Spotlight on Research: Cramton Studies Internationally Distributed Work Groups

Posted: February 24, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Associate Professor of Management Catherine Cramton is taking her research on geographically distributed work groups international. She received substantial grants for her research proposal, “Subgroup Dynamics in Internationally Distributed Software Development Teams,” and is exploring challenges and opportunities presented by the growing use in the public and private sectors of teams whose members work from different countries.

catherine cramton
Catherine Cramton
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Cramton developed the proposal with Pamela Hinds, a professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. The three-year research program, funded by $250,000 from the Bechtel Foundation and $410,000 from the National Science Foundation, attempts to identify some of the core issues and challenges these groups face when working across distance and across cultures. These groups typically make use of advanced telecommunication and information technologies to carry out their work. Cramton’s previous research has shown that groups that can’t be in the same room to work out their problems often face challenges and frustrations they may not have anticipated.

“The differences are huge and often elusive in internationally distributed work teams,” says Cramton. “Problems can include different holidays across locations, time zone differences, and cultural differences, often appearing in unexpected ways and times.”

In her research, Cramton has seen many different examples of misunderstandings that can create conflict among distributed work groups. For instance, a team in India–where the common means of transportation to and from work is a shuttle–may not understand why their colleagues in Texas are getting angry at them for not being able to stay later to complete a task. “In India, it is very important not to miss the last shuttle bus,” Cramton explains. “But in Dallas, where everyone drives to work, the team does not understand this difference and may begin to think that their Indian counterparts are not holding up their end of the workload.”

The grants are allowing Cramton and Hinds to interview and observe members of internationally distributed teams both in the United States and abroad as they communicate with each other. Last year, Cramton spent about 10 weeks at various points in the United States, Europe, and India collecting data for the study. As Cramton and Hinds analyze this data, they will better be able to understand what is working in internationally distributed team relationships and what problems arise. They hope for a better understanding of the ways in which teams can collaborate effectively and take advantage of cost-efficiencies offered by distributed work.

Even after the three-year grant is over, Cramton and Hinds plan to continue their research, adding more countries and businesses. “The economic benefits of using distributed work groups are significant,” Cramton says. “If they can overcome the challenges, these groups will provide strategic, time-saving, and global learning opportunities for many companies in the future.

Cramton will present early results of the study in a talk at Harvard Business School in April.

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