Innovation across cultural borders
An integrated help tool to improve communication in transnational Innovation Projects
The European Commission, DG XIII, published an integrated help tool entitled "Innovation across cultural borders", to improve communication in transnational projects, particularly those run under the Community's INNOVATION programme. The tool, comprising a book and a computer programme, was produced upon discovery that some of the problems which occur in large-scale multi-partner transnational projects are not technical problems but problems related to cultural differences within the partnerships. The book presents six cases with critical "intercultural" events, where communication in a transnational project has broken down in some way. For each case the book offers a set of possible explanations. The software provides detailed information and explanations for each case, as well as a questionnaire to test usual and ideal work environments and management styles.
The book has been marked-up in HTML for the benefit of CORDIS users and a copy of the software is available for download.
On the downloadable software, you will find detailed information and valid expanations for each case. The file also provides a questionnaire to test your usual and ideal work environment and management styles. The software allows you to print out your personal profile and to compare it with those of your partners.
Contents of the downloadable software
|Export profile |
|Import profile ... |
|Print profile ... Ctrl+P |
|Introduction of the cases |
|Introduction to the questionnaire |
|Profile interpretation |
|Use of the profile ||
|Case 1: Environmental breakthrough? |
|Case 2: The Birmingham Meeting |
|Case 3: Project meetings |
|Case 4: The Bologna experience |
|Case 5: Coordinator's problems |
|Case 6: Software connection ||
|Send your profile ... |
|About ... |
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Table of Contents
Like other specific programmes of the European Community, the INNOVATION programme supports technology projects run by transnational partnerships. This kind of transnational cooperation not only creates obvious benefits for Europe as a whole but also helps the companies and organisations involved in transnational partnerships to take better advantage of the Single Market. Transnational cooperation provides first-hand access to new technologies from abroad and helps entry into new markets. Working in transnational teams is also interesting and challenging to all those who are personally interested in cooperating with colleagues from other European countries and making new experiences with other ways of management and doing business.
The consortium of a technology project should not be chosen at random, but should be carefully designed. The interests and contributions of technology providers, technology users, intermediaries and potential patners must be balanced in such a way to ensure technology development and dissemination to be driven by the common interest of the project partners throughout the project life cycle. Intellectual property rights and underlying assumptions of the project startegy must be clarified, success criteria and responsibilities clearly pointed out.
But even in carefully planned projects a strinking pattern of communication problems arises quite frequently. While most projects are launched in a friendly and optimistic atmosphere, it happens quite frequently that the initially positive climate vanishes quickly. Frustrations emerge about partners who are apparently "unwilling to learn" and always repeat the same "errors". In the group, prejudices and stereotypes start replacing the open-minded atmosphere at the beginning. While everybody still tries to listen carefully, mutual misunderstanding grows. This can result in a kind of communication breakdown which, quite often, may lead to general mistrust and even more severe problems.
"Intercultural communication and management" deals with this type of problem. Literature and consultancy services specialised in this field are available on the market. This integrated help tool has been developed under the INNOVATION programme to create awareness of the issue of "Intercultural communication and management" and the potential it may have for improving innovation management across cultural borders.
Projects funded under the INNOVATION programme and other Community funded projects are the prime target of this tool. It is designed to help projects to maintain effective communication and, if necessary, to re-establish it more quickly and more efficiently. The tool provides advice to transnational partnerships on how
- to check whether management problems encountered by the project are of "personal" nature or relate to different management styles present in the group,
- to make cultural differences in management style explicit,
- to deal with different management styles in the same group,
- to commuicate in a common language of which project partners have a different level of command,
- to generally improve mutual understanding between partners from different backgrounds.
Users of this integrated tool are invited to send us their comments and to share their experience with us.
It is intended to compile the data from all project groups who send us a disk with their profiles and, in exchange, to provide them with a statistical analysis of the data obtained. It may also be possible to initiate a broader exchange of experience among projects and individuals who find interest in this issue.
