Volume 15 Numbers 1& 2,
A Qualitative Analysis of Online Group Process
in Two Cultural Contexts
Penne L. Wilson, Ana C.
Nolla, Charlotte N. Gunawardena
of New Mexico
López-Islas, Noemi Ramírez-Angel, Rosa M. Megchun-Alpírez
Virtual del Tec De Monterrey
Abstract: Employing focus group data, this study examined if
there are differences in perception of online group process between participants
in Mexico and the United States of
America (US). Focus group participants identified several factors that influence
online group process: (1) language, (2) power distance, (3) gender differences,
(4) collectivist vs. individualist tendencies, (5) conflict, (6) social
presence, (7) time frame, and (8) technical skills.
The need to understand how
groups process in an online environment has become increasingly important with
the expansion of the Internet and the World Wide Web as a medium for
collaborative learning and team work in cross-cultural and cross-national
purpose of this paper is to discuss an exploratory study conducted to examine if
groups in two national contexts, Mexico and the USA,
perceive online group process differently and if these differences could be
attributed to cultural differences. The team of researchers in
Mexico and the USA
wanted to identify issues that should be considered in the development of
international online discussions that would maximize inclusion of the
2. Review of the Literature
The review of literature
examined research related to three areas for this study: (i) group process; (ii)
cultural variability factors; and (iii) computer-mediated communication (CMC) as
a medium for discussion.
2.1. Group process
Successful groups require open communication, mutual
supportiveness, effective conflict management, discussion of strategy, and the
appropriate weighing of individual inputs into group decisions (Gladstein,
1989). Group process can most easily be understood by describing its
relationship to three conditions that directly affect group interaction: (i)
group atmosphere; (ii) the relationships that develop between group members; and
(iii) the communication system that is established. Analyzing these three areas
can explain what is happening in a group in terms of process (Robinson and
2.2. Cultural variability factors
influencing group process
According to Branch (1997,
p.38), “Culture can be regarded as the epistemology, philosophy, observed
traditions and patterns of action by individuals and human groups. Cultural
groups develop rules for interacting as a way to negotiate physical
environments, explore religious beliefs, and achieve socially constructed
desires.” However, culture is not static, culture is constantly changing and
individuals belong to more than one culture, some voluntary and some
involuntary. Not only is culture an abstract concept of self and group, “it also
consists of a distinctive symbol system together with artifacts that capture and
codify the important and common experiences of a group” (Wild,
1999, p.198). Within the CMC
environment, culture reflects the greater environment within which the
conference exists. However, the members of the group also create culture as they
work and communicate together.
In his research into
business-oriented cross-cultural values, Hofstede (1980)
identified four dimensions against which the nationally-held values of his
sample could be classified. He labeled these dimensions
"individualism-collectivism", "power distance", "uncertainty avoidance", and
emphasize the individual’s goals while collectivist cultures stress that group
goals have precedence over individual goals. Individualism-collectivism is the
major dimension of cultural variability used to explain cross-cultural
differences in behavior (Gudykunst,
1994, Triandis, McCusker and Hui,
1990). According to Hofstede
Mexico is collectivist and
the USA individualistic.
Power distance is the extent to
which power, prestige, and wealth are unequally distributed in a culture. In
countries with larger power distances, higher-status individuals exert excessive
influence during group communication. In low power-distance countries, status
differences among individuals are less significant and people believe in equal
rights. Hofstede (1980)
identified Mexico as having large power
distances, where power is distributed unevenly in organizations and society.
Conversely USA scored low on power distance.
Uncertainty refers to the value
placed on ambiguity in a culture. It is the extent to which the members of a
society are made nervous by situations that they perceive as unstructured,
unclear or unpredictable. Hofstede (1980)
reported Mexico and the
USA to be among the countries having
lowest uncertainty avoidance and most tolerance of ambiguity.
masculinity-femininity dimension refers to the rigidity and definition of gender
roles and to the extent to which open conflict is deemed acceptable. Masculine
traits are attributes such as strength, assertiveness, competitiveness, task
achievement, and the acquisition of things. Feminine traits are attributes such
as affection, compassion, nurturance, and emotionality (Hofstede,
1984). The more assertiveness, competitiveness, and ambition are accepted,
the higher a country’s rank on the masculinity measure. Mexico and USA
were classified as masculine countries. However, Mexico scored well above the mean and the
USA very close to the mean (Hofstede,
1980). Herring's (1996)
research on Internet listserv discussions shows gender differences in
Despite some criticisms of
Hofstede’s dimensions, and the danger of stereotyping individuals of a
particular culture, Bell Ross and Faulkner (1998)
recognize that Hofstede’s work has made a valuable contribution to intercultural
understanding “[p]roviding insight into what culture is in and of itself” (p.39).
