INTERCULTURAL CONFLICT AND ONLINE DISPUTE RESOLUTION (ODR)
ODR will become increasingly valuable in both online and offline disputes as applications are designed that efficiently and effectively meet the information processing and communication needs of disputants and third parties.
Introduction and background
Globally, conflict resolution research and practice have in recent years been developing comprehensively in the direction of online dispute resolution. Ever since the 1990’s, with examples such as eBay’s limited online mediation services, systems were developed to deal with online e-commerce and the disputes that inevitably arose from that, and of course also as a mechanism to aid in brand management.
This in turn led to the term online dispute resolution (ODR) being coined, and a new facet of human conflict management came into existence. These initial systems mirrored the more traditional physical mediation process to a large degree, but since the early years of the new century these two main streams have been diverging in important respects, to the point where we can no longer think of ODR as simply “mediation done on a computer”.
In the last 20 years then ODR has very much developed into its own specialized discipline, with some very good work being done in the research and practical arenas. This is of course very much a natural progression caused by technological efficiencies, the Covid pandemic and a fascination with all things “AI”. If humans are increasingly communicating with each other through various technological platforms, it follows that we can also make use of that same technology to assist us in these conflicts.
Focus of the article
As the specialized study and practice area of intercultural mediation is showing us with increasing clarity and urgency, culture is a crucial dynamic in conflicts where there is a meaningful difference in the culture of the participants. These cultural differences, if not properly understood and provided for in any conflict resolution process, could lead to significant injustices being perpetrated by any such conflict system.
It is here where a specific focus should be on online conflict systems, as they tend to formalize and homogenize processes, and where there are cultural differences between disputing parties this can be a further disadvantage suffered by a party already prejudiced by unacknowledged or misunderstood cultural differences. We will then, in this article, have a general look at ODR systems, but sharpen our focus on how these systems should provide for parity in our online conflicts so as to responsibly provide for our cultural differences and realities. This is of particular importance if we accept that ODR should, by all accounts, play an increasingly important role in our everyday lives in the immediate future.
A few working concepts clarified
Because ODR initially involved the (traditionally) two disputants, a mediator third party, technology and its influence and guidance was referred to as the fourth party in this conflict resolution process. With modern ODR often dispensing with the third party mediator, this reference to technology being the fourth party has nevertheless remained, This assistance, such as allowing parties to communicate, cutting down on cost and time in attending to disputes, assisting with information gathering and management etc makes the influence of technology in our disputes a reality.
By now, ODR has meaningfully diverged from traditional, in-person mediation in many respects. Once the importance of intercultural influences on conflict resolution is understood, a similar focus for ODR should follow. With the ubiquity of the concept of artificial intelligence (AI) in popular culture we also need to be clear that at this stage we are not really talking about AI when we discuss ODR. There may very well come a time when real AI is involved in these online disputes, and where the terms AI and ODR blurs into one, but for now we are simply talking about advanced technology being used to assist corporate entities, government departments and others to further and manage their conflicts.
More specifically for our current discussion, intercultural mediation is mediation, or any of the other conflict resolution methods and strategies specifically designed or adapted to recognize and respect the cultural differences between parties, and to ensure that ethically responsible and effective conflict management and transformation takes place given such cultural differences. Intercultural mediation as applied to the ODR environment is then specifically what we are focusing on here.
Examples of current ODR use and application
How wide one would throw this net would depend on one’s definition of conflict. With possible disagreement, customer complaints and service delivery all potentially leading to conflict and its consequences, to which we should add the resultant need for brand management, our field of focus should include not only formal mediation events, but also conflicts such as online customer complaint platforms, the internal ombuds appointed by certain institutions (such as banks, insurance companies) and the conflicts that they deal with. Internationally we find a growing use of ODR platforms.
During the Covid pandemic we have had several online adaptations for conflict resolution, and these developments have simply stayed on as fixtures in many organizations, with convenience, accessibility and time-saving oft-cited benefits of taking conflict resolution online. As examples we see workplace disciplinary hearings (including CCMA disputes), civil and criminal trials being conducted online.
A few important intercultural conflict resolution principles
Conflict resolution is premised on the conflicting parties being able to effectively understand the process and issues involved, to be able to make their views, concerns and needs made known clearly, and to meaningfully participate in the problem solving exercise and solution crafting that should follow.
Where intercultural communication fails, due to norm differentiation, miscommunication, misunderstandings, lack of parity in strategic areas and so on, these essential goals are missed. Failing to account for and effectively address such intercultural conflict challenges may very well, as is observable in practice, skew the power disparities between parties even more than may be apparent. A failure to comprehensively understand and incorporate this in the conflict resolution process simply denies the process legitimacy and fails to bring justice as intended.
