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The Culture of Communicating

USC Marshall researchers discover that even with AI-enhanced communication tools, culture plays a role in their effectiveness in global virtual teams

November 16, 2020
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In a world now dominated by virtual teams, communication tools enhanced by artificial intelligence are making impressive technical leaps. But just as in face-to-face interactions, culture still plays a role in how well team members react to and accept certain tools meant to increase understanding, according to new research by USC Marshall scholars.

Peter Cardon, professor of clinical business communication; Jolanta Aritz, professor of clinical business communication; and former colleague Carolin Fleischmann have been working with—and studying the dynamics of—students in global virtual teams since 2013.

The Virtual Business Professional Program (VBP) helps students across the globe learn how to communicate and function as a team virtually.

The researchers recently published the findings of a study that investigated how cultural values and practices influence the acceptance of smart communication technologies (SCT) and how the use of these technologies can impact how well global virtual groups communicate with each other.

All That Jargon

While there are many SCTs now in use, including those that transcribe meetings and provide real-time captioning, one tool, called Jargon.ai, goes a step further. It transcribes conversations and pulls out key words to analyze, but it also analyzes body language and engagement. Were you smiling? Did you look worried? Did you engage with teammates or stay quiet? It drills down into the emotions behind the words used, the pace and style of talking, and rapport between team members.

How you feel about AI-enhanced smart communication technologies depends a lot on your culture, according to new research out of USC Marshall.

This is the kind of analytics that might ultimately improve a team’s ability to understand one another and optimize working toward achieving a goal, especially when the team is virtual and global with many members from different countries and backgrounds. But, as the researchers found, it depends on where you’re coming from.

“We’ve found evidence that culture has a big impact on how you feel about tools like that,” said Cardon.

Culture and the Response to AI Smart Communication Tools

The team surveyed 643 members from 109 global virtual teams before and after using smart communication tech enhanced by artificial intelligence. They asked each surveyed member how they felt before and after using the tool.

The participants of the study worked in virtual teams and used smart communication tech—Jargon—to conduct video meetings with teammates around the world. The seven-week project required them to collaborate on a consulting project for a U.S.-based Fortune 100 Company, and the final deliverable was a written report that included analysis and recommendations.

Perhaps not surprisingly, results of this study showed that team members from individualistic, future-oriented cultures such as the United States generally had more positive expectations toward the performance and enjoyment of using the technology. Other groups related privacy concerns or expressed worries about perceptions about performance and command of English.

The data showed that culture is indeed a predicator for the expectation about smart communications tech prior to the team using it. So in that sense, SCT may create another barrier to building bridges.

That is a valuable insight for developers of these in-demand tools.

“While these SCTs hold great promise to help teams work together more effectively, it’s critical that developers consider cultural variations as they build the tools,” said Cardon. “For example, many aspects of nonverbal communication, such as smiles, are displayed in different contexts and frequencies in various cultures. Building these tools with many cultures in mind and allowing flexible recommendations from the SCTs will help honor the diverse backgrounds of team members.”

However, after having used the SCT for seven weeks, team dynamics overlaid the individual culturally-influenced perceptions about the technology, the researchers wrote. And the experience of the tech was similar across cultures.

The final conclusion is that SCTs do indeed help overcome communication barriers in global virtual teams.

“While we may have different expectations toward technology depending on our cultural background, the overall positive effect of the smart tools is enhanced by a human factor of team dynamics and what happens in a team,” said Aritz.