Global Workplace

Intercultural Virtual Team Communication Project

Patricia Dorazio, Program Coordinator
Communication & Information Design

In today’s global workplace, professionals communicate in virtual teams with others from diverse backgrounds, contexts, and cultures. Communication in such teams can be fun, BUT students need to develop an important set of competencies to be successful. The intercultural virtual team project for COM406 was designed to help students develop and refine those competencies while practicing and polishing the workplace genres involved in managing such a project. Specifically, the semester-long project was designed to help students analyze business communication practices at enterprises with operations in two global locations. In addition, the virtual team project helped students learn how organizations develop communication processes and practices thataccommodate their audience and task, its location in a particular country and community, and its position in the online world.

What is the intercultural virtual team project?

The model for this course involved once-a-week, face-to-face classroom meetings with students in each country and ongoing online team meetings for the collaborative work. This was the first time such an intercultural virtual course had been offered at SUNYIT, linking SUNYIT in Utica, New York, with Fachhochschule Hannover (FHH) in Hannover, Germany.

During this semester-long course, students analyzed the business communication practices at enterprises with operations in both the US and in Germany. For the purposes of the final report, teams could choose either

    * to recommend the transfer of practices from one context to the other to improve efficiency and customer satisfaction.

    * to write an informative report comparing the two businesses for a market analyst or professional association that represents that industry.

The genesis of the course

Though I had used the SUNY Learning Network platform before to teach a technical communication course, I had never used CourseSpace, nor had I ever been involved in an intercultural course before that would rely heavily on collaboration and on other digital and electronic tools to communicate.

 The impetus for teaching this course came after attending an IEEE PCS conference in Limerick, Ireland, in July 2005. I attended a lecture by given by Dr. Deborah Andrews of the University of Delaware, and Dr. Doreen Starke-Meyerring of McGill in Montreal, Canada, and decided to use their ideas and project verbatim.

I then sent out open invitation letters to IEEE PCS conference participants hoping someone from another country would like to embark on this experiment with me. Prof. Rolf Schwermer at Fachhochschule Hannover, University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Hannover, Germany, responded, and from that point on we engaged in a discussion to make this course a reality.

Developing the course

Over the summer of 2006 I was in contact with Andrews and Starke-Meyerring verifying some of the finer points of their project. With their permission, I used all of their materials, and with a Crouse Fund grant familiarized myself with CourseSpace and input the course into that learning platform.

My partner institution in this collaborative course was Fachhochschule Hannover, University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Hannover, Germany. As it happens, Prof. Schwermer’s university offers a technical communication program similar to the one offered at SUNYIT, and both schools have much in common, including program curricula, student skill level, distance learning classroom capabilities, etc.  It was a perfect match. My students paid their normal tuition rate for this 4-credit course. German students paid their normal fees, so no campus or person incurred extra expense.

However, some logistical problems developed: there exists a discrepancy in academic calendars. SUNYIT begins its fall semester in late August and ends in early December, while FHH begins in late September and ends in late January of the following year. In conjunction with this discrepancy in academic year, there existed another disparity in holiday time away from campus.

An even bigger logistical issue was the fact that while my course was required for graduation, the course at FHH was elective. FHH students had to apply for the course, state expectations, and be fairly fluent in English (as the course was written and designed in English). Given this, I thought the students who were chosen would have a high level of motivation, reducing the chances of their dropping out or relying on the American students to carry the load when the going got tough. This wasn’t the case, causing some severe attitude problems towards the end of the semester.

The last logistical problem involved the distance learning classrooms: we just couldn’t make the technological connection work consistently and the problems had to be sorted out with the technical experts at the local campuses. Unfortunately, it took an entire semester for this problem to be resolved.