The tool is based on experience from a number of projects carried out under the former SPRINT programme, one of the predecessors of the INNOVATION programme. Specialists in intercultural management and training interviewed some of the partners at project meetings. Based on this research, the tool has been structured into five main different parts:
- The "critical incidents" Six cases illustrate typical problems which can arise in a project. All cases are structured in the same way: the situation is briefly described and four possible explanations are offered to explain "what really happened". Most explanations contain part of the truth and the reader is asked to judge the probability of these explanations. With the computer tool he will then find more comments on all explanations given and what the authors of the cases think is the most probable "solution".
- First aid For each of these cases the tool offers a number of first aid rules, just in case the incident described "rings a bell" with you.
- Checking your personal profile This part of the tool offers every reader an opportunity to learn more about his own personal management style. In the software, you will find a questionnaire, made up of simple and general "multiple choice" questions. They should not take you more than half an hour to answer and they will provide the basis for the computer tool to produce your personal management profile. This profile reveals patterns of preference and rejection for important management issues, such as reliance on general rules vs. flexible, ad-hoc management. Some of your preferences may be familiar to you, others perhaps less so.
- Dilemmas The brochure then gives more explanations on the management issues from your profile and makes the uderlying dilemmas transparent. In transnational project management, as in most complex situations, the "single best way" often does not exist. Various strategies are possible and different people or groups involved may advocate solutions which appear to be contradictory, but which in reality are "different parts of the whole truth", such as hierarchical vs. participative approaches or universal vs. specific concepts.
- Become aware! In the final chapter you will find advice on how to interpret your personal profile and how to improve your teamwork.
The tool does not supply ready-made answers but it is meant to create awareness of pitfalls in international teamwork. It is by no means a universal panacea to problems of international project cooperation, but it should help readers to reflect on their own cultural predispositions - in project management and sometimes even beyond.
We hope that, in pursuing these objectives, teamwork in transnational innovation projects will be improved and, as a result, cultural diversity may be seen more often as an opportunity for synergy and not just as a threat to efficient management.
Avoiding the pitfalls - an introduction to six cases
The following pages gives details of six case histories where for one reason or another the communication in the project has broken down in some way. They have been designed to help current project leaders and partners avoid similar situations. Use them as points of reference for your own project.
Persons, countries and companies referred to in the case histories are fictitious - though the core problem of each of the cases is contructed from the results of empirical study on the experience of past Innovation Projects.
Please read each case carefully and try to assess the factors that might cause the respective problem in the given case study. Afterwards, you can check your assessment by referring to the computer programme.
The downloadable software also contains advice on how to cope with these problems, along with some additional sources of further information on the topic in question.
The captain of a sinking ship had difficulty in persuading his European passengers to jump in the water. So, as he explained afterwards, he appealed to the dominant instincts in each of the nationalities: "I told the English it would be unsporting not to jump, the French it would be the smart thing to do, the Germans that it was an order and the Italians that jumping overboard was prohibited!"
A research group at a Dutch university developed a new method to measure the percentage of ozone in the atmosphere. The benefits of the new portable instrument were vast. It was a low cost option and it readings were easily applicable and very reliable. Understandably, the product gained widespread acceptance on the Dutch market. Following on from this success, the technlogy transfer department of the university launched a Technology Transfer Project and was confident about its success in other European markets.
However, after only two years, the project partners from six EU countries (Spain, France, Italy, Germany, UK and Belgium) admitted defeat. Most partners had more difficulties than expected in gaining acceptance for the product in their own respective marketplaces. Furthermore, the instruments' readings were inconsistent and most partners experienced complaints concerning the instrument itself and its readings. Bewildered, the Dutch project coordinators looked for explanations.
Below are four different explanations for the project's failure. Please indicate how probable and valid they seem to you.
- Lack of a marketing strategy
The Dutch university institute had no experience in devising an appropriate marketing stategy for the product. As academics, they simply believed that the technological quality of their product would alone guarantee its success. In a small country such as the Netherlands, their reputation as an Amsterdam university institution was sufficient, but on a European level it was not.
- Different ecological conditions
Some adaptations to the settings of the instrument were necessary in order for it to work under different climatic conditions. Because this was not recognised by the Dutch university the instrument failed to operate correctly in other countries, limiting its acceptance.
- Local accetability of the technology
Priority given to environmental issues still varies quite widely throughout Europe. Projects involving environmental technology need to take into account differing socio-political views, local legislation and the general environmental awareness of each individual country.
