincing staff to adopt different technologies is another issue altogether; most prefer using just one or two. If perceived ease of use and usefulness (to achieve work goals) are high, acceptance becomes easier. Holahan says managers can facilitate adoption of new technologies by asking for staff feedback and presenting the results to the decision makers. “More often than not, organizational leadership assesses technology from their perspective, never thinking that project leads may think otherwise.

“Another driver of technology acceptance is what we call ‘climate’— the extent to which intended technology users perceive such use as expected, supported, and rewarded in the workplace. Many times organizations spend a lot of money on technology and put it in place, and that’s about it!” Without training, users master only a limited number of features. “They’re getting only 30 or 40 percent of a technology’s true capabilities.”

From Kirkman’s perspective, concern about virtual technologies doesn’t match the reality. He says the telephone (and phone conferencing) remains the “lifeblood” of global collaboration, and many nations lack the bandwidth to support high-resolution videoconferencing or computerassisted conference tools. Email “hasn’t been very effective for entire teams to communicate … it is very inefficient in terms of keeping a linear track of ongoing communication. Electronic discussion threads are more useful. One of my colleagues found that most successful virtual teams banned email completely for team communication.”

Cross-cultural issues

Kirkman’s research into cross-cultural management builds on the seminal studies of Geert Hofstedt, who demystified cultural differences by creating a framework of beliefs and values specific to more than 50 countries. Hofstedt is required reading for collaborators, says Kirkman, since his work predicts what leaders will experience cross-culturally and prescribes management behaviors to improve organizational performance. So managers can be coached about the most effective leadership styles, using cross-cultural prototypes formulated by Hofstedt, Shalom Schwartz, or the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Project. All provide “rules of thumb.”

But it’s not fail-safe—there’s too much variation at the individual level. Kirkman says there’s more to it than “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” The most successful managers will want to get to know the Romans as individuals.

His advice for leaders:

  • Don’t assume anything; or, if one does make assumptions, assume differences, not similarities. When managers assume there is similarity, they wind up “making way more cross-cultural mistakes.”
     
  • Create a team charter at the beginning, a written document that specifies how the team will act—the vision, mission, goals, tasks, and decision-making process. Wrap in important concepts such as deadlines and quality that are often culturally sensitive.
     
  • Leaders need finely honed meeting management skills to make effective use of face-to-face team meetings likely to be “short in duration and few in number.” They should pay close attention to meeting preparation and to what happens during and immediately after meetings and then note what happens during intervals in order to improve the next meeting.
     
  • A sense of humor doesn’t hurt. When managers make mistakes, the ability to make light of uncomfortable situations can make team members feel safer. “Psychological safety,” the degree to which team members feel safe for interpersonal risk-taking, is a key ingredient in creating a learning culture for a global team. Kirkman says, “It starts the leader” creating a safe psychological climate, and he adds that the value of psychological safety increases as teams become more culturally diverse.