Sunday, September 16, 2012

Managing Diversity through Community Management


It's taking me a while to get back on track with regular blogging after an almost 4 months hiatus. And I don't like it at all. But I am slowly getting back on track. On the positive front, I have been doing a lot of reading—mostly around organizational behavior, organizational development, culture and diversity, motivation and communication, and how these relate to social business and knowledge management. As a community manager and social business evangelist in a highly distributed and diverse organization, I’ve begun to realize not only the value of but the critical need to understand these aspects.


What did I learn during the last fortnight?
It’s essential to understand the fundamentals of how to facilitate cross-cultural communication in order to be an effective community manager.  

I think my biggest Aha! moment occurred when I came across Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimension theory while researching diversity as a part of organizational behaviour. I’ve referenced the model here from Flat World Knowledge book on Organizational Behaviour. I highly recommend this book and others on this site for their clear, concise, well-written and referenced matter. And one can read them for free!

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimension Model
 
Needless to say, culture is hugely significant in how people communicate, take decisions, interact with teams and clients, and approach their work and the workplace.

As an enterprise community manager and a proponent of collaboration, knowledge sharing and dialogue as a means and tool for learning, I found that this model provide substantial insight into the communication style and preferences of individuals. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that this is a model that Hofstede came up with after conducting a large survey-study of IBM employees across approximately 90 countries. And, the dimensions may not be true for each and every individual in the country. It’s quite possible to find a submissive Austrian or an individualistic Chinese.

When I look at this model through the lens of an enterprise community manager in a distributed, highly diverse and rapidly growing organization, it’s worth remembering how diversity can impact cross-cultural communication.  Even as organizations begin to embrace the tools and technology of becoming a social business, exhort their employees to participate and collaborate, urge their customers to share feedback and float job descriptions to hire social media and community managers, it seems worthwhile to reflect on this.
 It’s common knowledge that in today’s organizations with a globally distributed workforce, collaborating on cross-functional projects across countries, partaking in distributed decision making and more are the norm. This necessitates meaningful, timely and transparent communication. And a successful social business is nothing if not an organization that communicates seamlessly and transparently at all times. However, this open communication is easier said than achieved and often, a lack of understanding of cross-cultural dimensions can be the barrier. It often becomes a case of:

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey

Someone hailing from a culture that extols/practices collectivism might be more willing to see the commonalities in a forum thread discussion and respond to those, drawing together the collective ideas of the participants. To someone from an individualistic culture, this may smack of conformance or groupthink and drive them to see the differences and add their own perspective to the debate. It’s important to remember that neither is good or bad in and of itself—both debate and consensus have their place and are necessary for healthy communication and interaction. What is important is to maintain a balance and see the virtues of both.

An organization that seems to uphold one over the other--e.g., an overly debate-oriented culture may run the risk of leaving out/alienating those hailing from a country where collectivism is valued. This, of course, is an extremely simplistic inference used merely to illustrate what I mean by being sensitive to the impact of culture on one’s communication style and preference.  However, given that many organizations are focusing on inclusivity and embracing diversity, it’s important to keep this in mind.

Where does an enterprise community manager come in?
An enterprise community manager will typically be aware of what’s taking place at an organizational level via the discussions, debates, blog posts, status updates, etc. on the org’s collaboration platform. And through skilful facilitation and community management seasoned by an understanding of cross-cultural communication, they can not only uphold a culture of diversity but actually act as a connector or glue that bind together people of varied background, skills, race and nationality. They can play a critical role in helping the Human Resource department meet the challenges of diversity creatively and meaningfully, helping to create an organization that benefits from the different aspects of a diverse workforce.

I will be writing about this topic for a while as I mull over the hows and the whys…I would love to know if any research exist around the impact of cross-cultural communication on community management. 

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