Cross-cultural understanding – why bother?

| By TMA World


National culture has always been a complex and difficult construct to define.

All cultures are more nuanced than we might ever imagine and in today’s borderless world where cultures increasingly connect and collide, the art of finding distinctive or even unique characteristics of any national culture is becoming even harder.  

Greater access to knowledge, data, and multiple perspectives add complexity rather than simplify our ability to capture and distil the essence of a nation’s culture accurately and objectively. 

So how does this impact on the challenges of preparing managers for working internationally, where cultural awareness is often cited as being “the critical ingredient for success”?   

The truth is; it’s not always essential for success. Indeed information on customer preferences, local talent capabilities, local laws, rules and regulations and organizational performance may have much more of a positive impact on a manager’s performance than acutely tuned cultural insight. But this is far from being true in all cases.  

When it comes to the relative importance of cultural awareness in international business, there is an uneven landscape;

• Some industries require more cross-cultural awareness than others
• Some countries require greater cross-cultural sensitivity and analysis than others
• Some functions need more specific cross-cultural knowledge than others
• Some people, because of their role and personality, need more cross-cultural insight than others

Whilst the global financial services industry is highly integrated and can easily cohere cosmopolitan individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds seamlessly through technology, the management of extractive industries like mining, oil, gas, or retail management are often far more localized. Operating in Australia, as an American-headquartered, multinational company may be considerably more straight-forward compared to establishing operations in Russia, where political savvy and context may be the central differentiator between success or stalemate. A manager with minimal international work experience, regardless of how internationally connected he or she is on social or professional networks, will have different needs to those who can process their experience on the back of ‘lived’ international exposure.

In short, cultural intelligence is relatively important; but just how important it is, is differentiated around the globe and determined by its context. There is a dangerous tendency to over familiarize the similar (‘it’s all just common sense’) whilst mystifying the exotic or unusual to the point of incomprehension or incompatibility.

There are many considerations in assessing the relevant level of emphasis to place on cultural awareness before specifying what type of cultural learning is appropriate for your international managers.  

Here are five:

• Priorities – The relative importance of a country / market in relation to your international strategy

• Economics – The alignment of favourable national economic conditions at a macro and market level

• Politics – The relative compatibility of national political intentions and the prevailing ideology

• Legal – The consistency of legal infrastructure and the fit of ethical codes with company requirements  

• Linguistic Compatibility – The ease of linguistic clarity between key people operating in different languages

• Engagement – The degree of success dependent or reliant upon high levels of local workforce performance

The greater the lack of compatibility …the greater the need to enhance your organization’s cross-cultural capability.

Be globally minded but also worldly wise.

Interested in how introducing a cultural intelligence tool in your business could help to create a more borderless workforce? We’d love to show you our groundbreaking platform.