Zhouying Jin, Center for Technology Innovation and Strategy Studies,
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, China

Robert M. Mason, Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, USA

Peter P. Yim, CIM Engineering, Inc., San Mateo, CA. USA


The current and potential growth of the Chinese economy means that US and European organizations increasingly want to work with Chinese partner organizations. However, the Chinese-western cultural differences often present barriers to effective collaboration. This paper suggests a conceptual framework that explains why the Internet and groupware technologies provide practical ways to bridge the cultural differences and make collaboration. The framework is developed from a social constructionist perspective that helps explain the actual experiences of the authors in communicating between US and Chinese organizations. The paper summarizes the distinctive differences between the Chinese and US along dimensions of values, language, and behavior and illustrates how the Internet and groupware technologies help bridge these differences. The paper concludes with a summary of the utility of the framework and its implications for cross-cultural management of technology.


The increasing globalization of business and commerce requires firms and even non-commercial organizations to collaborate across cultures if they are to manage technology effectively. While some products are designed for global markets, many products require special design features for distinctive national, ethnic, or cultural markets. Moreover, the functions of research and development, design, and production increasingly are located where they can contribute the most to the firm, not in the firm’s home country. What this means is that organizations are expanding their use of teams from different countries and cultures.

The availability of low-cost, well-trained technical personnel in China and the recent strong growth of the Chinese economy mean that western firms have a growing interest in working with Chinese organizations. The goals are to utilize Chinese expertise in research and product development and to manufacture products that will find acceptance in the growing Chinese markets. In some cases, there is the desire or requirement to transfer US (western) technology to China. In other cases, there is the desire to collaborate with Chinese partners but also to limit the degree to which the US partner’s intellectual property is revealed. Actual experiences vary, and not every collaborative effort has proved successful.

However, we believe that a win-win situation can be developed whereby US businesses team up with the Chinese to help them develop their industry and economy more quickly, and in so doing, gain access to the huge potential Chinese market. This requires phenomenal transfer of knowledge in both directions. The Chinese gaining knowledge on product and business know-how and the US gaining knowledge on the macro- and micro- views of China and its markets. The Clinton Administration’s policy of engagement (as evidenced by his visit in June 1998 to China) recognizes the political and business value of working closely with the Chinese. Most agree, nonetheless, that the US-China cultural differences are serious barriers to the smooth working of such collaboration.


There are three underlying premises of this paper. First, the authors believe that current trends in the globalization of business and commerce will continue, and in this emerging global economy, competition and cooperation/collaboration will co-exist. Firms and nations will continue to experience the tension that accompanies this combination. They will face what may appear to be some aspects of the game-theoretic "prisoners’ dilemma" as they deal with this tension.

Second, despite these tensions, the benefits of collaboration and cooperation (win-win) will outweigh the problems (win-lose), and thus collaborative ventures will continue. The world has become too interconnected, and there is too much economic interdependence, for isolationism to be a viable strategy.

Third, electronic technologies can help bridge cultural differences, but there is no substitute for mutual respect and collaboration based on learning about one’s partners’ strengths, values, and the context within which their decisions are enacted.

Experience Bases for Premises

The authors together combine US and Chinese cultures. One author was born in, and has lived his entire life in, the US. Another author is of Chinese heritage, was born in Hong Kong, has lived, worked, or conducted extensive business in Taiwan, Singapore, China, South Korea and Japan, and now lives in the US. The other author is Chinese and has spent her entire life in China but has lived and studied in Japan, Korea, and the US. Recent experiences in collaborative ventures include the following:

Goal and Objective of Paper

The overall goal of the paper is to enable organizations to improve their capabilities to manage cross-cultural collaborative arrangements and thereby improve their strategic management of technological resources. The objectives of the paper are to outline a conceptual approach to understanding the issues in cross-cultural work, to summarize the particular differences between US and Chinese cultures, and to illustrate how the Internet and groupware technologies help bridge these differences.

Culture is taken to mean the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, along with the arts, institutions, and other products of work and thought. Anthropologists sometimes think of culture as the totality of how things get done, and this is a convenient way to think of culture in the context of this paper.

The paper focuses on observed cultural differences between the US and China. To the extent that Canada and western European countries share characteristics of the US culture, the observations may apply to them as well. The authors acknowledge the limited scope of the paper and recognize that both the model presented and the observed cultural differences represent simplifications of what are complex issues. Nonetheless, the experience of using Internet and groupware technologies suggests that organizations planning cross-cultural collaborations may use them effectively.

