October 2018 | Global Business Culture

Monthly Archives: October 2018

At Global Business Culture, we have spent twenty years developing and delivering cultural awareness training courses all over the world.

We have worked with some of the most prestigious of global companies, helping them improve levels of cultural fluency within their organisations.  So why do these organisations decide to invest significant budget and time on cultural awareness training when there are so many competing pressures on learning & development priorities?

Cultural awareness training should be a key L&D focus for any organisation which works cross-border.  This type of training increasingly becomes a ‘need to have’ rather than a ‘nice to have’.
Obviously, there is no single answer to why our clients invest in what we do but a few key reasons are as follows:


  • Ever-increasing levels of cross-border activity: Twenty years ago, cross-border interaction tended to be undertaken by a few carefully chosen employees – employees who often had significant international experiences.  Times have changed enormously however over the past twenty years and nowadays most people, in most functions have some kind of cross-border interaction if they work for an international company.  Therefore, the ability to work seamlessly across cultures has become a whole organisational topic.
  • The need to drive internal efficiencies: The biggest impact of unattended cultural differences within any international organisation is that they slow things down.  A lack of understanding about the subtle differences in approach that are found in approach to business across cultures (even within the same company) means that activity levels are less efficient.  This is just a fact. We can try and hide behind notions of a common corporate culture, but the simple fact is that cultural differences can very often lead to internal inefficiencies if not addressed
  • Client needs:  When people are working with clients in other parts of the world, they need to have some level of understanding of client motivations and expectations.  Clients in differing countries have differing requirements from their suppliers and if you are not adapting to those client requirements you can be sure your competitors will.
  • A pressing and immediate need:  If you have just been involved in a cross-border M&A for example it is imperative that both sides get a good understanding of the cultural drivers of their new partners.  Cultural alignment needs to happen quickly if 2 +2 is going to equal 5 rather than 4. The dire consequences of ignoring country cultural differences post M&A are well documented.
  • Cultural Awareness Training boosts profitability:  This is a big statement but just think about it.  What impact will the combination of improved internal efficiencies and greater client understanding have on your business?  It must be increased profitability.

If you would like to find out how we can help you at Global Business Culture, please contact us.

When organisations are thinking of delivering cultural awareness training to their employees, there are two key elements they need to address:

  1. The structure and content of the cultural awareness training programme
  2. The capabilities of the trainer

I have addressed the issue of course content in some earlier blogs and so wanted to focus more in this piece on the issues around trainer capabilities. I have been running cultural awareness training programmes around the world for major corporations for twenty years and during that time have encountered a great number of cultural awareness trainers who have varied in greatly in approach and suitability.

In my experience, great cultural awareness trainers share the following four characteristics:

  • Experience of living and working in multiple countries: Unless you have lived and worked in different countries for a considerable number of years it is difficult to speak with any authority about the impact of cultural differences on cross-border commercial activities.  The trainer needs to have walked the talk otherwise the cultural awareness training programme will lack authenticity.
  • Significant commercial responsibilities:  I work with senior leaders of major corporations and therefore need to be able to demonstrate that I have a high level of commercial acumen.  Any good cultural awareness training course should focus on the intersection of cultural difference and commercial success. If the trainer doesn’t understand business, they won’t be able to demonstrate where these intersections are.  This type of training might be vaguely interesting, but it won’t add commercial value to the client.
  • Leadership experience:  Any good cultural awareness trainer needs to have personal experience of leading employees from other cultures.  They need to have personally had to flex their leadership style to get the best out of colleagues who think, and act differently than they do.  Ideally, they should have led people in-country and in a global virtual environment.
  • Great presentational skills:  Even if somebody has all the attributes outlined above, they still need to have the ability to engage and enthuse a room of (sometimes) cynical delegates.  Story-telling is key to this. Merely regurgitating old cultural theories will not energise delegates and will not help them to see the practical application of newly learned knowledge to day-to-day business issues.

If you can find all these attributes in the trainer you chose to deliver your cultural awareness programmes you are probably onto a winner.  If any one of the above is missing, the training is likely to be far less impactful.

If you would like to discuss your cultural awareness training needs, please contact us.

Having spent the last twenty years delivering cultural awareness training to major corporations around the world, I suppose I should know the answer to that question!  However, it seems to me that a great many of my clients are confused when it comes to describing what they want a cultural awareness training programme to deliver. Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to outline what, in my view, cultural awareness training should focus on:

  • Awareness:  Seems a simple, even pointless, comment that cultural awareness training should develop awareness.  Yet what does this mean? Awareness of what? I can tell you what I think cultural awareness doesn’t mean – it doesn’t mean an awareness of the superficial differences that you can find in different business cultures.  If cultural awareness training focuses on such issues as how to give out your card in Japan or whether you should eat with only a fork in the USA, then that training is not going to add value to your business.

People need to be aware that they are taking their own subconscious commercial bias into every cross-border commercial interaction and they need to develop an awareness that they too are probably part of the problem.  All too often people point the finger at other cultural approaches and say, ‘it’s all their fault.’ It is very rarely all their fault and people need to be aware of their own role in misunderstandings or commercial impasses.

It is also essential that people become aware that commercial cultural differences can impact on every single aspect of corporate life.  They can impact on meetings, decision-making processes, attitudes to risk, leadership expectations and a myriad of other critical business areas.

  • Knowledge:  Having made people aware of the need to factor cultural differences into cross-border activities, any good cultural awareness training programme should then look at the key areas of knowledge which need to be acquired. Of course, knowledge can be acquired through experience, but it can also be acquired through good quality, targeted training – and that is probably a less costly option for your organisation.

