Improving a development team through culture analysis

A California client planning a company-wide study of collaboration asked for recommendations of four different locations from a list of 15 countries in six work regions in order to develop specific software tools to improve collaboration in software development. The client headquarters in the United States should be able to work with these other locales, which should represent the greatest diversity relative to the headquarters’ site in terms of culture, along with the greatest opportunities for innovation in collaboration.

Initially, we used two sets of criteria to identify appropriate sites. The first set was based on traditional measures of culture that are applicable to teamwork. The second set dealt with technological innovation and globalization. After an interview with the project sponsors, we discussed additional criteria, and they made available any additional data on the employee demographics. As a result, we added another criterion in our data summary: gender balance. After some consideration, we decided on four cities to be studied along with the US corporate headquarters’ site (Table 1).

Alternative cities included Feltham in the United Kingdom instead of Amsterdam, but because the United States and the United Kingdom share many cultural values, Amsterdam was chosen as representative of more egalitarian, gender-neutral styles. Singapore was an alternative for Dubai, but Dubai currently leads the world in population growth as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) moves from an oil-based economy to a new one based on trade, finance and information. Singapore has already successfully refocused its economy on the same elements through a much more regulated and state-controlled process representative of traditional Chinese values — strong leadership, high power distance and collectivism. We could have chosen Seoul instead of Tokyo because like Tokyo, Seoul uses a strong Confucian style of leadership that promotes group coordination and tends to limit individual action.

If circumstances allowed further cities, we recommended that Shanghai could be researched. It was not included in our initial list due to our understanding that this project was seeking out the most diverse range of collaboration practices within the client’s international sites. The spectacular increase in Chinese university training based on Western models has somewhat diluted the traditional Confucian orientation of young employees. By contrast, Japanese (and Korean and Singaporean) employees are expected to be more conservative in their communication style. In all cases, we recommended specific locations with at least 200 employees to be researched so that the data collected would have strong statistical validity. We prepared a summary (Table 2) comparing the recommended international cities with the headquarter city. The values show the headquarter city presented with a value set at 1.0, and other values based on the data sources cited immediately below. The sequence emphasizes the cities that the client subsequently selected: Amsterdam, Bangalore, Singapore and Tokyo, with data for Dubai and Shanghai shown additionally. The dark blue rectangles show the maximum values for the criteria, and the white rectangles show the minimum values for the criteria. The cities recommended provide strongly different culture attributes, which should make for effective, valuable studies of client corporate culture and differences and/or similarities in teamwork, which is the objective of the client’s research. 


Traditional measures of culture

Since the early 1980s, researchers and theorists have identified a large number of variables from factor analysis to explain differences among national and regional cultures.

Among the large number of concepts, many overlap, and different researchers factor-analyzed different data sets, which led to divergent results. According to Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, individuals can hold independent and interdependent self-concepts at the same time, but Geert Hofstede theorized that people were either individualists or collectivists.

These traditional culture concepts are often associated with specific types of teamwork. People in collectivist countries with high power distance (respect for authority) tend to be dependent on their in-groups and rely on strong leaders who exercise moral authority. In addition, they may avoid direct confrontation, although they can engineer situations that let them apply rules to justify refusal. Note that there are many historical variations of these values. India, with its tradition of close cooperation and mentorship between experienced and novice group members, is quite different from Tokyo, where managers are more separate from subordinates.

People in individualistic countries with high power distance, such as France, often develop bureaucratic systems that allow them to reconcile personal independence with absolute authority and centralized power. In contrast, people in collectivist countries may be more confrontational. People in individualistic countries with low power distance tend to work in loose groups and to treat others as peers; their allegiance to their in-groups is relatively weak, so they find it easier to work with new people and outsiders. However, even within this cluster, there are historical patterns. Scandinavia is considered more egalitarian and “feminine”; work roles show less gender bias, and groups look to achieve consensus.

There is much surface validity in Hofstede’s categories, and many authors have used his work studies of international business. However, when using Hofstede as a guide to study collaboration, it is important to remember that his data were collected from IBM in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Much has changed in global business since then, and much has changed in terms of the technologies and corporate strategies mandating teamwork. Michael Bond challenged Hofstede to develop a better measure for Asian countries. The result was a study based on Chinese cultural values, which looked at long-term vs. short-term orientation. As one might expect, China was ranked first of 23 countries, Japan fourth, and the United States and the United Kingdom seventeenth and eighteenth. Several other client country sites ranked in between, with Brazil sixth, India seventh, Singapore ninth and the Netherlands tenth. Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner’s data are more recent (mid-1980s to late 1990s). Many of their culture concepts overlap with Hofstede’s. For example, universalists use rules that apply to everyone and rely on procedural equity. Particularists see social situations as more complex and tend to apply different rules to different types of people. Communitarians, like collectivists, place the needs and objectives of their group memberships ahead of their personal needs; individualists place their own needs first.

