Building Trust for Global Collaboration


By Kyla Nicholson, CHRP

Business travel is often perceived as glamorous by those people that don’t have to do it. After a few trips where you get off the plane, jet lagged, proceed directly into a full day meetings and follow this with a late night keeping up with the home office workload, the glamour quickly wears off.

Globalization has increased the need to collaborate across geographic distances, while advancements in technology have enabled us to communicate with people great distances away in increasingly efficient and budget-friendly ways. And while weary business travelers and budget-conscious management may make a case for working globally virtually, research by Mark Mortensen and Tsedel Beyene at the MIT Sloan School of Management confirms what many of us may have intuitively felt to be true, that  in-person, on-site interactions are critical to fostering successful global collaborations.

In Firsthand Experience & the Subsequent Role of Reflected Knowledge in Cultivating Trust in Global Collaboration, Mortensen and Beyene used 47 semi-structured interviews and 140 survey responses at a global chemical company to demonstrate that firsthand experience on-site was critical to building trust between geographically dispersed work teams by allowing the person who is traveling to understand the cultural and workplace context, and interpersonal dynamics in which their coworkers do business. Such direct knowledge facilitates relationship building, shifts the focus away from differences and toward the similarities between sites, enables increased understanding and more realistic expectations regarding behaviours, and ultimately builds interpersonal relationships facilitating ongoing working relationships.

The value of reflected knowledge was another study finding. While direct knowledge focuses on the traveler’s direct knowledge of the other and their environment, reflected knowledge allows the person who is traveling to understand how their site and its interactions are perceived by the site they are visiting. Such knowledge facilitates adaptations to communications and behaviours to reduce misunderstandings.

Overall, the impact of direct and reflected knowledge is increased trust and more effective global collaborations.

The findings of the study have clear implications for practice.

  • Consider expatriate assignments and/or longer term site visits as key to building direct and reflected knowledge.
  • Hold in-person meetings to kick off global collaborations.
  • Hold these meetings on-site.
  • Move the site location of in-person meetings that happen over the course of global collaborations.
  • Do not restrict site visits to meetings, include a tour of the facilities and opportunities to interact with colleagues.
  • While email is useful, consider visual/voice communications methods as essential to continuing to relationship build.
  • Consider in-person meetings at key sites a critical part of the onboarding process.
  • Encourage those who have visited other sites to share their experiences with their team in order to promote more collaborative practices.

While technology advancements may facilitate global collaboration, technology cannot replace the trust generated when people have the opportunity to build direct and reflected knowledge through in-person, on-site visits.

Kyla Nicholson, CHRP, is the manager of Professional Development at BC HRMA. Kyla is committed to providing high-quality learning opportunities that build the capabilities and the organizational impact of HR practitioners. She also sits on the editorial committee and writes for PeopleTalk Magazine.

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