Firsthand Experience and the Subsequent Role of Reflected Knowledge in Cultivating Trust in Global Collaboration

by Mark Mortensen & Tsedal Neeley

Overview — How can workers better collaborate across vast geographical distances? Distributed collaboration—in which employees work with, and meaningfully depend on, distant colleagues on a day-to-day basis—allows firms to leverage their intellectual capital, enhance work unit performance, face ever-changing customer demands more fluidly, and gain competitive advantage in a dynamic marketplace. Research over the last decade, however, has provided mounting evidence that while global collaboration is a necessary strategic choice for an ever-increasing number of organizations, socio-demographic, contextual, and temporal barriers engender many interpersonal challenges for distant coworkers and are likely to adversely affect trust between and among workers across sites. In this paper that examines employee relations at a multinational organization, HBS professor Tsedal Beyene and MIT Sloan School of Management professor Mark Mortensen find that firsthand experience in global collaborations is a crucial means of engendering trust from shared knowledge among coworkers. Their findings reinforce the important role of others' perceptions in our own self-definition, and suggest a means of addressing some of the problems that arise in cross-cultural global collaborations. Key concepts include:

  • As organizations increasingly move toward more global designs, with greater intersite communication and mobility, a more highly socialized view of global collaborations is required.
  • Direct knowledge entails knowledge about physical space and facilities, cultural traits of coworkers, work processes, people, and relationships. Reflected knowledge enables people to view how their home office is both presented to and perceived by others.
  • In global collaboration there is the distinct and important role played by reflected knowledge as opposed to direct knowledge. Both types impact trust.
  • While direct knowledge may help to identify barriers to collaboration, there is no guarantee that any particular person can ameliorate them. In contrast, reflected knowledge provides feedback about our own context and related factors that are more likely to lie within our control.
  • While technology may be designed to mirror the other's view, it cannot provide the full breadth of reflected information typically gained while on-site.
  • Managers would be wise to provide for subsequent reciprocal visits to ensure that the hosts of any first meeting gain firsthand experience of their collaborators' sites.

Author Abstract

While scholars contend that firsthand experience—time spent onsite observing the people, places, and norms of a distant locale—is crucial in globally distributed collaboration, how such experience actually affects interpersonal dynamics is poorly understood. Based on 47 semi-structured interviews and 140 survey responses in a global chemical company, this paper explores the effects of firsthand experience on intersite trust. We find firsthand experience leads not just to direct knowledge of the other, but also knowledge of the self as seen through the eyes of the other-what we call "reflected knowledge". Reflected and direct knowledge, in turn, affect trust through identification, adaptation, and reduced misunderstandings. 68 pages.

Paper Information