Hofstede’s model is one of very few empirically supported frameworks that
attempts to explain interpersonal phenomena and communication in terms of
observed cross-cultural differences (Barret,
Drummond and Sahay, 1996; Bochner
and Hesketh, 1994; Cifuentes
and Murphy, 2000; Fernandez
et al., 1997; Merritt,
In addition to the national
differences identified by Hofstede (1980),
cultures differ in communication styles. Hall (1976,
distinguished between high and low context communication. In high-context
cultures like Mexico, communication relies on
indirect verbal messages that are dependent on context clues. In low-context
cultures like the USA, messages provide most of the
information in the explicit code itself.
An important element of
cross-cultural communication that needs to be considered is language. While this
is an element often ignored in current theoretical frameworks, language
represents a different way of thinking as well as a different way of speaking
(Gudykunst and Asante, 1989). Language became a great barrier for Mexican
students interacting in a computer conference with students from the
USA because it detracted from equal
participation and made it more difficult for Spanish speakers to participate (Wilson,
Gunawardena and Nolla, 2000).
Computer-mediated communication as a medium for discussions
Three attributes of asynchronous
CMC identified by Harasim (1990)
– time-independence, text-based communication, and computer-mediated interaction
– influence the way individuals communicate in groups. While asynchronous group
interaction increases opportunities for member input that may enhance the
quality of decision-making, consensus decision making can be awkward and
time-consuming online (Harasim,
1990). Communication anxiety – the feeling experienced when one’s message is
not answered or referenced (Feenberg,
1987) – may be another concern, along with lack of immediate feedback which
makes it difficult to determine if the receiver has understood the message.
contributes to more reflective interaction (Harasim,
1990), and can free people from the bonds of physical appearance and enable
communication at the level of ideas (Harasim,
1993). However, many of the nonverbal and contextual cues generally rich in
relational information are absent in CMC. Social
presence theory (Short,
Christie, and Williams, 1976) has been used to account for the impersonal
nature of CMC. Harasim (1993)
cites research that shows that the reduced cues in text-based messages make it
difficult to resolve conflicts of ideology or interest. However, field research
in CMC often reports more positive relational behavior and has indicated the
development of “online communities” and warm friendships (Walther,
1995). Kollock and Smith (1999)
note that these online communities differ in important ways from face-to-face
communities. The comparative anonymity provided by the text-based system has
shown to create interpersonal distance that allows less vocal or introverted
participants “space” and opportunity to contribute, resulting in an equalizing
effect of participation (Hartman
et al., 1995; Olaniran,
1994). However, because of the premium on text-based communication, those
who feel that they are not good writers or for whom the language of the
conference is not their native language, may feel disinclined to participate.
is interactive, and encourages involvement. While the online environment is
particularly appropriate for collaborative learning approaches because it
emphasizes group interaction, individuals who do not wish to interact or who
have poor computer skills are less likely to participate.
3. Research Questions
This exploratory study examines
differences in student perceptions of group process in CMC in two national
contexts, Mexico and the USA It also attempts
to determine if the differences observed could be described as cultural
differences. The study draws on: (i) the dimensions developed by Hofstede (1980,
and Hall (1976,
to examine cultural differences; and (ii) the framework developed by Harasim (1990)
to understand the unique characteristics of the CMC medium that influence group
The following research questions
relating to group process in CMC were addressed in this study.
do Mexican and USA participants perceive the
unique characteristics of CMC as a medium for group work?
do Mexican and USA participants perceive conflict
as a factor in online communication?
Cultural differences are
multifaceted and complex. This study used focus group interviews as the data
collection method to seek input from students who had participated in a variety
of computer conferences. The researchers wanted to observe the interaction with
the groups based on the topics supplied as well as to use the data as an
exploration of new ideas.