 Sample ImageProf. Rolf Schwermer at Fachhochschule Hannover, Univ of Applied Sciences and Arts and Prof. Patricia Dorazio, SUNYIT with students at Fachhochschule Hannover 

Teaching the course

During September when my class was meeting at SUNYIT - but FHH was not yet in session – I took advantage of the three-week early start to introduce my students to intensive theory and practice in models of culture. In particular, we focused on the work of Edward Hall and Geert Hofstede and their theory of high and low context cultures in communicating across cultures. Additionally, I also introduced them to the world of team management and conflict resolution.

In September while my class at SUNYIT was meeting, Prof. Schwermer spent one week on our campus, talking to students about intercultural communication issues related to translation and localization. He gave us information about the FHH program and about his students in general. At this time, we decided to put into place an icebreaker exercise to initiate the communication partnership: we randomly assigned each of the American students an overseas “pen pal classmate.” We provided full contact information and let students start the dialogue and get acquainted.

Once the German students became involved, class ran rather smoothly, at least on the surface. Around mid-semester some of the German students dropped “out of sight.” We later found out they were involved in an intensive technical communication competition and had no extra time for this elective course; consequently, some of them no longer participated, leaving the SUNYIT students to complete the project on their own. Also at this time, Prof. Schwermer no longer had time to participate fully in the online discussions or provide feedback to draft projects as he was heading this competition and had little free time.

However, most students worked and collaborated in teams, initially with some difficulty because of the differences in language and time, but they soon learned ways to overcome these problems. Students experimented with SKYPE, a VoIP communication method, blogs, discussion boards, and podcasts to communicate effectively and efficiently. Once they began actually creating and working on the deliverables, they again discovered Zoho Writer, a full-featured collaboration tool that allowed them to create, edit, and share their work.

The semester ended with teams giving oral presentations about their final projects. I had hoped these presentations would take advantage of each campus’s distance learning classroom, but technical difficulties prohibited this from happening. However, students devised creative methods for overcoming this obstacle. Some created videos, others used podcasts, and still others used live chat to make the presentations.

Though my semester had long ended, I headed to FHH in late December to personally meet with Prof. Schwermer’s students. I gave a lecture on web usability and then discussed with them at length their experiences with the project. Most were very positive and were glad to be a part of such a project.

Prof. Schwermer and I both gave our students a chance to voice their objections and concerns with the project now that they had completed it. We are now considering their feedback and making changes to the course for the Fall 2007 term.

Some modifications

COM406 will again run on both campuses during the Fall 2007 semester. Prof. Schwermer and I will continue to work as before, but his involvement will be more pronounced in 2007. He is making his course mandatory so we can reduce the likelihood that students will drop out. Ideally, there will be about 15 students in each cohort. Academic calendar discrepancies still exist, but we have found ways to deal with them. More importantly, we are initiating some changes:

1. Teams will be composed of a total of 6 students, 3 from each university. Two team leaders, one from each country, will be assigned to manage and organize the workload. Professors will monitor team communication more diligently through blogs and discussion boards.

2. The project will be more of a traditional technical communication project. We will assign each team a European manufacturer who wants to market a particular product line in the US and EU community. Team members will then have to plan, write, and design appropriate documentation (print or electronic) to accompany the product in its globalization effort.

3. Students will also have to test the documentation in its target market.

4. The oral presentation will not only consist of presenting the final documentation, but it will also explain in detail some of the planning that went into creating the documentation (and the visuals) for translation. 


This course has been a tremendous amount of work, demanding attention to detail and intensive commitment and interaction between the two participating professors. But the effort has been worthwhile: students from both universities have responded favorably to the project, despite its intense workload and aggressive deadlines, and are thankful for the opportunity to participate in such an undertaking. In most cases, they’ve learned more than they ever thought possible – and they’ve made lasting friendships in the process.

These students live in a global world, and they now have a better understanding of the importance of communication in that global marketplace. Gone are the ethnocentric ideas; these students are open to removing barriers, experimenting with collaborative and communication tools, and taking this successful learning experience to their future careers.