The Rhetoric of Culture as an Act of Closure

The rhetoric use of culture can be used to exclude specific groups in global software development projects

Global software groups working in distributed settings are increasingly common and many studies of cross-national groups point to cultural differences as a key challenge in managing projects. Asymmetric cultural relationships and subgroups often emerge in such work units where group members construct categories to differentiate themselves from one another. Such asymmetries and subgrouping may lead to exclusion or what we call “closure”. Closure can be described as specific actions that potentially exclude others from social and economic resources for instance by ignoring or constantly criticizing a particular group of people.

The underlying motives behind closure can be described as uncertainty about the future and fear of losing control of the project.

Offshoring is driven by the market. We are moving tasks, so in a growing market we will be able to sustain the work force [locally], assuming that the people we have are willing and capable of changing their roles and professional profiles. But as I have…said…there is no job guarantee.

However, in our case many employees in the client company questioned the rationale behind offshoring. A recent study found that negative attitudes are likely to emerge when employees see little benefit from offshoring. In our case the client employees remained skeptical towards offshoring, and tried to maintain tasks and decision-making power locally through informal acts of closure. In the cross-national department we studied, the higher status workers were on the client side, and lower status workers consisted of the offshoring employees. By “high” and “low” status we refer to differences in decision-making power and influence on tasks and work processes. The higher status workers on the client side were responsible for sales, client relations, developing software architectures, programming, and assigning and scoping work tasks. Offshoring workers were responsible for programming modules of the software products and testing.

Client side employees evaluated the quality of the work done by offshoring workers, but not vice-versa. Interestingly, these two groups had very different ideas about the impact of culture on the collaboration.

The largest barriers are often determined by culture.


Instead we have to remember that we do not share the same
logical background in both culture and language, right?


The client side employees described culture as a barrier for the collaborative and would often point to cultural differences as an explanation for misunderstandings. On the other hand the offshoring employees did not see culture as a mayor issue and would tend to look for other explanations when the collaboration failed. 

People confuse poor communication with cultural differences. It is very popular to say that it is a cultural issue. I actually do not think there are that many cultural issues.”

Employees on the client side invoked the rhetoric of culture in an attempt to maintain power and influence in their work practices, while offshoring employees resisted cultural explanations, providing other causal explanations. Closure occurred in response to new conditions of work and uncertainties and concerns generated by offshoring. In construing national culture as a stable, persistent condition, options for negotiation and discussion, which might have brought the two groups of employees into a state of more equitable relations, were foreclosed, and static relations tended to persist. The vague formulation of culture was a more subtle and ambiguous way of using closure than, for example, deliberately ignoring someone or being highly critical. We observed how the rhetorical use of culture was a clear pattern of behavior, and was used only by employees in the client office.

Closure affected media choices and patterns of everyday communication. In particular, we observed how modes of asynchronous mediated communication enabled acts of closure through the rhetoric of culture, whereas video conferences seemed to promote collaboration through the necessity of commitment, and possibly through the face to face nature of videoconferencing, a topic that requires further study.


Related publications

1. Jensen, R.,E. and Nardi, B. (2014). The Rhetoric of Culture as an Act of Closure in a Cross-National Software Development Department. Accepted at the European Conference for Information Systems (ECIS’14)