The study of cultural factors
that influence group process involved the use of three focus groups that were
held to gain feedback and information about how groups process in an online
environment. At the University of New Mexico (UNM), two separate focus groups
were held, each with three individuals who had been, or who currently are,
students in the Organizational Learning Instructional Technologies (OLIT)
Department of the College of Education at UNM. Two of these students
completed Masters Degrees in OLIT and the other four were working on their PhD
in the same department. All of these focus group participants were involved in
more than one computer-mediated conference. All of them considered themselves to
be of USA nationality.
At Monterrey Virtual Tech in
Mexico (ITESM), one focus group with three individuals was held. This focus
group included Mexican students from ITESM online courses. These participants
were working on their Masters degree in e-commerce and all of them had
participated in more than one computer-mediated conference. All of these
students considered themselves to be of Mexican nationality.
A single set of questions was
developed for use by the researchers on each of the university campuses. The
focus group in Mexico was conducted in Spanish. The
transcript of the group discussion was translated into English and then sent to
the researchers in the USA. The transcripts of each of the
three focus groups were analyzed according to the method described below and a
set of themes was derived. These findings were then sent to Mexico
for verification by the Mexican researchers who provided clarification and
feedback before final compilation of the report.
4.1. Analysis of focus group
The text of the focus group
conversations was processed using content analysis. Krippendorff (1980)
defines content analysis as “a research technique for making replicable and
valid inferences from data to their context” (p.
21). In his explanation of the conceptual foundations for content analysis,
Krippendorff insists that content analysis must be predictive of something that
is observable in principle to aid decision making, or to help conceptualize that
portion of reality that gave rise to the analyzed text. He further suggests,
“any content analysis must be performed relative to and justified in terms of
the context of the data” (italics in original text) (p.
Coding of the text was performed
according to Neuman’s (1997)
three steps for content analysis: (i) open coding; (ii) axial coding; and (iii)
Open coding was the first
attempt to condense the mass of data into categories. Two methods were used in
the open coding process: deductive category application and inductive category
development. Using a combination of these two methods was important because it
allowed the researchers first to code the text using predetermined themes and
concepts and second to reread the same text and code ideas presented within the
context of the text which were not previously identified.
Concepts and themes previously
described by the researchers were applied to code the text using Mayring’s (2000)
step model of deductive category
application – a methodological controlled assignment of a category for a
prior formulated theoretically derived category. Figure 1 identifies the steps
in a qualitative content analysis using deductive category application.
Figure 1. Step model of deductive
category application (Mayring
Open coding of the text of the
focus group discussion was first done using the themes/concepts provided by the
Hofstede model which identifies five characteristics associated with various
cultures: collectivism/individualism; high power distance/low power distance;
high context/low context; high ambiguity/low ambiguity; and feminine/masculine.
In addition, although these
cultural characteristics were not enumerated to the focus group participants,
the first question they were asked was: “In general, what cultural similarities
and differences can you see that may account for the way in which groups
interact online, groups make decisions, and groups develop?” The cultural
characteristics identified by Hofstede, which were also referred to by the
members of the focus groups, included power distance, gender, and collectivism
The next question that was posed
to the focus group participants was: “If there were conflict in an online group,
how would you like to see it resolved?” The concept of how conflict is handled
in an online group was reflected in the text of the focus group discussion and
was therefore coded as a theme in the content analysis.
After the application of the
previously determined theoretically derived categories, a second method,
referred to by Mayring (2000)
as inductive category development,
was applied. To apply this method, the researcher works through the material,
and categories are tentative and step-by-step deduced. According to Mayring (2000),
“[w]ithin a feedback loop, those categories are revised, eventually reduced to
main categories and checked in respect to their reliability” (p.4).
Figure 2 is a representation of the step model for inductive category
Figure 2. Step model of inductive
category development (Mayring
Other ideas, which were
identified in the inductive category development process, were language, social
presence, and timeframe. Language was included as a theme because the focus
group participants indicated that language may influence the way in which the
participants process information and because language is also reflective of
thought processes. Social presence and time frame are characteristics of the
medium that were repeatedly mentioned by focus group participants as factors
influencing online group process.
