Encounters with the "Remote Other" - Escalation of Disengagement Across Distributed Groups: Ownership and Opacity

Getting a large group of workers to develop and sustain engagement in a common effort over time can be a major challenge in any industry. Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour Anca Metiu uses the example of a large, American-based software developer as a test case for the engagement (or in this case, mainly disengagement) processes that can occur between dispersed working groups. The author's choice of industry is an apt one: the US's continued domination of software code development is now being seriously challenged in several regions around the globe, including in the homeland of the American firm's R&D partners, India.

by Anca Metiu
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Getting a large group of workers to develop and sustain engagement in a common effort over time can be a major challenge in any industry. The remarkable rise in remote working groups that globalisation and IT developments have made possible in recent years add to this challenge enormously. Much current research, however, indicates two uncomfortably consistent realities for multinationals. Engagement is harder to develop and sustain if face-to-face communication is rare (or largely impossible due to geographical distance and time zone differences). Second, remote work requiring collaboration with quite dispersed groups, not simply isolated individuals, often demands a radical change in interpersonal attitudes on the parts of all concerned - not always an easy thing to achieve. Particularly difficult is to change such attitudes when the status of groups involved in collaboration is itself changing.

Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour Anca Metiu uses the example of a large, American-based software developer as a test case for the engagement (or in this case, mainly disengagement) processes that can occur between dispersed working groups. The author's choice of industry is an apt one: the US's continued domination of software code development is now being seriously challenged in several regions around the globe, including in the homeland of the American firm's R&D partners, India.

The author presents an analytical, but highly readable account of how two types of what she terms "opacity" served first to undermine the efforts made by the Indian engineers, then to undermine their morale and effectiveness as full partners on the development of the Shield project, a suite of software components intended to provide tracking and protection capabilities for internet or corporate intranet users. This opacity, defined in this context as a "lack of knowledge about the work processes, work content, and identity of developers at the remote group" on the part of their US-based colleagues, was in fact a wilful, cynical strategy to acquire total code ownership over all Shield modules once they were ready to launch.

Prof. Metiu studied the stages of engagement and eventual disengagement that characterised the divisions of tasks between the American-based and Indian-based developers. "Innocent" opacity occurred due to factors largely beyond anyone's control; time zone differences, uncertainties in the overall market, etc. More insidious and far more damaging for the Indians, however, was the "cultivated" opacity that became a virtual weapon used by the American engineers against their Asian colleagues. Over time, this ploy profoundly destabilised operations in India, weakening morale and engagement by the Indian developers in the project as a whole. When coupled with an eventual transfer of task ownership, this opacity did much to accelerate the processes of disengagement already underway between the two groups.

The author also details an often-shocking level of bias on the part of many of the US-based developers. On the whole, US-based engineers' scrutiny of the efforts of the Indian developers came in the form of criticism, often blatantly hypocritical. Even positive reports from developers who had been to India were largely met with at indifference at best at head office.

Perhaps the most valuable and surprising of Prof. Metiu's findings involves the complex ways in which status can be determined in distributed groups, and how disengagement can result from pronounced inter-group status differentials. "Inter-group engagement was possible as long as work processes were transparent and both groups had ownership over their work," the author says. "However, engagement was a fragile accomplishment that was difficult to sustain as soon as the high-status group lacked the desire to engage with the remote site."

INSEAD 2004

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