When global virtual teams share knowledge: Media richness, cultural difference and language
Technological developments and internationalization have made virtual communication a central part of everyday life in
many larger organizations. In recent years this trend has been intensified by travel-budget cuts imposed by the global
financial crisis. Accordingly, the use of virtual media for internal knowledge sharing is now more important than ever
before. Extant studies have provided useful theories and empirical documentation on how to manage global virtual
teams. However, no prior research has examined the interaction of media type with the relation between
culture/language and canonical/equivocal knowledge sharing. This is an important omission because cultural and
linguistic variations are known to have a great effect on knowledge sharing. We use ethnographic field-study
methodology for an exploratory examination of the effects of culture, shared language commonality and media choice
on knowledge sharing in a large Danish MNC with particular focus on its Indian subsidiary. Results show that certain
types of media are more useful for certain types of knowledge sharing depending on the cultural and linguistic variation
between communicating parties.
Keywords: Multinational corporations, ICT, Equivocality, Knowledge sharing, Inter-unit
communication, Language use, Cultural distance, Intercultural communication, Denmark, India,
Globalization has dramatically increased multinational corporations’ use of virtual teams as channel
for organizational knowledge sharing (Baranek & Martz, 2005; Horwitz, Bravington, & Silvis,
2006). This development calls for studies that explore how key aspects of globalization, such as
linguistic and cultural diversity, impact virtual teams’ knowledge processes (Hardin, 2007; Martins,
Gilson, & Maynard, 2004). However, until now, the combined effects of language, culture and
media on knowledge sharing in global virtual teams have remained understudied despite its
relevance for the management of international organizations (cf. Shachaf, 2008). Thus, an
exploratory study focusing on the role of media on intercultural/interlinguistic knowledge sharing in
virtual teams would not only fill a void in the existing body of literature. It would also address a key
concern of multinational corporations; how to manage cultural and linguistic variation between
organizational virtual team members. The subject has become even more important after the
financial crisis because many companies report on drastic reductions in travel budgets and therefore
use virtual teams more intensively than earlier (Badrinarayanan, 2008; Connaughton & Shuffler,
2007; Jenster & Steiler, 2011).
Virtual teams are based on individuals collaborating in geographically dispersed work groups and
who may reside in different time zones and countries (Horwitz, et al., 2006). While virtual teams
with members distributed globally hold the promise of increased organizational flexibility and
resource utilization, existing research suggests that it is more challenging to manage communication
processes in such teams than in co-located teams (Fiol & O´Conner, 2005; Jarvenpaa & Leidner,
1999; Montoya-Weiss, Massey, & Song, 2001). This is primarily due to challenges inherent in
communicating through what has been termed a lean media (e.g. e-mails). Such challenges can be
misinterpretations of messages due to absence of body language and tone of voice and slow or
missing feedback (Hayward, 2002). Accordingly, a number of researchers have argued that rich
media communication (e.g. video conferences) is more suitable when sharing knowledge that is of a
complex, equivocal nature (Daft, Lengel, & Trevino, 1987; Hayward, 2002; Kezsbom, 2000;
Lengel & Daft, 1988). While these studies have given important insights into virtual team
dynamics, they tend to neglect the cultural and linguistic aspects of virtual team collaboration. This
could be an important omission since cultural and linguistic issues are at the heart of knowledge-
sharing processes in global virtual teams. More importantly, including these dimensions might force
us to rethink the relation between media and knowledge sharing as it is reflected in extant research.
The intersection between culture, language and knowledge sharing in virtual teams has only to a
lesser extent been illuminated, and the conceptual work in this evolving field indicates that the
relation between media richness and knowledge-sharing effectiveness might not be straight forward
(Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999; Stahl, Maznevski, Voght, & Jonsen, 2010). It is proposed that rich
media is not always superior to lean media in an intercultural context. Rich media could lead to
stereotyping and social boundary creation with a negative impact on knowledge sharing. Lean
media, on the other hand, may reduce surface-level cultural cues and thereby down play
cultural/linguistic differences in the team (Spears, Lea, & Postmes, 2001). This could suggest that
lean media usage in global virtual teams might be more effective than in co-located teams for
routine tasks or what has been termed canonical knowledge sharing. The same holds true for the
impact of differences in language use on virtual knowledge sharing. Studies on co-located
multicultural teams have shown that the degree of shared common language and variation in
proficiency level has an important impact on team cohesiveness, team effectiveness and knowledge
sharing (Lauring & Selmer, 2010, 2011, 2012). However, several researchers have argued that more
empirical studies are needed to understand virtual communication in an intercultural context
(Connaughton & Shuffler, 2007; Gibson & Gibbs, 2006). The aim of this study therefore is to
empirically explore how variation in culture and language affects knowledge-sharing effectiveness
in global virtual teams using lean and rich media.
