Increasing Competitive Capacity through Improved Global Communications
In The Work of Nations, University of California at Berkeley professor and former. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich sums up the essence of “globalization” stating: “We are living through a transformation that will rearrange the politics and economics of the coming century. There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will no longer be national economies . . . all that will remain rooted within national boundaries are the people who comprise a nation.” Simply stated—the global marketplace is changing. Today we live in a business climate that is characterized by overwhelming ambiguity, paradox, shifting definitions of value and the need for rapid, transformative change in a multicultural context. This affects business conduct as well as how we interact with different cultures on a personal level. In order to participate in the global marketplace, individuals and organizations must confront complex cultural issues. The challenge is not only for top-tier business leaders; rather, issues are found within all levels of an organization and in routine day-to-day activities such as team meetings, email exchanges and one-on-one communication between peers and superiors. If no handled effectively, misunderstood communications, misinterpreted expectations and inappropriately defined roles may cause loss of productivity, increased opportunity costs and eroded competitive advantage.
Snapshot in Time
We live in a time of exciting—and challenging—marketplace transformation. The concept of doing business on a national level is no longer the norm; our corporate landscape extends beyond confined borders, reaching into a global pool of colleagues and competitors. While opportunities are available to all businesses, sustainable success comes to companies that are prepared to conquer the ever-evolving challenges of both technical ability and interpersonal acumen. This expertise demands more from employees than simply speaking and understanding languages. In the global marketplace, an organization’s success at achieving its strategic goals, operating at peak performance and creating competitive advantage all rely on one source: its ability to effectively appreciate, understand, value, trust, engage and employ the multiple perspectives and learning abilities of the world’s cultures. Indeed, how effectively an organization can harness its collective global thinking abilities, global learning capacities and global creativity is literally all that separates it from every other organization.
Communications in a Global Marketplace
There’s no disputing we live and work in a global age where advances in technology bring people of different cultures together—both in our personal lives and in the workplace. While this is an interesting and intriguing dynamic, the experience can be frustrating when communicating with those from another culture. How do you start a conversation or discussion? What cultural “offenses” might be inadvertently committed? How can you motivate the global workforce, structure a project or communicate a business strategy? Are we destined to only learn from our mistakes to understand cultural differences? The answer is a resounding “no.”
How Culture Impacts Business: The Research
Culture has long been studied by anthropologists and sociologists, and much of what we know comes from these academic disciplines. Indeed, some of the most important of these studies have been the work of Mildred and Edward T. Hall, who focused specifically on identifying how different cultures understand and manage time as well as the degree to which context contributes to meaning in communications. In addition, social psychologist Harry Triandis has extensively studied individualism and collectivism and their impacts on productivity and relationships. In terms of studies about the direct impacts of culture in business, from 1967 to 1973 Dr. Geert Hofstede, an IBM psychologist, conducted what is considered the most comprehensive study of how values in the workplace are influenced by culture. Hofstede collected and analyzed data gathered from more than 100,000 people in 40 countries. His results generated the basis for developing a model that identifies five primary dimensions to differentiate cultures and has since become an internationally recognized standard. Hofstede’s dimensions analysis assists individuals and businesses alike in understanding the intercultural differences within regions and between countries, paving the way for heightened understanding, enhanced performance and improved productivity.
Language vs. Understanding
Language ability is not the same as cross-cultural or business/management competence, and “common vision” does not always mean shared understanding. Miscommunications can significantly reduce productivity and increase organizational costs by creating unnecessary delays and obstacles in meeting business objectives. Consider:
- How much time passes between the time you send an email to an international colleague and the time you receive a response?
- Do you ask a question and get an answer to a different question—or don’t get an answer at all?
- How many clarifying emails do you send before receiving the correct or complete information you need to do your job?
- You hear your international colleague say “yes,” but you find out it doesn’t mean “yes, I’ll do it,” it means “yes, I heard you.”
- How much time is lost—potentially delaying a project—while waiting for information from international colleagues?
- How many sales are lost in the international market due to misinterpreted client needs?
- How many misunderstandings happen because you don’t know what your customer actually values?
From the executive level and planning stages to day-to-day operations, clear communications are a non-negotiable requirement for moving a company forward through the global marketplace.
Global Literacies: Lessons on Business Leadership and National Cultures
A 2000 survey by Patricia Digh and Dr. Robert Rosen asked CEOs of the world’s 1500 largest companies what the one key skill they felt leaders needed to be successful in the global economy. In response, more than 70% of those surveyed said that the ability to work effectively across cultures was the single most important attribute leaders need in today’s global marketplace. Indeed, contrary to conventional wisdom, this study made quite clear that in a borderless economy, culture matters more—not less.
Establishing a Global Mindset
A foundation of basic cultural concepts and the development of a global mindset contribute to effectively engaging in intercultural interactions in a global marketplace/workplace. But just how does one go about establishing such a mindset? It begins with culture.
