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Journal Article Evaluation: Barinaga, E.

(2007) Cultural diversity at work: National culture as a discourse organizing an international project group, Human Relations, 60(2): 315-340.
Ester Barinagas paper on multinational work teams and how they organize themselves using national culture and cultural diversity as discursive resources is critically discussed, with special attention paid to the limitations of her research approach. This review proceeds as follows. First, the theoretical framework is briefly outlined in which Barinaga embeds the specific angle of her research project. Then follows a critical description of the international team she followed, her chosen method of observation and the findings she presents. Finally, the potential implications of her conclusions and their relevance to broader settings are questioned, particularly in regard to personal experiences with international teamwork made during the course of this module.

The Article Rather than agreeing with the current consensus in research that directly links the performance of international teams with cultural differences and assigns cultural diversity a positivist status, Barinaga argues that team members play a more active role in defining their national identity and in shaping their group work. They use the mental construct of national culture and cultural diversity as discursive tools to organize their multinational project.

To find support for her claims, Barinaga observed an international research group over a period of 17 months, being present and even involved as an interpreter at all of their workshops, and following e-mail correspondence between meetings. She then organized her body of collected data into categories and developed a framework for interpretation.

In her findings she points out the different ways team members used the discourse on national culture and cultural diversity on an everyday basis to organize their teamwork. They referred to their cultural differences in order to define their individual worth and set themselves apart from the group, as well as using this discourse as a convenient excuse for confusion and misunderstandings. Team members also drew on cultural diversity to reinforce their mutual interdependency and justify the groups existence by pointing out the value of multinational collaborations. Lastly, the same discourse was used to rationalize randomly taken decisions. Theoretical Framework In establishing her theoretical framework, Barinaga broadly describes the line of arguments followed in previous research on multinational teamwork. Although no agreement on the definition of culture has

been reached (Martin, 2002, in Barinaga, 2007), there is widespread consensus that national culture influences team performance (Cox et al., 1991; Earley, 1993, in Barinaga, 2007).

However, studies on whether cultural variety within a team affects its performance negatively or positively have yielded varied, inconclusive results. Differences between national cultures are assigned explanatory authority (Barinaga, 2007) as the shaping forces that dictates group members behaviour and therefore determines group performance. Barinaga criticises this positivist view on cultural diversity that is often taken in the field and points out its disregard for the freedom of action group members have and the active role they play in organizing their team.

She particularly refers to a study done by Ely and Thomas (2001) that examined the circumstances under which cultural diversity improves or impairs group performance. From these findings she draws the conclusion that cultural diversity is a concept redefined by group members on an everyday basis, and the way in which it is utilized, rather than the actual nationalities present in the team, is what determines group performance.

This insight has been acknowledged in related research areas before, but not in the field of multinational workgroups, as she claims. In her paper, Barinaga therefore attempts to fill this gap by exploring how the discourse on national culture and cultural diversity are utilized as tools for self-organization in international teams.

While she clearly positions her research approach within the wider framework of the field, she fails to mention the Global Leadership and Organizational Behaviour Effectiveness Research Project (GLOBE) initiated by R. House (House et al., 2002). Although its large-scale, quantitative research approach differs from her ethnographic study and takes on the positivist stance she is arguing against, it deserves mentioning as both research projects explore the impact of cultural diversity on organizational processes in multinational work teams.

Research Approach Using the term discourse as coined by Foucault (1980), Barinaga explores in-depth how team members make sense of their daily group life by way of their discourse on cultural diversity. To gain insight into the actors construction of themselves and others (Baszanger & Dodier, 1997, in Barinaga, 2007), she therefore chose ethnographic research methods to collect a comprehensive body of qualitative data on one work team with members from five different countries. She closely followed every workshop and communication between meetings over a course of 17 month and recorded meetings, interviewed team

members individually and collected all documents produced by or passed around in the group. Additionally she asked each team member via e-mail about their thoughts and feelings on the teamwork in between meetings.

Her choice of methods is certainly appropriate; it is questionable, however, if her direct involvement as an interpreter in the group might not have lead to an observers paradox, as well as her perceptions being influenced by her dual role as an insider and outsider (cf. Bryman, 2008). She herself acknowledges this, saying that it actually constituted an advantage as it gave her access to additional information.

Regrettably, her observations were limited to a group that consisted of only five different nationalities restricted to Europeans and US-Americans (i.e. Westerners), excluding Asians, Latin Americans, etc. Barinaga justifies her choice of a group doing academic research rather than a corporate work group by referring to the additional variety in backgrounds, such as theoretical backgrounds and academic fields, added in this type of setting. Both these issues, however, raise the question how transferable her findings are to differently composed groups and different settings.

Findings and Conclusions In her body of collected data, Barinaga sees her claim confirmed that national culture is used as a discursive resource in everyday group life. She found there to be two main interconnected processes wherein group members turn to cultural differences to organize their team and points out a number of strategies team members followed.

On the one hand, actors seek distinction and define their individual worth within the project, i.e. members refer to cultural differences in order to make sense of misunderstandings and confusion experienced in the group, as this provides them with a simple excuse to avoid conflicts without assigning blame. Similarly, they construct their position against the rest of the group by invoking labels and stereotypes to make sense of roles and expectations in the group.

On the other hand, national culture is used to establish the teams need for collaboration and to justify its existence by emphasizing how much the members cultural diversity adds value to the project. It is also used to rationalize randomly taken decisions by appealing to what each nationality in the group can contribute.

Barinaga presents examples that clearly support her conclusions. However, they describe very specific conversations or statements by group members and it is unknown how many similar occurrences equally

well suited to prove her point are present within her data. It is therefore questionable if the same sensemaking processes and strategies would be found when analyzing other international group projects.

In her conclusion, Barinaga herself admits to these limitations and calls for further research to expand on her findings, as they clearly challenge previous positivist views held on the influence of culture in multinational teamwork. She argues strongly for research on cross-cultural teams to move away from the perception of national culture as something definable that determines team work outcomes by controlling its members behaviour. Instead, research is to focus on the actors freedom to define their identity and shape their team by means of their discourses on culture and nationality.

Implications Although it is questionable to what extend Barinagas findings can be generalized and applied to other multinational groups and settings, her overall point that actors play a more active and independent role in the organisation of their team than is generally acknowledged is well worth considering.

Especially international managers and members of multinational teams should be careful not to blame negative teamwork outcomes or credit positive outcomes solely to the cultural constellations in the team. The direct impact of cultural influences on team members individual behaviour and the functioning of the team as a whole as described by Hofstede (1980), Trompenaars (1997) and others certainly needs considering. Yet anyone involved in multinational team projects should be aware that they are actively involved in the self-organisation of their group, and that the way they utilize national culture and related concepts affects overall performance as well.

My personal experience with multinational teamwork in the frame of this module illustrates this point: without further reflection on how I actively influenced team performance, I was quick to blame imbalances in the team on differences between the members. Although I do not recall any particular instances where we used strategies outlined by Barinaga, such as the justification of randomly taken decision by referring to cultural differences, some process of self-positioning and sense-making certainly took place.

The article can be considered recommendable to those involved in multinational teamwork in general, as it calls to mind that we are not puppets of our respective cultures. Despite the fact that our cultural background influences our behaviour and is a driving force in teamwork to some extent, we have the ability and responsibility to affect outcomes for the positive.

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