After completing the application
of themes previously identified and the development of additional themes, a
second pass through the data, referred to as “axial coding” in which the
researchers’ primary task was to review and examine initial codes and to
organize and identify themes or ideas that were the key concepts in the analysis
1997), was completed. This reading of the text verified the themes that had
been identified and indicated that the characteristics identified by Hofstede
reoccurred in the focus group discussions that were held. The axial coding also
determined the order of importance of the themes identified by the focus group
4.1.3. Selective coding.
In the final selective coding
process, major themes or concepts that ultimately guided the researchers’ search
were used to reorganize specific themes identified in earlier coding and to
elaborate more than one major theme (Neuman,
1997). Researchers also looked for cases that illustrated themes and
comparisons and contrasts were made. The completion of the coding process led to
the synthesis of information that is included in this paper and its
Findings: Factors Influencing Online Group Process
The major factors which
influence the development of groups online belonged to the primary category of
culture based on the frequency of their mention by members of the focus groups.
The most often mentioned factor was language and language use. This category was
identified by the inductive category development process and resulted from the
communication and miscommunication by members of all three focus groups. Members
of the focus group in Mexico
and the two focus groups in the USA indicated that, even though
members of an online conference may share a common base language, if they come
from different parts of a country there might be differences in terminology and
in the use of certain words.
was noticed by a UNM participant that there are unique language uses within
the USA. For example, students living
on the east coast of the USA and those in the desert (referring to the
south-western part of the USA) may use words differently.
ITESM, a student observed that the most striking cultural difference was the
use of certain words with unclear or similar meanings. Although this
discrepancy in terminology caused conflict or misunderstanding only 1% of the
time in the discussion group, it was the main difference.
Language was also mentioned by a UNM participant who
noted that everybody is tolerant of other participants who are identified as
using their second language to communicate in the
long as second language speakers keep to the point, they will be accepted … (I
am) less tolerant of native speakers who don’t speak well.”
It was also observed that the participants of the
conference would develop their own language that includes the creation of
special jargon or the use of shortened terms. Within this context, a UNM
people do not use the right language, they will not get an answer.”
Within the text-based
environment of the computer-mediated conference, language was identified as the
primary factor that can aid or impair group process.
One of the ideas identified by
the members of the focus groups that contributed to development of the group was
the way in which students communicate with their teachers. This factor was
identified through the deductive category application using Hofstede’s model.
Within the context of the CMC, it was the teacher who most often functioned as
the mediator of the conference. The students from ITESM noted that the
Columbian, Ecuadorian, and Venezuelan students who were participants in the
online classes treated the teachers with a greater formality. It was suggested
by the focus group participants that perhaps this difference could be a lack of
familiarity with the distance education system.
(Columbians, Ecuadorians, and Venezuelans) have more respect for the
professors and we (Mexicans) do not have it but we approach the course with
more familiarity and confidence.”
could be ignorance about the system. It is not as much a lack of respect on
the part of the Mexicans, but rather either you know the system or don’t know
and they don’t.”
UNM, a focus group participant noted that, as the instructor in the CMC, she
tried to run her computer conferences with the idea that all of the participants
formed a single group where she was just another member of the group. Each of
these identified quotations indicated the perception by the students of the role
of the instructor. The power position which was given to the instructor by the
students affected the way students performed and the roles that they assumed
within the group.
addition, the roles that students play within the group are also related to the
cultural factor of power distance. At ITESM, the students felt that having
previous information about the participants was not important; they expressed
the idea that quantity and quality of interaction among the group members was
far more important than having information about the other participants. In
fact, one student noted:
“When I read the resume about another
participant, I was very impressed, but this person did not participate in the
session the way I thought that he would. Participating in the session is more
important than having an impressive background.”