Overview of Remainder of Paper

The remainder of the paper comprises four sections. The following section reviews two models of communication and learning, pointing out that the social model may have more relevance to joint ventures and collaborative arrangements than a more mechanistic model. The next section summarizes a few key differences between US and Chinese cultures. The subsequent section presents observations on how Internet and groupware technologies help overcome some of the US-Chinese cultural differences. The concluding section summarizes the observations and discusses the prospects for using electronic technologies in joint ventures and other collaborative arrangements.

models of learning and communication



"Container" Model of Learning (Knowledge Transfer) and Communication

Figure 1 illustrates one model of learning and communication. Entity A has knowledge, which can be communicated to entity B, enabling both A and B to have the knowledge that initially resided only with A. In this model of learning and communication, knowledge is something that can be transferred. We can say that B has learned from A.

This "container" or "transfer" model is a practical description for what Badaracco (1991) calls migratory knowledge. We normally think of explicit knowledge—knowledge that can be encapsulated and distributed (as through scientific papers or books)—as the type of knowledge being transferred. However, migratory knowledge may also be tacit knowledge, which is not easily encapsulated but may be passed along via apprenticeships or a myriad of subtle cultural cues.

Socially-constructed Knowledge

Figure 2 illustrates another representation of learning and knowledge. Adapted from Weick (1979), this model represents knowledge as just one of four inter-related aspects of a process. Knowledge, cognition, action, and communication are inseparable, leading Weick to propose "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?" The term enactment captures this interrelationship among the different aspects of knowing, acting, communicating, and perceiving. In this model, knowledge takes on meaning as the entity interacts with its environment through communicating with other entities, acting (and thereby changing the environment), and interpreting cues arising from these interactions.

Figure 3 illustrates what happens when two entities together work-act-communicate-make sense of their environment. Partners in joint ventures and similar collaborative efforts recognize that communication sometimes is incomplete, even when the partners agree on actions to be taken. The difficulty of adequate communication often means that knowledge is not transferred or shared. Badaracco (1991) notes this when he refers to embedded knowledge, knowledge that resides in the relationships between and among individuals and groups.

cultural differences



Prior Isolation of China Is a Factor

People in the US may not be aware of the relative isolation of China for many years. Americans, with their strong tradition of a free press and relatively open borders, tend to be aware of events across their country and around the world. Against this openness, the average Chinese has a major drawback from his/her lack of exposure resulting from the many years of isolation forged politically by the government prior to the opening up in 1978. Even since then, the conservative nature of the Chinese government-controlled mass media, and the relative inability for most in China to travel abroad, has made the Chinese population rather "information thirsty," especially among intellectuals. The Chinese place a much higher value on information than their US counterparts, and they tend to study, digest, and reflect upon the information a lot more than the US citizen who may take information for granted.

Language and Interactions with non-Chinese

Most Chinese, even if they speak English, are much weaker conversationally than in reading and writing. They also are clumsy when put into positions to respond or react publicly, without prior preparation. In contrast, the Americans are generally very good at this. Consequently, if something is written down and a Chinese is given the time to read and to produce a written response, he/she will be able to come up with reasoned, well-thought-out responses.

Other Dimensions of Culture

Tables 1 and 2 illustrate some differences between the Chinese and US culture that can be significant in business dealings. Recognize that these are generalizations; these differences may not appear in each interaction.

internet and groupware bridging characteristics



Internet and Groupware Technologies

Internet and Groupware technologies are combinations of hardware architecture (particularly networks) and software applications that enable individuals and groups to communicate, share information, and collaborate by producing joint products. Our interest and focus is on the social and communications aspects, thus we are not particularly interested in electronic ordering, bill paying, and similar transaction processing systems. However, applications such as email, chat, newsgroup, group scheduling, collaborative writing tools, collaborative engineering systems, workflow systems, shared databases and knowledgebases, whiteboarding, internet telephone, and even desktop video conferencing. Even someone seeing something relevant on the World Wide Web and emailing a colleague with a synopsis of the information and/or the link to the site fits into our concepts of Internet and Groupware technologies.

