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By Steve Kelman

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Going international

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I have introduced two classes this year in my introductory course on management and leadership for our master’s students at the Kennedy School. They pertain to the challenges of managing teams that are from several countries and native languages, and that work in virtual (dispersed) settings rather than face-to-face.

In one class, we do a computer-based simulation, using real-time chat, of a dispersed team trying to communicate with each other in English when some members of the team have English as a native language and others don’t. In the other class, we discuss a situation where a four-nation 24-7 IT support team for multinational corporations has run into problems of inter-country hostility and finger-pointing about problems.

In connection with the second class, I did a class poll, and the results were, to me, really amazing.

I asked the students – most of them in their mid-20s and about 30 percent non-US – about their experiences at jobs before they came to Harvard (not at school) how many of them had themselves been in groups or teams that were in some or all ways like the ones we were discussing in class. Specifically, I asked them whether they had been in groups with different native languages (whether or not at the same location). Then I asked them whether they had been in virtual groups working from different locations (even inside the same country or same native language). Finally I asked them whether they had been in groups that were both multi-language and also virtual.

The answers I think will amaze anyone over 50, maybe even anyone over 30.

Of my students, a full 79 percent had worked in groups with different native languages. Seventy-three percent had worked in virtual groups. And 54 percent had worked in groups that were both virtual and also composed of people with different native languages.

I told my students that if I had asked my class this same question 30 years ago – maybe even 15 years ago – hardly a single student would have answered yes.

I am certain most people older than my students have no idea just how fast the world is globalizing for bright young people today. In some sense, this reminds me of the post-presidential election discussions about how America is changing.

This internationalization has implications for our future as a country – by and large, I think, good ones. But it also has implications for those who are going to be employing today’s 20-somethings. Actually, for parts of the government – State, USAID, Defense, the intelligence community – this may be good news. But federal managers ought to be thinking about this. Any reactions or ideas from federal managers?

Posted on Nov 14, 2012 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Fri, Nov 16, 2012

I know you routinely admit that your classes are a skewed sample, but this is still noteworthy. These tools can be used to outsource to the local exburbs, or rural areas- not just overseas. If I lived in Giddings, TX, I could taker a hefty paycut and actually feel richer. This scenario could mitigate many of the language/cultural issues that folks complain about, while still realizing some efficiencies.

Thu, Nov 15, 2012

What a joke. This is not a valid survey. How many students were in the class? Also, you are teaching a VERY elite group! Students at the Kennedy School in a master's program?! Gimme a break. Run the same survey in similar classes at the 15-20 largest PUBLIC graduate schools and then report the results. Betcha they aren't so amazing!!!!!!

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 Per Ahlstrom Yardley, PA

Even though I am 66 yrs old I have experience from a company running 365/24/7 with the help of an office on the other side of the globe. Being Swedish myself, I negotiated with people who also had English as their second language. The language was less of a problem than the cultural differences and the company policy of compartmentalizing information. It would have been easier to communicate electronically if the information had been more open, and dramatically better if we had ever had an opportunity to meet in person. I think digital management is extremely difficult , especially with people you don't know personally, and who are prone to misinterpret information due to poor knowledge of colloquial language and cultural differences.

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