These cultural conflict differences have an unfortunate, and potentially very harmful, simplicity about it in the popular perception. It is generally understood as “people do things differently” and from there follows a rather shallow acknowledgement of this conflict dynamic, if it is factored in at all. This concept of intercultural conflict influences fails to then understand, and deal with, the fact that these cultural diversities are far from superficial differences involving food, dress and speech, but that it relates to crucial conflict considerations such as how we process reality, how we shape, understand and apply meaning, what our expectations of conflict are, behaviours that we regard as appropriate or not, and how we relate to power. From such an expanded understanding of cultural diversity as it impacts our conflicts, we notice that to effectively understand and incorporate such diversity makes the difference between a fair, effective conflict resolution process and one that simply has a veneer of such credibility and efficiency.
It involves, whether in the corporate client conflict management or workplace arenas, a dedication to effective, real communication that would involve translation and conflict understanding beyond the superficial. In South Africa, as in the rest of the world, much urgent work lies ahead in researching and applying this insight and principles. The conflict studies and practice done in the relatively new field of intercultural mediation is to be commended for its sense of urgency and depth of the work that it is producing. The field of conflict practice still, however, lags behind its research iterations in focus in this regard.
These conflict diversity principles applied to ODR practice
As we have briefly alluded to earlier in this article, technology can tend to homogenize communication and processes. This may, if correctly applied, assist in negating cultural differences that may be holding progress and resolution back. Examples here could include distances that parties may have to travel, the effect of personal power plays and the inappropriate use of nonverbal behaviour, gender disparities and so on. It may also, however, simply deepen existing power imbalances or culturally sourced disparities, such as the use of and confidence in the use of technology, access to technology, and the conflict practitioner should be particularly alert to effectively addressing these possible problems in the process to be followed.
Here intercultural mediation, in particular, reminds us of the care we should take in approaching all conflicts with a particular norm in mind, and then dealing with perceived nonconformity as deviations to such a norm. What is the norm in conflict resolution? What culture should be preferenced? What approach will be the most efficient? We also note in practice that, most importantly, communication styles change from in-person to online presentation. The confident boardroom orator may lose some of his physical presence advantages, the timid woman who “knows her place” on the factory floor may find a new voice in an online process.
A large number of studies also point out how interpersonal and cultural cues get filtered out or diminished during online communication. This affects cultural understandings of physical realities such as tone and volume of voice, proximity, use of hands and other nonverbal behaviour. All of these factors can, and normally do, have a bearing on a party’s experience of their identity, and can create new and unhelpful levels of threat or barriers to understanding during conflict. Reaction to this “fourth party” in itself can also affect the process, and the mediator’s level of understanding and the general level of communication experienced. A party being self-conscious or reticent to speak using such technology may again affect their ability to effectively communicate and participate.
ODR in the workplace
Several European countries have had limited experimentation with ODR as management tool in the workplace, and I advocate its limited but focused use here in South Africa. As any competent dispute system design program will confirm, ODR applied in the workplace conflict / disciplinary process environment can lead to measurable management benefits such as early conflict detection, an increase in information gathering and storage, better confidentiality and whistle-blowing management, process management (improved minor hearings, warnings etc) and quite a few others. All other workplace conflict processes better served by in-person application obviously remain in place.
ODR is, in many important respects, still developing apace, with the frontiers of ODR and AI possibly blurring in the near future. A quick assessment of a variety of currently available ODR systems show a rather alarming lack of cultural diversity awareness in the design and application of these dispute resolution systems, with brand management often seeming to be the overriding goal. In South Africa our already complex conflicts are exacerbated by our cultural diversity, and rather than being a source of rich creativity it often ends up being one more divisive conflict cause or trigger. International studies show some fascinating new insights into culturally diverse team conflict dynamics, how cultural diversity can be transformed into an institutional asset during ODR, and how mediators can apply this increased understanding to assist parties to effectively transcend and resolve their conflicts.
Very little research and even less practical application of intercultural conflict resolution can at present be found in South Africa, and this field needs a lot of urgent and focused work. As online conflict resolution is inevitably going to increase in importance and availability, this area of our conflicts needs to be acknowledged and addressed. At this stage, at least in South Africa, ODR is a conflict arena with much potential to positively modify and address our cultural conflict disparities, but it will need to be responsibly harnessed by government, corporations and involved individuals to realize this potential.
1. Article “Interculturality in online dispute resolution (ODR)” by Dorcas Quek Anderson, in The Routledge Handbook of Intercultural Mediation”, edited by Dominic Busch, Routledge (2022).
2. Chapters 9 and 11 in my book “Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa”, Paradigm Publishers (2022)
Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.