- National policy
The success for the production and marketing of an instrument for ozone concentration measurements depends strongly on political and public support. Perhaps, because key customers are limited to public bodies, there were not enough companies interested in the product. Public agencies (municipal, regional, national institutions) often prefer their own national technologies and are therefore reluctant to introduce innovations from abroad. Consequently, acceptance of the product in all countries is not guaranteed.
The British project coordinator began the morning session of a Birmingham project meeting with a detailed report on the current state of project development. He addressed each of the partners from Ireland, Belgium, France, Germany and Greece respectively, in order to clarify what was still to be done to complete the project plan and to finish the report to the Commission.
After this report a discussion was held on the activities necessary for promoting dissemination in each country. The coordinator was in the process of suggesting some alternative approaches when the Irish partner objected. Following several verbal exchanges the situation was duly resolved and an agreement reached. The coordinator then asked the others for comments on the agreement, but was surprised when nobody commented. Instead, one partner asked an unrelated question on an aspect of the project which he was sure he had already covered.
During the ensuing break he became aware that certain partners, conversing in French, were behaving in an unfriendly and distant way towards him. Subsequently, when he asked one of them to comment on his proposal, he received a rather rude comment. During the rest of the meeting he felt rejected and could not really understand why.
Below are four different explanations for the meeting's failure. Please select the one you consider to be most probable.
- Unpleasant role of the coordinator
The project coordinator, whose role it is to ask for reports and to prompt all partners for punctual delivery, often becomes alienated. Even when accepted for his work in coordination and administration, he is less welcome on a social level.
- No consensus
The coordinator's proposal for promoting dissemination was obviously not appropriate to the majority of the group. As it was proposed by him in his coordinator's function, there was no overt dissent by any particular party, but an overall group disturbance.
- Language problems
Partners have varying levels of command of the working language. The native speaker's introduction and the ensuing dialogue between native speakers resulted in a communication breakdown and in frustration of the non-native speakers.
- Dominant coordinator
The project coordinator was too exacting and too driven by the facts. Thus, most of the partners felt overpowered and were annoyed by his dominating and imperious style.
The third project meeting involved participants from France, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece and Spain. The atmosphere was tense.
The Greek project coordinator opened the meeting with an introductory statement on the progress of the project before collecting points for the agenda from the partners. The discussion became very lively following a proposal by one of the partners to change a time schedule which, until then, had been fixed by a written contract with the EU. After half an hour no firm agreement had been reached and some of the participants started to express their frustration openly:
Pl: What the hell are we here for? During a whole hour of discussion we did not arrive at one single conclusion. What an utter waste of time!
P2: How true! But it's not just time we're wasting it's money as well!
(The exchange is followed by a moment of tense silence.)
P3: We need to reach a general consensus on how to cooperate in our project, otherwise it's all a waste of time!
(The coffee break follows during which some of the participants leave the meeting together)
P4: How rude they are. I can't believe it!
P3: Their problem is, they always want to determine what has to be done and how it should be done almost immediately. I think it all comes down to the fact that they think they have not been given enough of the contract!
(In the meantime, another discussion is being held in another group.)
P1: Not only are they completely unsure and disorganised, but they don't even know what they want! How can we be expected to put our faith in them?
P2: Maybe so. But f it was left to us, we would have cleared it up in five minutes.
The Greek coordinator had a hard time bringing the group back to a common discussion and was left bewildered about the reasons for this clash.
- Feeling at a disadvantage
Obviously, project partners had different ideas regarding the contents and the time schedule of the project. It seems that some of them felt they were at a disadvantage, either because of the time schedule or because of budgetary constraints.
- Fixed agreements
The topic of discussion seemed to touch a sensitive point, at least in the eyes of some partners. A change in the written agreement was obviously unacceptable for those who had arranged their work schedule according to the original contract.
- Time management
The partners' individual views of time management evidently varied. Some partners would have preferred a longer discussion in order to reach a consensus, others became very annoyed probably because they considered such a procedure as a waste of time and money in the first place.
- Management style
The conflict arose because not all partners shared the same view of how to organise and manage a good and efficient meeting