5.1.3. Gender – masculinity vs
vs Femininity was a factor related to online group process which was mentioned
only by the participants at UNM. This characteristic was identified in
Hofstede’s model and was applied as a category to the focus group content
analysis through deductive category application.
of the focus group members at UNM observed that in the MUD in which he
participates, 70% of the participants are male and 30% are female. It is his
belief that this male to female ratio is responsible for the fact that the
tone of the conversations is very blunt. He said, “It is a wonderful world of
bluntness. Even the females are blunt.” The implication here would be that
males tend to be more blunt than females and that females who participate in
environments where males are in the majority, behave more like males.
member who also participated in a male dominated group noticed, “If a female
posts a message, she may get 30 answers, where a guy may get only two or
three.” He was suggesting that females are more noticed and nurtured by the
group than males. The competition that exists as a characteristic associated
by Hofstede with masculinity may also make males less inclined to respond to
other males and expect males to work out their problems without as much
female participant said, “I would not post in a group that was very
competitive … I want a group that is more democratic, more helpful.”
male participant observed, “If questions are long or touchy feely, people do
Each of these quotations
indicated that, at UNM, the roles of men and women within a group changed
according to the gender dominant within the group and did affect the way in
which the group functioned.
5.1.4. Collectivism vs
The Mexican students noted that, almost all of the time,
decisions were made based upon the ideas that began the discussions. The
preliminary postings to the online group were made by the Colombian, Ecuadorian,
or Venezuelan students.
took the first opinions and the decisions were a consensus based on that.”
think that there aren’t cultural differences when the group made decisions. I
have seen that the final work is an integration based on the first opinions,
which were from the Colombians.”
suggestion was made that, part of the reason that the students from the other
countries contributed first, was because Mexicans were lax in meeting deadlines.
But the students also seemed to exhibit collectivist tendencies because they
reached consensus almost always based on the first opinion or idea that was
stated. In the USA, there was much more of an
emphasis on conversation and the expression of differing opinions. It was felt
that the differences of opinions led to a richer conversation and resulted in
individual learning. This is an expression of individualistic tendencies, which
are more common in an individualistic society such as the USA
“I learn more from alternative perspectives,” a
UNM student stated.
5.2. Other identified
The category of conflict grew
out of the deductive category application and was introduced within the second
question addressed to focus group participants: “If there were conflict in an
online group, how would you like to see it resolved?” The Mexican participants
noted that there was not very much conflict within the conference groups because
the group was focused on the task and because, when a subject was posted, the
members of the group mostly agreed with the first one to post a message. These
focus group participants noted, however, that the non-Mexican students were a
lot more “direct.” At UNM there were varying opinions about conflict and its
role in group process. Much of the discussion about conflict centered on whether
or not conflict was necessary to get opinions rolling. One participant observed,
“I learn more from alternative perspectives … I like multiple perspectives.”
Another noted that while some conflict was healthy as long as it leads to a
sharing of opinions, too much conflict or “flaming” could cut off the
discussion. People will drop out of the conversation if the conflict is too
The following suggestions were
made by both the UNM and ITESM participants to limit the level of conflict.
Avoid group e-mail to deal with conflict and keep
The use of a moderator would be helpful. The
USA participants felt that the
moderator could check with the group to make sure that all of the members
understand the conversation. They also felt that the group members should talk
about the behaviors that they do not like to see. Then the moderator, if there
is one, or members of the group need to enforce those rules. The Mexican group
felt that the moderator should have the principle task of organizing roles and
Another way to help avoid conflict is to have
clear instructions and to establish basic rules for the way the group works.
The UNM participants also
suggested these ways to avoid conflict:
Find a common interest that the two conflicting
groups have and try to find some common ground.
It is important to give constructive criticism
and to avoid “flaming.”
Members of the group need to remember that it is
important to give the others a context for the comments that are made.
ITESM one of the biggest areas of conflict arose around meeting deadlines. The
students felt that because some of the students would wait until Sunday evening
to send the information, it was difficult for others to receive the information
in time to do anything with it. Students also felt that the late sending of
information might also jeopardize being able to receive it at all.
category of social presence was identified through the inductive category
development process. Social presence was defined as “the salience of the other in a mediated communication and
the consequent salience of their interpersonal interactions” (Short,
et al, 1976, p.65). The students in the UNM focus groups suggested
that it was important to the smooth functioning of the group to establish social
presence, a sense that the members of the group are “real people” (Gunawardena
and Zittle, 1995). While social presence may be desirable, some people
prefer more of a relational level than others.
following observations were made:
Building relationships certainly enhances
civility online. The downside of developing a relationship is that “nobody wants
to criticize you as you are now their pal.” The implication here is that this
lack of criticism could result in less conversation or could impede the
productive work of the group.
It is helpful to introduce yourself when working
in an online group so that others know who you are.
