Geetha Haridas, Qualcomm
July 15, 2023
Technical Authors often work in cross-functional teams, which include one or more specialist groups such as development, testing, product management, program management, and marketing. These groups are interdependent and collaboration between the individual groups is essential for product completion.
In a cross-functional team, documents are designed and developed either by an individual author on a project or multiple authors handling different parts of the documentation (Hackos 1994). Authors are typically responsible for planning, scheduling, developing, and delivering documentation. Authors coordinate with developers, testers, and other subject matters to ensure the validity and accuracy of content (Hart-Davidson 2001). They also work with project managers to ensure that they deliver documentation according to the schedule.
During this process, authors usually face many hurdles. They struggle with obtaining reliable source information, coordinating reviews, and staying informed about changes in the product functionality. However, these issues are even more pronounced for authors who work with globally dispersed project teams, where the main stakeholders or subject matter experts work across different countries or time zones and never have face-to-face interaction with authors.
Streamlined communication channels are therefore important in helping authors to collaborate effectively with global teams.
This article highlights the communication issues that commonly occur in global teams and provides some hints and tips for authors to improve communication and collaboration with team members who work in different geographic locations or time zones.
Common Communication Issues in Global Teams
Global teams have complicated characteristics and authors often find it difficult to communicate and collaborate effectively with their project team. Global teams heavily depend on lean media of communication such as email and telephone, where “gestures, nonverbal nuances, cues about social influence, symbolic content, and contextual cues are not captured or transmittable” (Massey et al. 2001), which often results in lack of trust, conflict, and strained work relationships. Due to a lack of familiarity and context, routine topics such as absenteeism and low responsiveness may be exaggerated in a global team.
Additionally, in a global team, team members often work in different locations and across different time zones. Therefore, they miss opportunities to engage in relationship-building activities and find it easier to communicate by email. A common misconception with emails is that everyone would interpret and perceive them exactly in the same way as intended by those who send them. However, when the team members do not know each other personally and non-verbal clues are absent, email messaging can result in misunderstandings.
During a project, communication between the author and the project team is primarily driven by the need to create documentation and confirm its accuracy. Additionally, because the author works in isolation from the project team, most communication occurs via email.
Considering the nature of information exchange, the communication pattern closely fits the transmission model, as shown below, with the broken arrows indicating how messages get distorted by the time they reach the recipient.
This communication pattern, which fits the transmission model, is a “highly mechanistic model of communication” (Chandler 1994), with the senders assuming that the meaning of messages would and should remain intact. Critiquing this type of communication, Chandler (1994) argues that:
“…there is no single, fixed meaning in any message. We bring varying attitudes, expectations and understandings to communicative situations. Even if the receiver sees or hears exactly the same message which the sender sent, the sense which the receiver makes of it may be quite different from the sender’s intention.”
Therefore, during communication, the “meaning of information is constructed” (Chandler 1994), with team members applying their own perceptions, knowledge, and attitudes when interpreting information. Moreover, each team member is also a part of a social network (Windahl et al. 2009), where interpersonal relationships determine the resulting communication.
Therefore, to communicate clearly in a global team, authors must use a network approach, and address areas including “connectedness, integration, openness, and diversity” (Rogers and Kincaid (1981), cited in Windahl et al. (2009)).
Connectedness determines how well the team members are linked to the network (Windahl et al. 2009). In a virtual team, it is insufficient to ensure that authors can access resources and have Internet connectivity. In complex communication situations, email, coupled with lack of non-verbal communication and absence of social factors, can cause miscommunication (McGee 2000).
To be more connected with their project team, authors can use rich media for communication, for example, participating in video conferences and attending product showcases or demonstrations. Additionally, meeting the project team by arranging site visits (if possible) can help authors to know their project team. It can also help team members to clarify any preconceived perceptions about other members or geographic groups.
Integration determines how well the team members are interlinked (Windahl et al. 2009). In the context of global teams, there is a natural underlying division between different geographic groups. A group can be considered as a miniature society, where individuals learn about other members, and can conform to or influence the group’s behaviour (Buchanan and Huczynski 2004).
By integrating the role of an author into the project team, for example, by assigning a dedicated author to a project rather than assigning authors on a need basis, positive team traits such as “co-operation, co-ordination, and cohesion” (Buchanan and Huczynski 2004) can be developed, with greater tolerance for differences in opinion. When an author’s role is integrated with the project team, the project team is more likely to understand and appreciate the contributions of the author. Integration also reduces the need for the project team or authors to ‘win’ an argument by asserting their views (Buchanan and Huczynski 2004).