Additionally, they recognized that people who have a specific range of involvement tend to view different business and personal contexts as separate from one another. They may recognize the authority of a manager at work but treat that manager as an equal when encountered outside the office. People who have a diffuse range of involvement with their work do not separate these contexts; a manager whose authority they recognize at work will retain that authority when met in a different situation.

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner analyzed a somewhat larger group of countries than Hofstede but did not always measure the same group of countries for each culture concept. Using Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner’s categories, we classified the client’s work sites. Using these culture categories along with Hofstede’s work dimensions began to show new differences between apparently similar countries such as The Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and Japan and China.

A third culture theorist, Harry C. Triandis, believes individualism is the most important of all cultural dimensions for explaining behavior. However, he notes that this factor can be modified by a wide range of cultural “syndromes,” such as social complexity, tightness (ethnic homogeneity vs. heterogeneity) and hierarchy. Cultures that are less complex or highly homogeneous tend to be collectivist; most people will display more conformity and suppress individual expression. However, it is important to remember that people in tight or collectivist societies continue to think of themselves as highly individualist; they just choose to put group interests first.

Markus and Kitayama also support this notion of duality. They found that the cultural dimension of individualism vs. collectivism was too simplistic and unable to explain real-world behavior. As a result, they redefined the phenomena as two mutually coexisting concepts: independent self-concept and interdependent self-concept. Their new variables better explain why US individualists give so broadly to charity while Malaysian collectivists do not. Strong membership in in-groups and an interdependent self-concept may prevent support for others in so-called out-groups. In contrast, people with an independent self-concept have a weak alliance to their in-groups and can see people in out-groups as being individuals just like them. These two types of self-concept may be important when looking at matrix management systems and the use of temporary work groups: in some cultures, longer-term groups may be more effective.

Finally, Shalom H. Schwartz developed a set of culture variables dealing with power and individualism. He conducted his research in the late 1980s to mid-1990s; his values can stand alone but are also correlated with his predecessors. His values tend to highlight differences between countries such as the United States and China that focus on mastery for economic growth and areas like northern Europe seeking stable growth to preserve the environment. Schwartz’s predictions suggest that Asian countries and northern European countries should be very different in terms of work centrality. In addition, like Hofstede, Schwartz recognizes France as having a unique blend of conservatism plus intellectual and affective autonomy, roughly equivalent to high power distance and strong individualism. Finally, he includes an element of environmental consciousness (relatively low for all countries with the client’s sites) with his emphasis on harmony, which for him refers to the relationship with the environment or context, not interpersonal relations.

This review of cultural theory highlights both the advantages and disadvantages of selecting sites for research on collaboration by using culture values alone. These do make it possible to hypothesize relationships to specific work behaviors and have been used widely in research. However, there is no one consistent set of variables, and many of the concepts were developed with data collected 15 to 30 years ago. As a result, we suggested using these culture values in conjunction with other criteria, which seek to capture some of the changes taking place in corporate collaboration and technology-mediated teamwork. Some researches question the usefulness of culture generalizations, but these descriptions have, at the least, heuristic benefit to identify key differences and similarities, and to highlight areas requiring further specific studies in design projects that would otherwise face an overwhelming number of variables and issues. 


Technological innovation

and globalization

The second set of criteria suggested for the client’s study accommodates recent changes in the use of computer and communications technology and in global economics. There is a growing literature on the importance of recognizing generational differences, specifically, the rise of a generation of “digital natives,” and the development of high growth cities and new forms of urban life. Some of these differences have played out in the developments over the past year in the Middle East.

As early as 1997, Kevin Johnston and Parminder Johal used culture theory to define the internet as a new “virtual cultural region.” Since then, some researchers, analysts and designers have shifted their focus to the idea of digital nativity. Digital natives, or “millennials,” have grown up surrounded by computers, mobile devices, video games and the internet. Older people have always used some other form of technology first; they are “digital immigrants,” influenced by previous impressions of the right way to do things.