Included in the paper are a literature review, a method and an analysis section revealing results on
the interaction between Indian and Danish team members in a Danish multinational corporation
(MNC). Finally, the results are discussed in terms of their theoretical implications for further
research and practical relevance for the management of virtual teams.
2. Literature Review
2.1. Virtual communication
Studies suggest that managing communication and knowledge sharing in virtual teams is more
challenging than in their face-to-face counterparts. This is due to lack of channel richness and to the
delayed feedback inherent in some communication technologies (Distefano & Maznevski, 2000;
Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000). Early studies on virtual teams have shown how media disrupt
conversation patterns causing misinterpretation or misunderstanding. This supposedly makes
communication effectiveness higher in face-to-face teams (see Jonsen, Maznewski, & Davison,
2011). Rich media, such as a videoconference, allows for back-channeling verbal and non-verbal
signs of support or disagreement with a speaker’s message (Hayward, 2002). Conversely, lean
media, such as an e-mail, removes social presence cues and thereby a joint contextual background
that may lead to communication breakdown. Therefore, it has been suggested that various media
can be placed on a continuum where e-mail is the lowest as it does not allow for physical presence
and nonverbal cues, and face-to-face is the highest as it allows for both (Daft & Lengel, 1987; Daft,
et al., 1987).
Scholars have thus argued that complex and equivocal tasks in virtual teams necessitate a rich
media (Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000). However, the assumption that rich media, such as video
conferencing, enhances communication effectiveness has been challenged by the emergent field of
global virtual teams. For as rich media enhances the verbal and non-verbal signs it also enhances
the cues that team members use for social categorization shown to have a negative effect on
intergroup communication (Carte & Chidambaram, 2004). It has therefore been suggested that lean
media moderates negative team outcomes such as increased conflict and social fragmentation in an
intercultural context (Stahl, et al., 2010).
2.2. Sharing of equivocal and canonical knowledge
Media richness theory (MRT) proposes that team members engage in communication in order to
reduce complexity about a given task and that media differ in their ability to handle multiple,
conflicting interpretations of sent information (Daft & Lengel, 1987; Daft, et al., 1987). MRT
prescribes using rich media for complex, equivocal messages, while using leaner media for sharing
simple and explicit or what is often termed canonical information (Barry & Fulmer, 2004).
Equivocal messages could include information about questions that have no definite or clear answer
or that are part of a discussion with different positions. Canonical messages could be the reporting
of numbers or other types of unambiguous data. Equivocality, put differently, arises when a given
task is open to varying interpretations and is imbedded in contextual knowledge, while canonical
knowledge is less dependent on contextual cues (Gerybadze, 2004). The basic assumption of MRT
is that the richer the media is, the more cues on a given task will be provided, and the more
equivocality will be reduced. Studies have shown that virtual team members tend to use rich media,
such as telephone or video conferences for equivocal knowledge and lean media, such as e-mails for
canonical knowledge (Majchrzak, Rice, King, Malhotra, & Sulin, 2000). The important question to
answer is how this is affected by the differences in culture and language inherent in global virtual
In recent years a number of authors have expressed critique of simple models for understanding
cultural differences (Brannen & Salk, 2000; Weisinger & Salipante, 2000).
Cultural difference, however, can easily be registered and the concept is useful for understanding
problems in multicultural settings (Brett, Behfar, & Kern, 2006). The term cultural difference is
constructed to describe the dissimilarities in basic aspects of culture, such as core values, beliefs,
customs and rituals, as well as legal, political and economic systems ( Adler, 2008; Hofstede, 1991;
Shenkar, 2001). Cultural difference is generally perceived to represent a challenge to
communication effectiveness and knowledge sharing in general and in particular to the exchange of
complex ideas and notions (Gibson & Gibbs, 2006; Maznevski, Davison, & Jonsen, 2006; Stahl, et
al., 2010). However, studies in co-located teams have shown that cultural differences may
sometimes affect knowledge sharing positively since the intercultural encounter makes the
contextual and tacit knowledge more explicit (Dougherty, 1992; Earley & Mosakowski, 2000). In
this respect it is of importance to distinguish between the sharing of equivocal and canonical
knowledge, respectively. The combination of a rich media and complex, ambivalent knowledge to
be shared and debated is likely to be beneficial (Treviño, Webster, & Stein, 2000). This is even more
important in situations where cultural differences between team members are outspoken because
more detailed communication may be necessary in order to reach understanding across cultural
divides. Moreover, is seems plausible that a rich media paired with canonical knowledge could
provide an unnecessary excess of cultural cues hampering understanding. Hence, we may speculate
that a lean media will be more effective for sharing of canonical knowledge in teams with great
cultural differences among team members. This is depicted in the matrix of Figure 1.
