Embracing cultural diversity: Online social ties in distributed workgroups

Online social networks are providing unprecedented opportunities for employees to interact with colleagues from a broad array of cultures, backgrounds and locations. The question is: does the potential for unfettered networking across diverse work groups actually occur or do employees still tend to cluster in groups with similar profiles? In other words, does the online world loosen the bonds that tie people to the familiar?  New research from Cornell University and IBM Research helps answer those questions. 

Cross-cultural networks hold the promise of improved decision-making, creative solutioning, conflict resolution, and better employee engagement through increased trust (Downey et al., 2015; Souren et al., 2004; Shachaf, 2008; Thom-Santelli, 2010). With this in mind, and the growing availability of external and internal social networking platforms, organisations are increasingly encouraging employees to connect online with colleagues from all cultural backgrounds and geographical locations. But is workplace access and encouragement sufficient to overcome the general bias towards homophily (love of same), which still “remains a dominant factor in online social networks”? This bias results in people continuing to cluster with people who are in the same country or from similar cultural backgrounds in other countries. Do work-related online platforms stimulate a different outcome given that employees work for the same company and already have a shared culture and identity? If yes – then social networks at work perform a powerful role in creating a world which is more inclusive of cultural diversity.

To find out, Dong (Cornell University), Dr Ehrlich (IBM Research), Professor Macy (Cornell University) and Dr Muller (IBM Research) examined the online networks within a large multi-national. They found that while broad organisational ties are insufficient to tilt the bias of cultural homophily, those who operate in smaller workgroups – with common goals, professional identity and tasks –  are more likely to form cross-cultural relationships, in fact even more than might be expected.  In essence, employment in multi-nationals, coupled with the ability to network across cultural boundaries, is acting as a silent catalyst for social change.

Aim

The research aimed to study whether employees working for the same organisation, and/or in the same workgroup, overcame the general bias to cultural homophily in the connections they make in online social networking forums.

Method

The online ties of employees (588,752) in a multi-national operating in 97 countries (“full-social network”), and a subset of 87 global sales account teams representing 22,746 employees (‘workgroup social network”) were examined over a 12 month period. Workgroups usually comprised about 166 members. All employees had access to open discussion forums, shared files, blogs and feeds, while the workgroups had access to dedicated online communities as well.  Network ties were analysed at the country level in terms of 8 potential affinity groups: Sinic, Hindu, Islamic, Latin American, Western, Orthodox, African and Buddhist, representing cultural and international alignments (“friendship density maps”).

Findings

Friendship density maps revealed two key findings:

  1. Cultural homophily at the organisational level: In the full network, employees in one country tended to have online relationships with employees in other similar countries (eg those with a shared religion, shared language, geographic proximity and shared historical alignment).
  2. Workgroup diversity: At the workgroup level, cultural similarity did not predict friendship ties. Indeed, employees were more likely to have online friends in dissimilar countries.
  • Cultural homophily at the organisational level

At the organisational level, employees had a greater tendency to interact with those who were co-located or who lived in a country which shared a similar culture to their own. Similar to the data for non-employment related social networking platforms, these results suggest that simply belonging to the same company is not sufficient to overcome the bias to cultural homophily.

  • Workgroup diversity

At the workgroup level, cultural homophily did not predict friendship ties. Indeed, “not only did membership in workgroups increase tolerance of cultural diversity in social ties, it appears to promote a surprising increase in diversity ties. Our results suggest that people who work together will form ties with each other – not just in spite of cultural differences – but perhaps even because of those differences”.

Implications

Homophily is a pervasive social bias leading to a preponderance of social ties with people who are culturally similar, whether those people are co-located or in cyberspace. That bias is replicated in an organisational setting, notwithstanding the fact that employees in a multi-national company have a single employer, shared values and access to a single online social networking platform. Hence the potential benefits arising from cross-cultural networks are unlikely to be fully realised if an organisation merely implements an online social networking platform and expects employees to be collaborative.

In comparison, workgroups, whose members share explicit and proximal goals in the form of a project or a task, have a much stronger propensity to network across cultural boundaries, thus mitigating the bias to homophily (neutralisation). Moreover, online social networks in workgroups have the propensity to create a bias for diversity, which perplexed Dong et al. They surmised that workgroup members may be deliberately interacting with diverse others as a way of “affirming the primacy of (their) shared identity”, ie as members of a distinct global account team. Whatever the reason, their findings establish a very interesting and hitherto hidden phenomenon: online social networking amongst workgroups is facilitating cultural integration.

The lessons from this study, for leaders and teams who want to promote cultural integration in the workplace, can be summarised as follows:

  • Provide employees with a social networking platform that facilitates cross-cultural and cross-border interaction within the organisation, prompting the discovery and formation of new relationships
  • Provide opportunities for employees to collaborate with a diverse range of people outside of their home teams, whether it be on a project, company-wide challenge or team challenge
  • Increase the profile of shared social and work interests of employees across the organisation, to foster a distinct community identity that employees feel connected to
  • Develop reward and recognition programs to foster the development of global online communities.

To read the full article see Dong, W., Ehrlich, K., Macy, M. M., and Muller, M. (2016) Embracing cultural diversity: Online ties in distributed workgroups Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (pp. 274-287) DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2818048.2835198.

For more information, contact Lisa Sato (lisato@deloitte.com.au).


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