Trying to do international business without prior cross-cultural training is a recipe for disaster. But there is more to such training than learning how to order a five-course meal, says Sudipta Dev
When organizations become cross-border entities, cross-cultural factors start affecting every aspect of the business. Whether in multi-cultural teams or in business interactions, the variants of cultural nuances eventually end up affecting the business. Cross-cultural training is conducted by many Indian IT organizations to equip their employees with skills to do business in a global environment. But there is much more to cross-cultural training than a crash course in etiquette or learning how to order a five-course meal; it is about a deeper understanding of the values and ethos that define a culture. However, this starts by understanding one’s own culture and then graduating to understanding and appreciating the differences of another.
Misinterpretations and misconceptions are common when the same situation is viewed differently by people from different cultures. The basis of inter-cultural relations are not about changing other people, but adapting oneself to another culture. In India, while earlier the focus was on training professionals working with software companies on international assignments, today it is an integral part of BPO culture for those personnel who have to interact with overseas clients.
Cross-cultural training can be divided into three categories—education, actual training and coaching. Explains Stephen Martin, president of ITAP Europe, which provides cross-cultural training and consulting to many organizations worldwide, “Education helps managers understand how cultures affect them as individuals. Training is conducted looking at the way companies manage their workforce. It focuses on different ways of management in different countries. Next follows the coaching stage which includes consulting, including that for particular projects.” The whole process gets more complex when it involves integration of more than two cultures, which is a common occurrence in global organizations today. For instance, take the case of an Italian manager of an American company working with an Indian workforce.
He asserts that before training people in someone else’s culture, it is important to make them understand their own, following which they should look at other people’s approaches and try to understand that they are not inferior or superior, only different. ITAP uses tools such as the ‘Culture in the Workplace Questionnaire’ developed by Dutch social scientist Dr Geert Hofstede to illustrate culturally-dependent work preferences. It focuses on the fact that it is important for individuals to learn about their own cultural profile and then compare it with others. “Responses to the questionnaire help to illuminate attitudes and values, and provide a springboard to understanding and discussing cultural differences and similarities. The insights are then built upon to create more effective cross-cultural working relationships,” states Martin. (The training modules are specific to particular companies.)
Mergers and acquisitions
Some mergers and acquisitions (M&As) fail because of people factors when two work cultures fail to integrate well. The situation worsens when it is also a cross-border integration. What drives most M&As is the business logic. However, Martin points out that a KPMG study indicates that financial sense is not enough to succeed; one has to address the issue of national culture early on. There is apparently no off-the-shelf solution for this problem. He cites the example of a conglomerate of 10 American companies which were bought by a French organization. A few French employees were sent to the US by the headquarters in Paris. These people were asked to make a daily report in French (a language which the Americans did not know) of the activities in the office. They were considered to be spies by the Americans. In the French business model, hierarchy is important and everything is centralized. In the US, it is just the opposite—processes are informal, they believe in decentralization, and decisions are made near the customer. Soon after, business started dropping as employees were continuously living in a state of mistrust and suspicion.
“The solution was to make the senior managers in America understand that this was how life was going to be because they were now a French organization; hoping that the French would change their behavior was not realistic. The CEOs of the 10 companies started a relationship-building exercise with the French headquarters; they understood that it was better to have their own connection in Paris than a ‘spy’ in their office. Gradually the situation started improving,” recalls Martin, insisting that such relationship-building efforts are not short-time solutions but an investment for the long-term.