TABLE 1: Virtual communication in a high cultural difference context
Rich Media + -
Lean Media - +
+ indicates effectiveness of the relation while – indicates
A different variable to be examined is commonality in the shared language. Language has often
been called the ‘forgotten factor’’ of international business research (Steyaert, Ostendorp, &
Gaibrois, 2011). However, due to increasing globalization, interest for this theme has been growing
(Piekkari & Tietze, 2011). It is by now widely accepted that language in MNCs merits study as a
stand-alone topic rather than simply a component of cultural distance (Barner-Rasmussen & Aarnio,
2011). Language use in international business and management has been dealt with by among
others Piekkari (2005), Harzing (2011), Barner-Rasmussen (2007), Zander (2011) and Lauring
It has been shown that sharing a common language increases communication frequency and
knowledge sharing in MNCs (Barner-Rasmussen & Björkman, 2005; Welch & Welch, 2008). In
global teams language commonality refers to the degree to which individuals share common
understanding of the English language, including skill e.g. proficiency in sounds of words,
grammatical structures and conventions, and knowledge about using the language where applicable
(Clément & Gardner, 2001). Hence, shared language commonality refers to linguistic proficiency in
the English language but also to the extent to which team members have overlapping knowledge
and styles of communication e.g. commonly used vocabulary, phrases, spellings and accents. As
English is often the common language of MNC employees working in virtual teams, variations in
proficiency and style of language use will often exist between group members.
The novelty in this study is that we included language commonality when examining group
outcomes in global virtual teams. It is surprising that only little research exists on language in
virtual settings since variations in language could explain why some global teams using rich media
for communication might not have a high degree of knowledge-sharing effectiveness. Also
language variations and communication in English as a second language is more often the case than
not in global virtual teams. As such, variations in styles of speaking the common language could
decrease communication effectiveness if a rich media is used. An e-mail as a lean media, on the
other hand, provides the format and tools (spelling check) to formalize communication. Moreover,
in a global e-mail correspondence time differences will often provide the communicating parties
with time to reflect over and correct the wording. This possibility does not exist in telephone
conversations or videoconferences. Hence, accents and proficiency levels may be more outspoken
when using a rich media. This is depicted in the matrix of Figure 2.
TABLE 2: Virtual communication in low shared language commonality context
Rich Media - -
Lean Media + +
+ indicates effectiveness of the relation while – indicates
When comparing the two models (culture and language) outlining the relation between media
richness and types of knowledge it becomes apparent that cultural and linguistic difference could
have opposing effects on communication effectiveness with regard to the sharing of equivocal
knowledge. This will be explored further in the empirical case.
In order to explore the relation between culture and language in global virtual teams, an in-depth
ethnographic fieldwork method was used. Before commencing the data collection, a suitable MNC
was chosen. The researchers were granted relatively extensive access to conduct qualitative research
in a large Danish corporation of more than 20,000 employees, including an Indian subsidiary which
employed around 300 individuals.
We were particularly interested in the Indian and Danish members of the global virtual teams for
several reasons. Denmark and India are two very different countries. Denmark is a small country
with only 5.5 million inhabitants while India is populated by more than 1.2 billion people. Denmark
is culturally and linguistically homogenous with protestant Christian traditions while the Indian
population consists of a multitude of different ethnic and religious groups speaking no less than 21
official languages. In economic terms Denmark is among the richest countries in the world. India is
a developing fast-growing economy. However, despite the high economic growth during recent
decades, India still contains the largest concentration of people living below the World Bank’s
international poverty line of $1.25 per day (Cooke & Saini, 2010). According to Hofstede (1991),
India is in the top end with regard to power distance while Denmark is placed very low. There are
also marked differences in femininity/masculinity, individualism/collectivism and uncertainty
avoidance. In conclusion, a great cultural difference should be expected between Denmark and
Secondly, from a language viewpoint, the interaction between Indian and Danish team members
allowed us to study knowledge-sharing processes between members where English for all parties
was second language, and with a high variance in verbal accents. Finally, the results from such a
study would have important practical implications for the business community since the subsidiary
is located in Chennai, the fastest-growing industrial hub in the Indian subcontinent. The fieldwork
in the Indian subsidiary took place in a factory outside the city center consisting of an assembly area
and several large buildings containing air-conditioned offices. This was the working place for
around 50 employees, located on three floors all with videoconference rooms, computers and
telephones supporting and participating in various global teams. In the case of Denmark, the
workplace setup was similar, consisting of Danish employees collaborating with Indians and other
nationalities in global virtual teams.
The study includes 14 global virtual teams consisting of 61 members with an average size of four
members assembled for specific tasks and each working on separate projects. Participation in the
study ranged from 100% in three teams to between 60% and 90% in the rest of the teams. The
majority of the teams consisted of only Danish and Indian team members, albeit four teams had
members from Germany and Sweden. The work conducted in the teams ranged from production
optimization and new product development to documentation of tools and equipment used in
production and as such encompassed both knowledge-intensive and more routine-oriented work.