Openness affects decisions based on how well members communicate within the group (Windahl et al. 2009), with a closed group being harder to convince about an idea. Trust is an important factor that determines openness. However, it is difficult to develop trust when there is no face-to-face interaction. Even so, behaviours such as trusting members with their tasks and communicating frequently and predictably, can promote trust within global teams (Jarvenpaa and Leidner 1999).
Therefore, sharing problems, requesting support where needed, recognizing and appreciating contributions, and seeking feedback and solutions from various team members and geographic groups can create openness between team members. Additionally, if issues surrounding connectedness and integration are addressed, team members can have more opportunities for regular communication and relationship building.
If a group has greater diversity, ideas can easily enter the network (Windahl et al. 2009). Also, a number of ranks may exist within a team, with some “voices carrying more authority than the others” (Chandler 1994) and the issues raised by such voices will hold greater importance and influence others’ views. For example, when an author works with a larger project team based in a different location, the project team might make decisions about the documentation without consulting the author.
Therefore, in a global team, it is extremely important to clarify the authority and responsibility of each team member and group towards specific tasks. The author must clearly know who is responsible for providing reliable source information, review feedback, and signing-off documents. It can also be helpful to appoint local coordinators who can mediate and clarify disagreements, for example, to clarify review feedback in situations where multiple reviewers provide contradicting feedback to the author.
Likewise, the role of the author must also be clarified to the rest of the project team, with the author being responsible for key decisions surrounding the design and development of the documentation, while the project team can still contribute towards the documentation.
When communicating with team members in a geographically distributed global team, authors cannot read “gestures and nonverbal nuances, cues about social influence, symbolic content, and contextual cues” (Massey et al. 2001), which make it difficult for them to integrate with and establish constructive working relationships with their project teams. Authors must therefore recognise the uniqueness of global teams and streamline communications based on specific characteristics of the team, the nature of communication, and the team dynamics.
In a global team, although authors commonly use computer-mediated communication such as email to coordinate with team members, such lean media can often lead to miscommunication and misinterpretation. Communication in such teams is a social process where the meanings of messages are not static but constructed based on the attitudes, beliefs, and experiences of individuals, who form part of a social network. Authors can communicate and collaborate effectively only when they are well-connected and integrated with their project team, and the team members trust and respect each other’s views.
References and further reading
Blomqvist, Kirsimarja, and Henttonen, Kaisa. (2005). ‘Managing distance in a global virtual team: the evolution of trust through technology-mediated relational communication’. In: Strategic Change 14: 107–119.
Buchanan, David, and Huczynski, Andrzej. (2004). Organizational Behaviour, 5th edition, Prentice Hall.
Chandler, Daniel. (1994). The Transmission Model of Communication. [Online]. Last accessed on 03 March 2023, at: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/trans.html.
Chudoba, Katherine M., and Maznevski, Martha L. (2000). ‘Bridging Space Over Time: Global Virtual Team Dynamics and Effectiveness’, In: Organization Science, Vol. 11, No. 5 (Sep. – Oct., 2000), pp. 473-492.
Hackos, J. T. (1994). Managing Your Documentation Projects, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Hart-Davidson, W. (2001). ‘The Core Competencies of Technical Communication’, In: Technical Communication, Vol 48, Number 2.
Jarvenpaa, Sirkka L., and Leidner, Dorothy E. (1999). ‘Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams’. In: Organizational Science, Vol. 10, No.6, Special Issue: Communication Processes for Virtual Organizations (Nov.– Dec., 1999), pp. 791-815.
Massey, Anne P., Montoya-Weiss, Mitzi M., and Song, Michael. (2001). ‘Getting It Together: Temporal Coordination and Conflict Management in Global Virtual Teams’. In: The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 44, No. 6, pp. 1251-1262.
McGee, Lynn. (2000). ‘Communication Channels used by Technical Writers Throughout the Documentation Process’. In: Technical Communication, Feb 2000, 47, 1, ProQuest Education Journals pp. 35-50.
Windahl, Sven, Signitzer, Benno H., and Olson, Jean T. (2009). Using Communication Theory – An Introduction to Planned Communication, 2nd edition, SAGE Publications Ltd.