Collaborating Across Departments: The Functional Level of Culture

Many think of culture as a singular phenomenon that varies only across geographical barriers. However, we acknowledge that culture exists on six distinct levels, and that taking these levels into account can help individuals adjust to different cultural surroundings as they encounter them at work, at home and abroad. The six levels of culture are: national/societal, identity group, organizational, functional, team, and individual. Here we will be discussing the functional level of culture.

Isolating the functional level of culture is important because there are typically numerous functional divisions in each organization, and there are different behaviors expected, reinforced and rewarded within each of those divisions. That cross-functional teams present a unique type of challenge is no surprise to anyone who has ever been a member of one. Rifts between, for example, research and marketing, IT and sales, and human resources and general management are notorious parts of the corporate experience. Understanding that these rifts are the result of gaps at the functional level of culture can help organizational leaders, and the individuals within the different functions, bridge the gaps and create synergies.

During a recent engagement, we assisted the product development team of a pharmaceutical company that was underperforming. The leadership at the company suspected the team’s international makeup was what was causing the gaps that led to poor performance. Working with the team and applying the concepts of the Cultural Orientations Approach proved useful in unexpected ways. Though there were quite a few nationalities represented on the development team, there were also a number of functional divisions: molecular biologists, immunologists, researchers, salespeople and marketing agents. This meant that there were quite a few intersections at which cultural gaps could be found.

We ran an aggregate report of the team’s individual Cultural Orientations Indicator results in order to map and analyze the team members’ personal cultural preferences. In looking at the aggregate report, we discerned distinct cultural differences among the team members along functional lines that clearly cut across nationalities. From this level of increased understanding, we were able to address each of the team’s problem areas from a functional perspective. Firstly, terminology and jargon presented a significant obstacle. In one instance, we realized that team members had been using the acronym PDF over several months only to discover that it had three distinct meanings across the represented functions. We also discovered even deeper cross-functional disconnects as we explored the team members’ perceptions of and attitudes toward risk, decision making, handling conflict, and determination to address problems directly or not.

These are problems common in many organizations. We have years’ worth of data on cross-functional team performance from organizations across the globe. There are a number of gaps we have found in different organizations, one of the most common being those between the general research and development (R&D) and marketing functions. Some of the general problem areas these two functions often run into in team environments are:

• Those in R&D tend to approach problems and projects in a more specific, sequential and focused way, while those in marketing tend to focus on interrelatedness and multiple contingencies.
• Those in R&D tend to value following the formal hierarchy, whereas those in marketing tend to have more of an equality preference.
• Decision-making tends to be more collectivistic for those in R&D, while it is more individualistic for those in marketing.
• When viewpoints conflict, those in R&D tend to value compromise and mutually acceptable solutions, whereas those in marketing tend to be more tolerant of open conflict and asserting individual points of view.

As a result of their different functional cultural orientations, marketing managers tend to experience their R&D colleagues as overly narrow, unconcerned with the bigger picture, and ignorant of interdependencies of organizational performance. R&D managers, on the other hand, may find their marketing colleagues unfocused, even chaotic, irreverent and erratic. These perceptions can distract from shared objectives, and often seriously derail successful collaboration.

Of course, understanding cross-functional interactions with an intercultural perspective does not in itself create better interactions or more effective teams. But it does make a difference to understand that a marketing manager or an R&D representative acts in a particular way not because he or she is a difficult person, but because of the different behaviors and attitudes that are expected, reinforced and rewarded within their specific functional group. Recognizing the cultural nature of behaviors helps to depersonalize differences. Once these parameters have been established, the cross-functional team members can start a dialogue in which they explore differences, create guiding principles and agree to make mutual adaptations.

In the case of the pharmaceutical development team described at the beginning of this article, this dialogue took place over a working day during a dedicated session. We certified one of the team’s members in the Cultural Orientations Approach. This team member, who had personal experience with the functional gaps present in the group, leveraged their knowledge of the team’s dynamics as well as of the core principles of the COA to focus the team on breaking through the emotional barriers and resistance built up over months. Once constructive momentum was generated, the team generated a number of adaptations and defined guiding principles for moving forward, including a way to track its own progress.

Being able to lead a cross-functional team through such a process is an essential skill for culturally competent leaders. It is the cornerstone for reaching across cultural boundaries and beyond stereotypes. It leads to the ability to value and ultimately leverage existing differences, and is central to creating the synergies that organizations hope for.

The reluctance in many organizations to act on this potential, however, is surprising.

Most organizations provide some sort of preparatory training to their expatriate managers or employees who work on global teams. They do so because they are convinced that their employees require some preparation to manage cultural gaps on the purely national level. However, organizations would do well to apply the same due diligence to differences and interactions between their functional groupings, as cultural gaps on this level are as prevalent as those on the national level, and as synergies across functional divisions pave the way for a group’s success.

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