85% of the global virtual teams consisted of a Danish project manager, while the remaining had
Indian project managers. Project managers assigned various aspects and phases of the project to an
Indian or Danish team leader. The team leader then collaborated with between one and three Indian
or Danish specialists, who were often engineers with specific knowledge of the task at hand.
3.3. Interviews and observation
Data from semi-structured interviews with 32 employees from the Indian subsidiary and 11 in the
Danish headquarter amounting to a total of 43 are included in the study. The interview protocol was
divided into three main sections: a. Employee background and scope of role, b. Interaction with
foreign nationalities through media and c. Knowledge sharing through media. As such, each
interview covered a standard set of questions, although we encouraged interviewees to raise and
discuss a variety of additional, related topics as well. The researcher avoided directly leading
participants to explanations that were relevant. Instead, examples or details were asked for when
interviewees brought up a related issue. At the end of each interview, interviewees were asked to
share any additional information they felt was relevant. Interviews took place in the offices of the
interviewees or in available meeting rooms at the workplace and lasted between one and two hours.
The study followed the qualitative data-gathering technique of snowballing, hence, interviewees
were selected on the basis of their position and function in the global virtual teams as well as
openness to the researcher and their availability for interview time (cf. Noy, 2008). Although the
selection of open and interested interviewees may have affected results in a certain direction, the
aim of this study was to explore and analyze central dynamics in the relation between culture,
language use and media choice rather than to achieve a full employee representation. We taped and
transcribed all interviews. Detailed interview notes and notes on the researcher’s overall impression
were developed the same day as the interview.
Full-time participant observation was conducted on both locations, in India for six weeks and for
one week in Denmark. The researchers spent all working hours at the workplaces, observing the
daily work routines and participating in lunch, ‘small talk’ and ‘standing meetings’ building trust
and confidence between the researcher and informants. Participation in special events such as
´Friday Breakfast’ in the case of Denmark and birthday celebrations in India gave more rich and in-
depth data. The researcher was physically located with informants as this allowed for observation of
communication and informal conservations with the informant. This proved especially fruitful after
informants had challenging communication with other nationalities. Furthermore, the researcher
could observe and listen to conversations between co-located employees detecting themes of
specific relevance to the research design. All observations were documented in jottings later to be
written up in full field notes during or after the workday.
3.4. Data analysis
The theme analysis followed the steps described by Spradley (1980) and involved detailed close
reading and coding of interview transcripts and field notes. These descriptions helped to identify
key distinctions that were habitually produced and reproduced in the interaction between Danish
and Indian employees. An assistant coder, who was not directly involved in the study, was trained to
do a second coding of the material. Afterwards we discussed the few discrepancies in the two sets of
codings and decided on where to finally place these last text pieces. By use of the qualitative
analysis-program Nvivo, the data were sorted according to the central themes linking to the research
aim. 9 main field codes were divided into between 2 and 7 sub codes which were again subdivided
in between 2 and 4 sub-sub codes (cf. Miles & Huberman, 1994; Spradley, 1980). For example, the
code Inter unit collaboration included the sub codes: 1) Languages, 2) Knowledge, 3) Management,
4) Perceptions of Denmark and 5) Perceptions of India. As an example, the sub code Languages was
then further subdivided into the sub-sub codes: a) Language use in co-located units, b) Language
use in dispersed units and c) Media and language use. The coded data provide relatively rich
examples of how virtual communication is used and interpreted in the everyday life of the
workplaces. An example of coding is provided below.
TABLE 3: Example of coding
Code: Inter-unit collaboration
Sub-sub code: Language use and media
Source Participation Interview Observation Document
India “When I write e-
mails to my Indian
colleagues I don’t
feel like I have to
explain myself as
– Talk with team
has a problem
English when we
speak in phone.”
– Semi structured
“At the morning
meeting there is
about the Danes not
“I the beginning of
January we will send
XXX to Denmark to
take over from XXX.
among Indian team
Denmark “I find very
discuss with my
accent is weird.
They are very
about the length of
the Indian e - mail
at team meetings”
“The impact of the
on meeting project
from team managers
In the next section we present the findings of the exploratory study in narrative fashion. This
presentation format seems to best capture the dynamic interrelations of language, culture, media and
knowledge sharing in global virtual teams as results stem from different data sources.
Every morning the team leaders of the global virtual teams located in India had a ten minutes’
‘standing meeting’ in the corner of the open workspace. At these meetings challenges in the
assigned tasks were discussed. A recurrent theme was challenges in communicating with the Danish
members of the global virtual teams. As communication breakdown in the teams led to exceeding of
project deadlines and a monetary loss for the individual team leader and specialist, frustration was
often outspoken. As an Indian team leader noted after one meeting: “I don’t know why, but in
communication we are still facing a lot of challenges. The Danes do not understand us and we do
not understand them.” During the course of the field study, however, it became apparent that
challenges in virtual communication failure were linked to culture and language.
