Speaking the same language

February 5, 1999

An Israeli research team is tackling complexities of communication across cultural boundaries, Helena Flusfeder reports

Cultural differences can cause misunderstandings when email is used for internal communication in multinational organisations. The problem is that even when everyone uses a common language, the same words mean different things to different people.

To prevent such misunderstandings, researchers at Israel's Bar-Ilan University have developed software that automatically links terms used in email messages to explanations held in a "corporate memory".

David Schwartz and Dov Te'eni of the university's graduate school of business administration developed the software as one of the first projects of the university's new Centre for Organisational Knowledge Technologies, which brings together academia and industry and aims to combine organisational skills with information technology.

The researchers say that adding context to a "lean" email message can greatly improve understanding and the effectiveness of email.

Dr Schwartz explained: "Most organisations today use a simple search tool to search their organisational memory. We've identified problems in communication in a multi-national company - due to differences in culture, education and management style. When people communicate across different countries, there can be misunderstandings. We're resolving the misunderstandings by linking emails to the organisational memory.

"An email from a manager in the UK might say: 'Make sure that the report is here by tomorrow morning' (the British manager understanding by this 9 am). However, the Israeli manager (due to cultural differences) might understand, 'some time the next day'."

According to the researchers, "The British manager would not understand why the Israeli did not have the numbers to him by 9 am; the Israeli would not understand what all the fuss was about."

They say that an organisational memory entry to explain the different interpretations of time, for example, could help the partners' understanding of each other and therefore their communication with each other.

Professor Te'eni explained that one of the main ideas behind the new centre is that in order to develop good technology, there had to be a good understanding of how people communicate.

"The centre is trying to get a better understanding of how people communicate and how to use knowledge technology to improve communication. Communication is the most important infrastructure for collaboration. Professor Te'eni said he hoped that "better communication would lead to better collaboration in the region." In another project, the centre is working with Delta Industries, a textile company which has a Jordanian partner.

The projects are being supported by Chase Manhattan Bank.

Initial results of the email project will be presented at the UK Academy for Information Systems annual conference in York in April (www. cs. york. ac. uk / lsb / ukais 99/) and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Human Computer Studies.

Dov Te'eni: teeni@mail.biu.ac.il

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