Culture reflects a way of life for a group of people: the arts, beliefs, laws, morals, customs, habits, symbols, institutions, and transmitted behavior patterns—including styles of communication—of a community or population. Culture is determined by history, geography and climate and influences how people feel, look, think and act. Culture helps determine our beliefs, and thus affects our behavior. Embedded in our culture are specific cultural values.
Cultural values often determine how we each think about and approach our own behavior and interaction with others. Cultural groups tend to hold beliefs and display behaviors that coincide with their values. Understanding what these values are, and how they operate and drive behavior, can help you interact with different cultural groups more effectively. When we attempt to understand other cultures, we are broadening our mindset as well.
Mindset is a mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations. Our mindsets open the more we are exposed to cultures different from our own. A global mindset is based on global knowledge and understanding of cultures and appropriate ways of interacting with members from varying cultures. We further develop global mindset through personal experiences with other cultures and interaction with global markets and businesses. Acquiring a global mindset at a foundational level has broad application.
Stereotypes vs. Generalizations
Establishing a global mindset does not happen quickly. At times, our experiences, knowledge and understanding limit us. As a result, we fall back on stereotyping. A stereotype is a standardized mental picture that is commonly held by members of a group and represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude or judgment about other groups. People tend to use stereotypes when they have limited knowledge about or lack firsthand experience with other cultures. While intent may be positive, stereotypes are not the best shorthand way to understand other cultural groups. Generalizations are an acceptable shorthand method for understanding others. They are based on research about global cultures and values. Knowledge and understanding can be gained from multicultural interactions and from a variety of media outlets. Generalizations can be a helpful starting point in getting to know your coworkers and customers so you can recognize their preferences.
Differences between Stereotypes and Generalizations
Foundation for Improved Multicultral Communications
Understanding and Recognizing Cultural Continuums
Intercultural research shows us that there are behavioral tendencies within cultures/regions of the globe based on the common values people share. These values tend to fall somewhere between two opposite ends of the cultural continuums and impact both individual and team abilities to solve problems and make decisions.
Five Cultural Continuums
It should be noted that although these dimensions are presented separately to enhance their understanding, in practice they are intended to be considered together in order to “paint a picture.” While the continuums are certainly valid individually, their power in terms of application is recognizing how each continuum directly impacts the larger picture. Each of these five cultural continuums have a direct business application.
The O.P.E.N. Process
With a global economy, the potential for ineffective interactions due to cultural misunderstanding is real and has an immediate impact on global business. The best way to improve cross-cultural interactions and avoid misunderstandings is the application of the O.P.E.N model. The O.P.E.N. model involves four basic steps:
Observe the behavior; observe and identify global and cultural tendencies that impact individual and business effectiveness.
Prepare a response; prepare responses to common cultural interactions using specific skills and strategies.
Engage in communication; engage in effective communication in a global/multicultural setting.
Notice the results; notice the results of global communication strategies and revise and adapt as necessary.
Improved Multicultural Communications in Action! Consider this situation: A large U.S.-based division of a multinational corporation was unable to get payment from a subsidiary in China. Everyone involved was highly-educated and experienced in global markets. In an effort to communicate clearly, the U.S. team got increasingly stern in email communication and referenced documentation, legalities and late fees. In response, they received communication from their Chinese counterpart stressing the message was understood and that it would be discussed with their team. After months of unresponsiveness, the U.S. team resorted to hostile threats.
What went wrong? First, direct and threatening communication was eroding trust. Second, the key decision maker in China was not appropriately involved; the more direct the communication became, the worse the situation. What was needed was a personal trip, extended time in meetings to build relationships and acknowledgement of appropriate decision channels.
The rest of the story: After working with a global communications consultant, the U.S. team did make a personal trip, toured the facility and spent time with the team. They met the key decision maker and did not discuss money. In the end, the U.S. team was rewarded with a payment of the full amount as they boarded the plane. Indeed, a happy ending to a real story.
Global Business is Not a Choice, It is a Reality
It is imperative for organizations to bridge cultural and language barriers to be able to achieve more effective cross-cultural business relationships and improve global performance. Today’s workforce requires knowledge of the ways in which culture impacts and influences work-related outcomes on a day-to-day basis, and organizational leaders at any level must become more globally productive using a cross-cultural mindset. By gaining an understanding of and appreciation for the value that can be created or captured through effective cross-cultural interactions, organizations enhance their reputations as a globally-competitive business, communicate with customers and colleagues in a culturally-sensitive manner, expand effectiveness in the global marketplace and demonstrate flexibility and agility as an organization through effective cultural interactions. The bottom line: When you open your mind, you open your world.
Amy S. Tolbert, Ph.D., CSP is a faculty member of LEADERSHIP USA.