Sunday, May 10, 2009

And So We Meet

As I've written elsewhere in this blog, one of our biggest projects in the MBA program has been to collaborate with international teams from our sister MBA programs in Vienna, Warsaw, and Guangzhou. The effort kicked off last fall and seemed innocuous enough at the time-- we get to meet four other people from different cultures, all of whom were engaged like us in an MBA program pursuit, and we would work together using technology for videoconferencing and collaboration to create a business plan to introduce an existing product into a new market.

Sounds simple, right? It should have been, only I was not prepared for the cultural and technology barriers our team encountered with our Chinese teammates. It was difficult to tell if they were, in fact, living in the same world as we were. They seemed incapable of using any of the tools we were given (document sharing websites, wikis, Skype, e-mail, even telephones). Apparently one had to walk 10 miles from his house just to get to a computer (these are MBA students, right?). And it seemed every week someone was taking someone else to the hospital, where they would spend days or even weeks just recuperating from what seemed like common illnesses or minor injuries. All of these things conspired against our Chinese counterparts being able to make any team call or meeting, and they claimed to never receive 75% of the materials we'd send them in e-mail.

Soon, we began to think they were lying. Or really really lazy. We learned all about guanxi (or "saving face") in our international relations class, and about how central this notion was to Chinese culture, so we didn't want to call their bluff (for fear of embarrassing them), but round about Christmas things began to get really crazy.

They stopped showing up to all calls, and their turnaround time on e-mails was averaging 1-2 weeks. They would send e-mails saying they could not work on important team deliverables or meet deadlines because they were "busy" (this was the one that really got me).

Then in March, we had the opportunity to meet our two Chinese teammates when we visited their school in Guangzhou. Only neither of them came to meet us. And they didn't call or e-mail to explain. They just left us sitting in our hotel while other teams took their American counterparts out on the town. Later we learned one claimed to be in the hospital for 25 days, and apparently the other was just "busy".

Like all good Americans, we vowed revenge: no special treatment when they came to visit us in the U.S. No gifts. No American tourism package. We worked hard to make sure we too were "busy" (though we hoped we wouldn't need to bring out the hospital excuse).

And so they arrived: from Warsaw, from Munich, and from Guangzhou. Next week they will be walking with us across the stage and our Chinese counterparts will be receiving the same MBA diploma all the rest of us will receive (don't get me started on that, either). Tonight we met them for a dinner in a beautiful restaurant overlooking Minneapolis.

Walking in, I tried hard to swallow my bitter revenge intentions. I met my Polish and Austrian counterparts after so many Skype calls, and it was great to put faces to voices. "Maybe the Chinese won't come after all," I mused, meaning my night had a chance of being redeemed.

Then the elevators opened, and like a pack they emerged. Soon I was spotted by my two "busy" teammates from China. We sat down and ate dinner together. And it wasn't terrible. This was some pretty powerful evidence of the importance of meeting and talking face to face. I'm someone who tends to favor technology for these types of things, but for all its convenience, there is something about getting to know the measure of a person by sitting down and talking with them. You're probably thinking this is all pretty basic stuff, but until tonight I didn't have room for it in my plan-o-revenge.

In the end, I was surprised to find that, despite the fact that they have contributed absolutely nothing to our team efforts thus far, I still liked my Chinese teammates as people. That will probably complicate the work we have ahead of us this week to revise and present our team project (it's easier to just write people off than to come to terms with liking them), but maybe that's part of what this whole crazy project was intended to teach us about in the first place.

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