Avoiding Culture Clash: The Value of a Shared Notation

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Increasingly, teams are collaborating and working globally.  Efficient use of technology can be a crucial enabler that allows us to communicate with people on the other side of the planet with relative ease.  Low cost video conferencing, web conferencing, and online collaboration systems help us to discuss and debate with remote colleagues in a way that would have once seemed impossible.  We can work in new ways with a much broader range of stakeholders, creating a truly global team.  Yet technology is only one piece of the puzzle—some would argue it is the easy part--and there are pitfalls awaiting the unprepared.

When working in a dispersed team, particularly one that spans organizational and cultural borders, there is a real danger that misunderstandings will occur.  We may communicate in a way that we think is extremely specific and precise, but we may inadvertently be sending conflicting or unclear messages.  However much we might pretend to be objective, the way that we tend to communicate is likely to be colored by our upbringing—with different cultures communicating very differently.  As Hofstede noted, national cultures have different observable traits, and it follows that this has an impact on how communication takes place.   As a person who has spent most of their time growing up in the UK, I know that my communication style is fairly indirect.  When a British person says “It’s really hot in here”, this might actually be a subtle encoded message asking someone to “Open the window!”.  These cultural subtleties and nuances leave room for misunderstanding.

Communication can be made even more difficult when some participants are speaking in their second (or third) languages.   Churchill reportedly observed that “Americans and British are one people separated by a common language”.  As a child, I spent a year of my life in the USA, and I can attest to the accuracy of this statement.  There are British words that have no meaning in the USA—and some that have completely different meanings—and vice versa.  Whether it’s Candy Floss (Cotton Candy) or Polystyrene (Styrofoam) there are ample opportunities for misunderstandings.  And to add to the complexity there are words that have completely different meanings. In the UK you walk on a pavement—in the USA you drive on one (but you walk on the sidewalk). Layer on a completely different language and these opportunities for misunderstanding increase significantly.   

When we are working on projects it’s key that we communicate precisely and unambiguously.  The consequences of misunderstandings could be costly or catastrophic.  One of the ways that we can achieve this precision is by communicating in a way that is language agnostic.   When working on our projects creating models can be extremely beneficial.  Utilizing formal models with a shared notation enables us to communicate very specific and complex information very succinctly.  When defining a process, a shared (and commonly understood) notation such as BPMN helps us to remove ambiguity. The notation itself has rules and semantics that have a specific meaning—but they are not reliant on solely communicating with the written (or spoken) word.  It has often been said that a picture speaks a thousand words.   If this is true, then a well understood diagram must speak ten thousand words!  Models create opportunities for questions and conversations that help us to clarify and validate that we’re all on the same page.

In summary: Providing all participants have a common understanding of the notation, creating models can be a way of enhancing communication.  It can avoid unnecessary misunderstandings, and can help ensure that everyone is precisely on the same page.