4.1. Face-to-face and virtual knowledge sharing
There was general agreement among both Indian and Danish informants that face-to-face
communication was the optimal solution for sharing of equivocal knowledge if the virtual teams
included members with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Primarily since on-site
interaction allowed for team members to discuss new solutions and for the project managers to
make certain that everybody had understood their task. Therefore, Indian team leaders and
specialists often came to Denmark to see on-site machinery and products. As could be observed,
these meetings would end up in discussions consisting more of pointing and showing than verbal
interaction. As a Danish project manager explained:
The problem is that the Indians say yes as a sign of respect and not because they have
understood what you are saying. When things get technically complex you really
need to be face-to-face not only to explain but also control that they know what you
have discussed. You cannot do that virtually because you need to be close to the
machinery. (Project manager, Denmark)
This was in concordance with the Indian perception, as an Indian specialist explained: ‘You can use
the mail and phone for routine stuff you have standards for, but for more difficult tasks it is a very
complicated virtually. It is easier face-to-face, because you are both standing by the product.” As a
consequence of the important equivocal knowledge sharing taking place at face-to-face meetings,
the top management had, despite the economic crises, decided not to cut down on employee
travelling between India and Denmark. Furthermore, they had placed a former virtual team
specialist from India in Denmark in order to address the communication challenges between Danish
and Indian members. This had a strong positive impact on knowledge-sharing effectiveness in the
virtual teams, as noted by a team leader in India:
It is really good he is in Denmark because when I speak with another Indian I feel
more confident because we use the same English slang. When Indian team specialists
write long e-mails about complex issues, they can send them to him, and he can go
talk to the Danish people since he has more of a feeling of what they need. So the
Danish people can give immediate feedback to him and show him what they mean.
Then he can communicate back to us. (Team leader, India)
As such, the ability to be physically together and to utilize the full space of the facility was of great
importance when sharing equivocal knowledge. Furthermore, physical presence seemed to enhance
knowledge sharing and thereby team effectiveness. As noted by the Indian specialist stationed in
If you do not set a deadline when you send a mail to an Indian he will just park the job
on his desk. The Danes will solve the job immediately. Also, sometime the Danes will
write that it is very urgent work and they will need it for tomorrow, and when they
write it the day is almost gone in Chennai. The Danish people are not able to grasp the
time difference when they give a plan. That leads to conflict, and I can solve that
being in Denmark. (Indian specialist, Denmark)
Hence, the presence of an Indian employee in Denmark functioning as a broker between global
virtual team members meant more effective knowledge sharing when encountering equivocal tasks.
As emphasized by an Indian team leader:
Overall we have seen a 40 to 50 percent reduction in time. For example when we get
an order on some drawings we have twenty five days to finish them. But sometimes it
would take two to three days before the Danes answered, and even then there would
be misunderstandings due to the complexity of the task. It would take out the time we
would have to reach our target and we would cross the deadline by many days. So in
the projects where he handles the communication with India and talks face-to-face
with Danes it is going well. (Team leader, India)
So, it was apparent that communication concerning equivocal tasks was more effective face-to-face
than virtually as it lowered cultural and verbal misunderstandings and conflicts. However, in
sharing of canonical knowledge, face-to-face communication was not reported to be notably more
effective compared to virtual communication. As an Indian team specialist noted after lunch:
It is because we are mainly involved in knowledge-intensive tasks that the virtual
communication becomes such a big issue. When we are writing about simple things
like timelines for a project there is no problem. […] It is not the timeline, but the
content of the timelines that becomes an issue. (Team Specialist, India)
This leads us to suggest the following propositions concerning the impact of cultural difference on
virtual and face-to-face communication:
Proposition 1a: Face-to-face communication is more effective for equivocal knowledge
sharing than virtual communication.
Proposition 1b: In virtual settings cultural difference and low language commonality are
negatively associated with communication effectiveness.
However, in order to explain the frequency of communication breakdowns in the global virtual
teams who never had interacted face-to-face, cultural and linguistic difference had a strong and
opposing impact on virtual knowledge sharing.
4.2. Media richness and cultural difference
Most of the informants agreed that there existed a problem of virtual knowledge sharing between
the Indian and Danish members of the global virtual teams. It was also largely agreed on that the
media for communication had a strong influence on the quality of equivocal knowledge sharing as
face-to-face encounters were perceived to be more effective. An e-mail was perceived as positive as
it removed language barriers due to increased time for reflection and spelling check between the
team members. As noted by an Indian specialist: “We often use the mail to remove some of the
language barriers there are between us [Danes vs. Indians], since we have more time to reflect and
check the spelling and grammar.” However, it was viewed as challenging to discuss complex issues
such as new product development or alterations of technical drawings for production machinery.