What the Internet and Groupware Provide

These technologies are particularly well-suited for bridging the differences observed between Chinese and US cultures, as summarized in Tables 1 and 2. In particular, the technologies offer:

Especially for greenfield operations, where there is no history, the technology and procedures help begin a new, shared culture. In this culture that is established jointly, the partners establish a shared experience base. They have a shared language, at least in their technology of networks and computers. New relationships are possible, and (as noted by Badaracco, 1991), much of the new knowledge becomes embedded in the relationships and the new procedures, workflows, and business processes. In the enactment of these procedures, each partner learns from the other.

Table 1. Societal and Institutional Differences Between China and US

Government : Economy In transition from a planned economy to a market economy market economy
Government : Legal System In transition from "Rule by the Governor" to "Rule of Law" Rule of Law
Government: Fundamental Beliefs and Motivation Serve the people; principally public ownership Personal success forms the basis of social progress; private ownership
Social Values
very different--see Table 2
Ethnic Culture centered around "relationships"

"reclusive," each minding his/her own business (especially with "strangers" and people outside of the relationship network)

centered around "individuals"

"Messianic;" let’s "save the world"

Source of Trust Trust those around you; don’t "lose face" and credibility by failing to live up to written or oral agreements Trust the contract; don’t get into legal hassles by not fulfilling the agreement
Business culture Quiet and reserved; clumsy communicators Outspoken; eloquent; effective communicators
Negotiation Style group decision; final say by the "boss"  more individual authority and distributed decision making
Dealing with business counterparts Indirect; courteous; takes things personally; long memory for both favors and humiliations Direct; more matter-of-factly; memory for conflict superceded by business objective
Language Ability  [Chinese dealing in English] conversation/speech: weak

written: slightly better

reading: good (if there is no time pressure)

Strong (English)

Almost negligible Chinese language capabilities; except where ethnic Chinese intermediaries are involved

Ability to make Immediate Response weak strong


Table 2.  Significant  Value Differences Between China and US

Interpersonal "relationship" comes first "economics" comes first
on "humility" "humility" viewed as a virtue "humility" is a sign of weakness; there is every reason for the abled to be proud
Time Horizon accountable by the generation (~30 years) accountable by the quarter (~3 months)
What commands respect respect for seniority, wisdom, ability respect for success, achievement, wealth
on "family" children learns to respect the elder, love the young and rely on the "extended family" children should learn to be independent
on "the strong" and "the weak" it is not righteous to bully it is an honor to win; business is all a competition; it is only natural that the weak is preyed on by the strong
Discipline (in following procedures and schedules) strong depends on the individual
Tolerance of Diversity / Openness to alternative (possibly opposing) ideas Openly - very receptive; but actually, less so More open
Shame or Humiliation long memory; need and urge to exonerate tends to be superceded by business priorities
Priorities mixed: business, individual, factional, nationalistic and political almost strictly business



The experiences of the authors support the postulate that Internet and Groupware facilitate US-China cross-cultural communications and thereby make collaboration across the two cultures easier. The enactment or social construction models of learning and knowledge creation suggest that other such cross-cultural collaborative efforts also can effectively use Internet and Groupware technologies. Especially with "greenfield" operation, both sides develop a "shared language" through the implementation of new systems and processes. The socially-constructed shared knowledge base resulting from these experiences may not be easily captured in books or procedures manuals. This may be an example of knowledge that is embedded in, and does not exist apart from, the relationships themselves. All this can have significant benefit for partners in cross-cultural collaborative efforts.

From these observations and models, we conclude that the Internet and Groupware technologies facilitate learning of partners’ strengths and thus make China-US ventures and alliances more effective. However, the technology itself is not a panacea; it does not eliminate cultural differences; we should not exaggerate its role. These technologies serve as a bridge to simplify and aid communication. However, in using this bridge, both partners can focus on a shared object and shared processes, thus building shared experiences and enacting a shared knowledge base.

In the process of establishing mutual trust and confidence, face-to-face contact will not be eliminated. The Internet and Groupware technologies may be able to reduce the number of such meetings; they certainly can make such meetings more effective.



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This paper was first presented by the authors at the 7th International Association for Management of Technology Annual Conference (IAMOT’98), Feb. 1998 in Orland, FL. The text above is the edited version as published in "Cahiers du MoT" (notebooks of MoT), a publication of Groupe ESC - Grenoble, France in summer 1998.

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