One of the group members who was an instructor
noted that she has been astonished by what students have shared with her via
e-mail. “It (the information shared) has to be based on trust based on my
postings to the conference.”
Another participant noted that a touch of humor,
a one or two “worder”, helps to get the group going every day as they attempt to
get a task done.
Another factor which can help to develop social
presence is the use of a quote on the signature line because it gives insight
into the person.
Mexican participants noted that they did not confirm when they had received
e-mail. This lack of acknowledgment may indicate a lack of social presence.
“We, the Mexicans, don’t confirm that we receive
failure to confirm attempts to communicate, they believed, could also lead to
the objectives of the conference not being achieved.
Mexican students also seemed to believe that too much social presence might be
detrimental to the achievement of objectives. They said that when they can see
someone, they have a tendency to judge them by what they see. In the online
environment, they have to focus just on what the other people said and how they
“I found a difference when I studied for my
program in a traditional classroom and online and this difference is that in a
sense the Internet or the online way becomes more democratic because we tend
much to judge the person as we see them and in the Internet, we give more value
to what the persons are contributing to the group.”
5.2.3. Synchronous vs
category was identified through the inductive category development process
during the open coding step of the content analysis. At ITESM, the students
seemed to think that the asynchronous CMC had more advantages, because
participants had time to find research on which to base their answers. One
“I think the asynchronous way has more advantages
because you have more time to think through your ideas and reflect on them.”
UNM, students felt that each of the time frames had its advantages depending
upon the purpose or the objective of the conference. Synchronous time frames
were generally used for groups that make decision or for whom ongoing
conversation was important. Asynchronous time frames were important when the
participants needed time to develop thoughtful answers or when the participants
were unable to get together at a given time. In relationship to this idea, the
“I have a theory that people are either
synchronous or asynchronous. Some like the immediacy of synchronous and the back
and forth of it, and others like the asynchronous.”
“MUDs are task oriented and synchronous. It is
harder to make a decision in an asynchronous environment.”
“I like asynchronous environments – you don’t
have to respond immediately. I have time on my side.”
5.2.4. Technical skills.
The varying level of
technological skills was an additional factor impacting group development
mentioned by some Mexico and
USA participants. If there is too
much variance in the technical ability levels of the participants, it may
negatively impact the ability of the group to function.
Content analysis of the focus
group discussions identified factors that had been previously identified by
Hofstede, but the groups identified other factors, which also determined the
ability of the groups to process.
cultural factors impact group process, so do more pragmatic factors like the
time frame and the commonality of the language that was used.
USA and Mexico
group participants preferred the asynchronous timeframe for the CMC environment
because it allowed for more reflection and for more careful work. As to the
commonality of the language, both groups believed that efficient processing of
the group was dependent upon a common language and common usage of that
language. Moreover, both groups alleged that differences in language for both
groups lead to conflict or affected the quality of work that was completed.
ability of the groups to either use conflict positively in group functioning or
to avoid conflict also determines how well the group processes. For participants
in the USA, conflict around differing points
of view was necessary, as long as it was not excessive or led to “flaming”, to
help members of the group think creatively. The more individualist environment
in which the participants’ function conditions them to see themselves as
separate from the group, and thus they are not offended when other members of
the group do not agree. For the Mexican participants, who work more regularly in
a collectivist culture, conflict is not a useful condition in a CMC environment.
The way to get work done is to establish a goal, and to begin the process
through the formulation of an initial idea on which others build. For
participants of both groups, the use of an instructor/moderator was determined
to be useful in keeping the groups on task. However, the role of the moderator
in handling conflict differed: in the USA, the moderator was to help keep the conflict
constructive; and, in Mexico, to help keep the conflict
minimal. One other important commonality identified by the groups was the
reduction of power distance in the CMC environment which makes the situation
the other hand, the way in which social presence is established was perceived
differently: in the USA,
there was an expressed need for introductions, personal comments, and humor; in
Mexico, there was the need to
contribute effectively to the group task.
importance of content analysis as a method in this study is that it did indeed
verify previously determined themes and concepts, but it also helped to identify
other factors, such as language and time frame preferences, as important to the
processing of online group. These additional factors can thus become the focus
of future online group process research, which can be extended to other cultural
groups in other countries and to other professions.
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