The main problem was that the sender often did not know what and how much knowledge the
receiver would need to complete the task:
The task often gets complex because it is only for the simplest of tasks we have
standards, so if you have to give input to a new product it gets very problematic. Then
you have to try to guess what information the Danes need which is impossible. And
since it is e-mail it can take several days, and you cannot quickly discuss and find a
solution. (Team leader, India)
In these cases it was difficult for the sender to know what was entailed in the task and what
knowledge the receiver needed for carrying out the task. This often led to conflict since the Indian
specialists felt that they did not receive enough information in the e-mails coming from Danes. As
noted by one of the Indian team leaders after writing an e-mail to a Danish project manager:
After going through the e-mail from Denmark I can see it does not have enough
details, and then I will say - where is the information? - Should I do this or that?
Without the particular information we cannot go forward. Then I will start asking for
details in the e-mail and then they will have to reply. It takes a lot of time, and the
Danes will get angry with us. (Team leader, India)
The Danes would rarely attempt to provide all available, sometimes banal information. This was
especially the case if the task was equivocal and little could be determined with certainty. Indian
employees preferred to know about and provide all types of details in information and preferences
of the project managers. While an e-mail was generally perceived as more effective for canonical
knowledge sharing, these disagreements affected the virtual teams leading to an e-mail practice
where Indians tended to write a very long e-mail (4-5 pages) even for acquiring simple knowledge
such as a PDF-template to be used for measuring equipment. This could be observed to lead to
frustration of the Danish team members expressed in derogatory language about Indian virtual team
members. An Indian employee had also noted this effect and explained when asked about it:
When Indian employees are using e-mail they will write a long mail just to get simple
information like the thickness of a plate. The Indian guy thinks the receiver does not
know all the details of the project, so he writes a long e-mail. And the Danish guy is
missing what is important and gets angry and impatient. (Indian specialist, Denmark)
Danish team members generally did not see any reason for writing long e-mails. As a Danish
project manager noted during lunch: “The Indian team members have a tendency to write very long
e-mails, for even very specific things. If the Indian guys have doubts they could just ask, pick up the
phone”. Or as conveyed by an Indian employee:
The problem with e-mail is that you cannot get immediate feedback so you are not
sure whether you send all the information the Danish people need when the task is
complex. Therefore you make sure you send all the knowledge you have. If you talk
on the phone they can just ask and say I need this. However, we do not want to call
people too often as it will seem intrusive. (Specialist, India)
There were great differences in communication styles and preferences for information. Such
dissimilarities could well stem from a general cultural difference between the two countries. As
noted by the informant, language barriers were removed when using e-mail, however, when
receiving information the Danish team members expected the Indians to take more independent
decisions sorting information, so that other team members would only receive what was entirely
necessary for the job and thus avoid information overload. Similarly, when sending information
Danes did not provide all preferences, considerations and details because Indians were expected to
find their own routes to solutions and call if they had doubts. As a Danish project manager noted:
“The thing is that we are trying to make them [Indians] more independent, but it is very difficult for
them. When they have doubts they do not call and then communication breaks down”. The Indian
team members, on the other hand, did not see the lack of scope of their task as positive. They
expected all details to be present since that would make the objective of the task clear.
It is our interpretation that this was especially true in tasks involving more equivocal knowledge,
and as such it was apparent that there were large cultural challenges, in this instance especially
related to perceptions of power, in the functioning of the virtual teams. These challenges could have
been addressed if team members had used the telephone for equivocal messages in order to get
immediate feedback on doubt and used e-mail for more canonical knowledge sharing. However, in
order to avoid language barriers they used e-mail which led to conflict and lack of knowledge
sharing instead of using a rich media. This suggests that language and culture might have opposing
effects on communication in global virtual teams. In line with our prediction from table 1 we posit
the following concerning the impact of culture on virtual knowledge sharing:
Proposition 2a: In situations with high cultural difference, rich media communication
will be more effective for equivocal knowledge sharing than lean media.
Proposition 2b: In situations with high cultural difference, lean media will be more
effective for canonical knowledge sharing than rich media.