Many claims have been made about the differences between digital natives and digital immigrants, such as the following quote by Marc Prensky discussing changes in education: “Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to ‘serious’ work . . . . But Digital Immigrants typically have very little appreciation for these new skills that the Natives have acquired and perfected through years of interaction and practice.”

To understand the full potential of new modes of communication, it is important to ask digital natives how they simultaneously work together and apart through social media. For the client to identify both current and future types of collaboration, we recommended that the client include sites with large numbers of new hires and digital natives. In the United States, there has been some contention between digital natives and the baby boom generation; the baby boomers developed many of our traditional computer technologies, but the new focus on social media sometimes escapes them. They remain wedded to more structured media interactions, while digital natives thrive on instant availability and constant interaction. As an example, one senior author was advised, on a visit to a Google headquarters young development team, that the term systematic was not an acceptable adjective for typical office use. Outside the United States, young Indian and Chinese college graduates have typically been the first to achieve computer literacy in their families. They join with fewer preconceptions about media and tend to see newer media in highly creative ways.

The rise of new types of cities is the second postmodern influence that the client should seek to capture in its study of collaboration. Throughout Asia and parts of the Middle East, Latin America and Africa, new cities are developing on the basis of new economic principles. In 1980, the estimated population of the UAE was little more than 1 million; in 2009, it reached 5 million and, by the end of 2010, the government expects an additional 1.9 million for a total of 7.5 million. For every child born in the UAE in 2009, 22 migrants arrived, making the country the world leader in immigration. Thus, 73.9% of the working age population (15-64) consists of non-nationals, with 2.74 men per woman. The median age of the UAE is 32 for men and 34.7 for women. Singapore similarly has doubled its population from about 2.4 million in 1980 to almost five million in 2009, but its age and gender demographics are now less skewed. Current population growth is about 1% per year, mainly through immigration. The gender ratio is roughly equal, with a median age of 39 for both men and women. Both cities developed on the basis of trade, finance and information rather than manufacturing, agriculture or government.   

The client’s professionals and staff currently working in such new cities are more likely to be globally diverse, young, digital natives who can anticipate future collaboration. Dubai currently epitomizes both the positive and negative effects of high growth and rapid urbanization. Investment in infrastructure has created a vibrant economy in the middle of the Gulf. However, gender ratios are highly skewed in favor of young men, and large numbers of expatriates are disconnected from traditional local culture. By contrast, Singapore followed a much more planned path to growth. Research there is likely to review more traditional Chinese attitudes to authority and collaboration.


Equal employment

and gender ratio

Partway through our analysis, the client made available demographic data that allowed us to analyze the number of digital natives at various company sites. These data also made it possible to investigate an additional criterion: gender ratio.

Hofstede noted that countries differ on a continuum of masculinity and femininity, which refers to traditional gender roles and to attitudes associated with each gender. Men in masculine societies seek out jobs that require mastery; women take jobs that require nurturing others. Furthermore, men are expected to be assertive; women, modest. By contrast, men and women in feminine countries are less subject to rigid gender expectations. Men may be elementary school teachers; women, computer programmers. Both genders tend to be modest, avoid direct conflict, and respect and expect respect from others. Two aspects of gender ratio are important when considering promoting collaboration. Feminine societies tend to focus more on participation, persuasion and consensus than masculine societies. Unions are included in company management, and techniques such as participatory design are popular. Masculine societies focus more on challenge, reward and individual recognition. Master programmers are celebrated and proffered as role models for new employees.  

The United States has been fighting for equal employment in technical positions for decades. For a while in the 1990s, the gender ratio in computer science improved, but stereotypes of technology and of those who work in technological jobs (“geeks”) have reduced the number of women attracted to such positions. As a result, we suggested Amsterdam as a site for study of collaboration in feminine cultures and Bangalore and/or Dubai as sites for the study of teamwork in young, masculine cultures. The number of women in technical positions may well be higher in The Netherlands and is more likely to provide an opportunity to analyze egalitarian styles of work.  In addition to all of this, during client meetings, client representatives mentioned the challenges of collaboration between headquarter staff and the client employees in other countries. This reference opened a discussion about corporate culture and its relation to national culture. The client employees are made aware of the corporate values. Many of these values reflect a classically US emphasis on personal fulfillment (empowerment, fun), mastery (innovation), efficiency (frugality) and continuous improvement. Teamwork is critical, but the style of teamwork tends to be more masculine than feminine. The consensus was that the client’s corporate values provide a backdrop to discussions within the company and are seen in differences in power between headquarters and other regions.  M


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