The Cost of Ignorance By Ladan Nikravan

Culturally naive business managers are allowing their organizations to lose millions of dollars in lost opportunities due to cultural misunderstandings, which are leading to the mismanagement of employees. Miscommunication and a lack of cross-cultural understanding are two main barriers organizations face when it comes to working globally. In an increasingly aggressive global business environment, there’s no time for the misinterpretation and blunders that result from failing to recognize and understand each other’s values.

In a poll of 200 U.S. business executives conducted in 2007 by global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company Accenture, more than half — 53 percent — of the executives conducting business globally said that different approaches to completing tasks caused problems between employees of two different nations, and 44 percent cited different attitudes toward conflict and different decision-making styles between the groups. Results of the poll showed that individuals believed that adopting cross-cultural communication training programs could increase productivity by an average of 26 percent. Many companies, however, are still hoping for success by trial and error. “Best-practice companies are preparing in advance and making plans,” said Charlene Solomon, executive vice president and co-founder of RW3 Culture Wizard, an intercultural training consultancy. “It doesn’t mean you have to change your beliefs; it just means you’re more aware of other people’s belief systems.”

In order to be able to predict precisely and understand the behaviors and reactions of counterparts in a foreign environment, business managers are going to need to require cultural training both for themselves and for their employees. Cross-cultural knowledge is necessary to be able to adapt and acknowledge behaviors in different cultural situations. The strategies used in implementing these values are no different from other learning and development programs.

“It’s important to deliver information to adult learners in bite-size pieces for the depth of knowledge that [an] individual learner wants at the appropriate time,” Solomon said. “An online process will allow that capability to happen. It’s very advantageous to have more traditional, face-to-face classroom training where people get together and can even work with a teacher or trainer and ask specific questions, but that’s very time-consuming, it tends to be very expensive, and also with global teams you often cannot do that. You need to offer a blended alternative where people can do some pre-learning online, come together in a webinar format with experts and ask some specific, more targeted questions. You need to have it really detailed to what their specific needs are within the program.”

Because so many global business communities speak English, many businesses haven’t seen the need for such training.

“People say that we hear the same rhetoric since we are able to understand the same language,” said Lori Madden, owner of Spanish Language Solutions, a forum dedicated to education about cultural issues distinguishing U.S. and Latin American businesses. “[They say,] ‘Everyone abroad speaks English; it’s the international language of business. We do things better. The rest of the world wants to emulate us, wants to be us.’ Since this same message has been inculcated into us, it’s hard to believe that it’s simply not true.”

According to Madden, choosing the right employees to take on an international project is the first and most important step when planning for international success. Then, it’s about giving those suitable employees the proper tools and lessons.

“Learn as much as possible about the other country,” Madden said. “Be culturally sensitive. Realize from the start they are not following your timeline; you have to adapt to theirs. Get to know your contacts and let them get to know you. You need to earn their trust before they will decide to transact business with you.”

The importance of cultural lessons in issues such as time, hierarchy, respect, relationships and procedure are an imperative need for a global leader. Business will only continue to expand. “We’re going to be interacting much more intensely as we go forward in time, so the opportunities for difficulties, misunderstandings and miscommunications are going to increase,” Solomon said. “In the 21st century, gaining global, cultural skills and becoming fluent in cultural awareness is very much the same as understanding payroll or other standard procedures. You can’t avoid it. You’re going to be dealing with people from so many different backgrounds.”

Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor for Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@diversity-executive.com

Norm Bond
NORM BOND shows people how to use digital marketing tools to find customers, grow sales and increase profits. And if you're not using digital tools he shows you how to do that too. He currently splits his time between Bangkok, Thailand and the U.S. He is available for consulting and speaking.
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