4.3. Media richness and language use in global virtual teams
The main reason why some of the team members used e-mail for equivocal knowledge sharing,
thereby encountering cultural challenges and communication breakdown, was, according to
informants, to avoid language barriers. As such, several teams tried to use telephone calls and
telephone conferences to share knowledge of a more complex nature, and while this led to the
breakdown of cultural barriers, the variation in pronunciation and verbal proficiency became much
more apparent. As a Danish project manager put it:
I experienced problems with e-mail communication and asked the Danish members to
call India when they had a problem. The challenge here, however, is that the Indians
speak with this weird accent. It is not so much that we do not know the same words. It
has more to do with the fact that they speak in this funny tone making it hard to
understand. If we discuss something complex we have to ask again and again, and
even then we still misunderstand each other. (Project manager, Denmark)
On the other hand, Indian team members found that the Danes lacked English proficiency especially
in their vocabulary. Moreover, the Indians encountered difficulties in understanding the Danish
pronunciation especially when discussing the content of a more complex task. This could be
observed during a video conference where an Indian employee explained a process involving a
‘shot blasting’ and the Danes kept misunderstanding it as ‘sand blasting’. An Indian informant
explained that such misunderstandings had previously cost a lot when the wrong processes were
initiated. And as he noted about communicating with the Danes: “Their English understanding and
pronunciation is bad and this leads to many misunderstandings especially when things entail more
than everyday stuff”.
There were often equivocal knowledge-sharing breakdowns between the Danes and the Indian team
members, or teams that tried to use telephone as channel for equivocal knowledge. Therefore, a
majority of the team members preferred to use e-mail when they communicated internally about
complex tasks. As mentioned by an Indian specialist: “When I have to solve a complex task with a
Danish person, I prefer to write e-mail because I know they will not understand me because of my
accent and vocabulary. Then they can use the dictionary when they read and reply the mail.”
However, when sharing more canonical knowledge such as date and time for meetings, project
milestones or deadlines, team members did not encounter language challenges: “It is easier for me
just to give them a call. Everybody knows the dates and days of the week in English so we have no
miscommunication there, and it is faster than by mail.” (Project manager, Denmark).
According to the informants, the problems encountered in the telephone due to lack of common
language, in equivocal knowledge sharing, could only be overcome by using e-mail and not by
using a richer media such as video conferencing. It was conceived to be less practical as you had to
book a room and thereby lacked availability, but also the nonverbal cultural cues that would be used
during the conversations seemed to add to the confusion rather than eliminating it. For example, in
video conferences it could be noted that Indian employees would sometimes nod as a sign of respect
even when they clearly did not understand what was explained. Also sometimes Indians would
shake their head in a characteristic way generally expressing agreement in India. This was often
misunderstood as disagreement by the Danes. In such circumstances the Danes argued that it was
very helpful to be face-to-face.
As such, it seemed that variance in language use seemed to have a negative impact on sharing both
equivocal and canonical knowledge. However, since e-mails erased verbal misunderstandings
thereby raising the certainty level, it was a more prevalent praxis in bigger and more equivocal
knowledge-sharing processes. Therefore, in line with table 2 we suggest propositions 3a Our second
empirically-based proposition and 3b which is not in line with what we predicted from the literature
Proposition 3a: In situations with low degree of language commonality, lean media will
be more effective for equivocal knowledge sharing than rich media.
Proposition 3b: In situations with low degree of language commonality, rich media
will be more effective for canonical knowledge sharing than lean media.
5.1. Main findings
This exploratory study aimed to examine the role of culture and language in global virtual teams.
Our findings suggest that both are of importance for knowledge-sharing effectiveness; yet, they
affect virtual team communication in opposing ways. In teams characterized by a high degree of
cultural difference and language diversity face-to-face interaction was preferable for sharing
equivocal knowledge as these ways of communicating allowed the members to use non-verbal signs
and physically move, touch and correct objects. However, for canonical knowledge sharing virtual
communication was observed to be just as effective as face-to-face interaction. In teams
characterized by high cultural difference, and where face-to-face interaction was not possible, a rich
media was more effective than a lean media for equivocal knowledge sharing as it allowed
members to address misinterpretations or lack of necessary information immediately. For more
canonical knowledge sharing a lean media was used because it formalized communication and
reduced cultural cues and thereby misinterpretations that increased conflict. When members sought
to address the cultural challenges inherent in the lean media they encountered language challenges.
As such, lack of language commonality mixed with rich media affected equivocal knowledge
sharing negatively due to differences in verbal language use such as accents. Furthermore, lean
media allowed individuals to reflect on their writing and correct mistakes and misspellings and
thereby removed verbal cues that enhanced the possibility of misunderstandings. Thereby, lean
media enhanced equivocal knowledge sharing as it reduced miscommunication thereby reducing
This finding provides novel information to the area. Very little research has directed attention
towards the interaction of media richness/leanness with the relation between culture/language and
knowledge sharing in global virtual teams. In extant literature, however, it has been suggested that
virtual knowledge sharing in general will be less effective than co-located individuals, which this
study supports (Gibson & Gibbs, 2006; Martins, et al., 2004; Mortensen & Hinds, 2001). However,
recent studies have suggested that media might remove cultural cues having a positive impact on
knowledge sharing due to less conflict than in co-located teams (Stahl, et al., 2010). While this
might hold for canonical knowledge sharing, we found that in teams characterized by high cultural
difference face-to-face communication is more effective than virtual communication for equivocal
knowledge sharing. However, for canonical knowledge we did not observe differences between the
virtual and face-to-face interaction. Regarding shared language we found that if differences in use
of shared language were high between two MNC units then leanness in the chosen media is most
effective. This finding suggests a modification of the argument proposed in the MRT literature.
