Potentials and Pitfalls of German/U.S.-American Cooperation in Workgroups

Article excerpt

Summary

A three year research project aimed at identifying patterns and favorable conditions of synergetic cooperation in international teams was conducted at Regensburg University from 1995 to 1998, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. The concept of "synergetic cooperation" was loosely defined as mutual compensation and enhancement of cultural characteristics and working "styles" leading to high quality performance as well as high work satisfaction of team members.

An exploratory survey of experts' experiences with pluricultural teams yielded four distinctive categories of cooperation (dominance, coaction, integration, and innovation) which differ with regard to underlying strategies of intercultural action regulation. Acknowledging the scarcity of "truly" synergetic forms of intercultural cooperation, a process model is proposed which delineates four stages of team development with varying degrees of cultural diversification and interaction contingency. The model suggests essential conditions of transition from one stage to the next and points out potentials and pitfalls of team cooperation on each stage.

Qualitative observations and results of quantitative interaction analyses of German/U.S.-- American problem solving groups are presented, which point to favorable conditions for bicultural team cooperation. In conclusion, recommendations for intercultural team building and facilitation are given.

Key words: interaction analysis, intercultural cooperation, international team, team work, team building, problem solving group

1. Synergy - A Concept with Appeal

In the 1990s the idea of synergy has become fashionable in a number of different areas: Lean management, team work, joint venture, project management, matrix organization are only a few terms describing innovative forms of workplace organization aimed at effective cooperation and efficient output under conditions of increasing complexity. One source of complexity, increasing heterogeneity in professional and corporate settings, is not only due to work migration and economic globalization, but is also deliberately introduced: In an increasingly high-tech and globally interconnected world, everyday work processes in the development, production and distribution of goods and services as well as new solutions to ecological, social and political challenges require ever more complex problem analyses and solutions with ever more risky and far reaching decisions and interventions. Nothing to be achieved by single-handed efforts of subject specialists, but calling for multidisciplinary, international task forces and expert teams.

Harris and Moran (1987, p. 299) describe some implications of the "meta-industrial work culture" for the professional sector:

In the metaindustrial work culture, all of our occupations are becoming more technically oriented, including that of the manager. Increasingly, technicians are those whose careers are related to new technologies - computers, robots, lasers, bioengineering.

But to be effective in such complex endeavors, synergy is required - one must be able to collaborate not just with peers, but with technicians and those from other specialities, organizations, and countries.

The promise of synergy as productive mutual enhancement developing - perhaps even automatically - out of organizational, disciplinary, or ethnic diversity presents an enticing perspective for work units which are confronted with demanding tasks in highly complex work settings vis-a-vis shortages of time and personnel resources. Frequent usage of the term "synergy" in corporate publications and project proposals, however, cannot conceal the lack of clear definition nor the need for empirical proof of its proclaimed outcomes.

Following suit in the widespread propagation of synergy, the term "intercultural synergy" is likewise used fairly vague and inflationary. This was also true for the exploratory phase of the research project "Intercultural Synergy in Work Groups", some findings of which will be presented in this contribution. …