Namely, that a rich media is always preferable for sharing equivocal knowledge. As such, media
choice may moderate the impact of spoken language commonality on knowledge-sharing processes.
This has mainly to do with differences in language proficiency and accent. Hence, a lean medium
such as e-mail formalizes and down plays distinct local uses of the common language. More rich
media add to the challenge since they involve culturally distinct communication behavior. It should
be noted though that the findings also suggest that face-to-face interaction is generally more
effective for equivocal knowledge sharing, and that language diversity has a negative impact on
organizational communication in general (Charles & Marschan-Piekkari, 2002; Janssens, Lambert,
& Steyaert, 2004; Lauring & Tange, 2009). Finally, the results seem to echo the complex nature of
intercultural communication, suggesting a conflicting relationship between language use and
This study is not without limitations. It is an exploratory investigation of ICT communication
between MNC units. The study examined inter-unit interaction only between two countries in only
one company. While these two countries were selected for good reasons with the aim of gathering
data on knowledge-sharing processes in environments with high cultural difference and low shared
language commonality, the findings may not be representative of other MNCs. Hence, the
generality of the findings of this study is not clear. Contributing to this is also the qualitative and
exploratory research methods employed by this study. Although based on rigorous and systematic
principles of ethnographic research, an additional more quantitative approach may have gained
supplementary insight into ICT inter-unit knowledge sharing. It is also a limitation that we have
used the same teams to study the effect of both cultural difference and low language commonality
in the shared language, as we could not be sure to distinguish the effect of culture from the effect of
language. On the other hand, the two concepts are clearly intertwined and cannot be separated
entirely (Henderson, 2005; Marschan-Piekkari & Reis, 2004). Also, it would be very difficult to
find teams where only high cultural difference but not low shared language commonality would be
a problem and vice versa. Hence, as an exploratory effort these shortcomings may be acceptable and
subsequent research within this area may attempt to improve on these potential limitations.
5.2. Implications for theory and suggestions for future research
This investigation explored the relation between cultural and linguistic differences and effects on
knowledge sharing in inter-unit ICT communication. The empirical findings of our study suggest
that we need to expand our understanding of how ICT media interact with the relation between
culture/language and knowledge sharing. Moreover, our findings indicate that the MRT needs to
take into account variation in culture and language commonality between senders and receivers of
information. This includes taking into account differences in written and verbal language
concerning knowledge-sharing effectiveness.
As implications for future research we suggest that more work could be done on the relation
between cultural differences in power distance and language use/media choice. This could be done
in relation to interpersonal communication as well as on the headquarters vs. subsidiary level.
Another worthwhile research endeavor could be the study of the role and nationality of team leaders
on language use. Also, team maturity could potentially have an effect on language use and media
choice and as such this could be another theme to be further explored. Finally, a quantitative
verification of our results would increase the robustness of our findings.
5.3. Managerial relevance
Practical implications for MNCs using dispersed units may still be somewhat premature due to the
exploratory character of the study. Nevertheless, increasing the awareness of challenges related to
ICT-mediated intercultural knowledge sharing may be a first step towards avoiding them. The
findings suggest that MNCs use the right media in the right context. We propose that MNC
managers and employees should not only consider the content of the information when choosing the
appropriate media, the differences in cultural difference and spoken language commonality should
also be taken into consideration. Thus, implementation of language policies and language training is
an avenue worth pursuing for the virtual manager as results from co-located units suggest that
common language proficiency has a strong impact on communication effectiveness (Born &
Peltokorpi, 2010; Lauring & Selmer, 2011). Cultural training and facilitation focusing on cultural
diversity in media use and communication could also prove beneficial for virtual team functioning
(Pauleen & Yoong, 2001). Finally, the physical presence of an individual who can function as inter-
unit mediator could counteract the negative effects of intercultural ICT communication.
To our knowledge this study is the first attempt to empirically explore and capture how the chosen
media interact with the relation between culture/language and equivocal/canonical knowledge
sharing in MNCs. As ICT communication and knowledge sharing becomes increasingly important
for MNCs worldwide, the study contributes significantly to our understanding of the challenges
inherent in this process. In the literature it has been suggested that virtuality might reduce negative
effects of intercultural communication. This study, however, suggests that cultural factors, such as a
cultural difference, are best addressed using the richest medium possible while difference in
common language usage should be confronted by using a leaner media. This novel finding suggests
that differences in shared language commonality have a more prolific impact on knowledge sharing
than one might at first assume. Hence, language use should be taken into consideration when
choosing media to facilitate intercultural knowledge-sharing processes between geographically
dispersed MNC units.
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