Whenever you compare two different cultures’ approach to business (and we have spent twenty years doing just that – see www.worldbusinessculture.com) you always find that there is a degree of similarity in their approach to things and a degree of difference in their approach.  If people are working a lot with people from a certain business culture, it stands to reason that they need to know where the similarities are and where the differences will be found.  After all, any similarities in approach will be the places where bridges can be built, and relationships cemented, whereas the differences will be where the problem areas are likely to be found.

  • Application:  Having developed a cultural awareness training programme that walks people through a process of awareness raising and knowledge gathering, the programme should then move on to look at the practical application of that awareness and knowledge in real-life business situations.  Awareness and knowledge of themselves are not enough. A good programme should be rounded off by asking participants to assess how they can start to improve business efficiencies through greater levels of cultural awareness and knowledge.

If the cultural awareness trainer is to be of any help in this process of practical application, it stands to reason that the trainer needs to commercially experienced enough to be part of that process.  If the trainer doesn’t have the experience to help at this stage the whole process could be ultimately futile.

So, the three key elements of any meaningful cultural awareness training programme are awareness raising, knowledge development and practical application.

If you would like to discuss your training needs in this area, please contact us.

Do global marketers and sales people need cultural fluency or do generic marketing and sales concepts supersede any differences in approach and attitude found in differing countries around the world?

That is a question I am asked a lot during the learning and development programmes we run for a number of large multi-national clients around the world. I suppose the answer might seem obvious – of course people need cultural fluency and knowledge – but it is a question that generates a lot of debate so I thought it would be good to put down a few of my ideas in a post.

  • Communication: if both sales and marketing are mainly concerned with getting the right message across, it seems likely that good sales and marketing people need to be alive to the significant cultural differences which underpin the way in which people communicate. Good communication style in one country will often be viewed as very poor communication style in another. Is it therefore possible to have one style of message that is used across multiple territories? It is, of course, possible but probably not optimal. It is essential to get local staff to localise the message and, when they do so, don’t tell them they’ve got it wrong (unless it is off brand etc.) If you’ve recruited good people, they know their market better than you do.
  • Presentations: there is no such thing as a good presentation; there is only a good presentation in a certain location. We have a library of in-house presentations skills courses from different companies in different countries around the world and it is amazing that in some countries people are advised to (for example) put in as much detail as possible into a presentation so as to engage an audience whereas in other countries people are advised to leave out most of the detail so as not to alienate their audience. So if you are presenting in a foreign country, how do you structure your presentation? My experience says that most people have one style of presentation and that style is used everywhere. Might it not be better to adapt your presentational style to meet the expectations of your audience? Local help will probably be needed in these situations. And remember that even if you have a global corporate approach to the way presentations are expected to be delivered, that style only works internally – clients and other external stakeholders may have other expectations.
  • Images: you definitely need cultural sensitivity around this subject. Without local knowledge, how will you know what will offend sensitivities in a particular area? Certain cultures are sensitive to such varied issues as depictions of women in certain types of clothing, a photo of three people together, the soles of shoes, names written in red and many, many more. Are your marketing people alive to these sensitivities, and are they factoring them into the work they produce?
  • Website design: this is a particularly tricky area as websites are often seen as the global ambassador of your brand and marketing message. If you are from the US go and have a look at a few Chinese websites – lots of visual noise and very little white space. If you are Chinese take a look at some Danish websites – lots of white space and sparse text. Is it enough just to have your website translated into a number of key languages or do you need to look at different designs for different audiences? Are your web team alive to these cultural nuances or are they simply designing for themselves and people like them?
  • Negotiations: where to start with this one. People in the US like to get down to business quickly; people in Japan are focused on forming a good long-term relationship before even considering talking business. Finns like to come in with what they consider a ‘fair’ price from the outset; Indians are unlikely to ever take the first price offered. People in Sweden have a lot of authority delegated to them whereas you usually need to be talking to the top guy in the Gulf. Each country has its own unspoken rules as to how a negotiation is likely to be addressed. All countries want to negotiate hard but they want to negotiate in different ways and at different timescales. Your sales guys really need to be attuned to these cultural expectations if they are to be expected to perform to the maximum in a global environment.

So when clients ask me if global marketers and sales people need cultural fluency, my answer is always an unequivocal ‘yes they do’. But they also need help along the way – you can’t expect people just to pick this stuff up by osmosis. Give them the opportunity to be trained in these areas by people who know what they are talking about. Cultural fluency is a ‘need to have’ not a ‘nice to have’.

Since Global Business Culture started delivering cultural awareness training courses to major global corporations about twenty years ago, we have witnessed a proliferation of people coming into the market to offer similar products.  This is great as it means clients have more choice in terms of training providers they can work with but at the same time it presents clients with the perennial problem that accompanies choice – who to choose?

I thought it might be helpful to outline what twenty-years of experience in the industry has told me with regards to what a good cultural awareness training course should look like:

  • Intensely practical:  It is not really very helpful to merely recycle the well-know cultural theories of Trompenaars or Hofstede.  Without going into why these theories might in fact be flawed, we have found that what really resonates with our clients in the business world is the practical application of issues around cultural differences to day-to-day working situations.  Looking at ‘power distance’ isn’t of practical value but analysing how ‘power distance’ impacts on information flow and decision-making within a hierarchical structure is of immediate practical benefit.
  • Sector relevant:  The training deliverer needs to have some understanding of the practical application of cultural issues on the sector the client operates within.  Although the trainer does not need to be an absolute expert in insurance or real estate finance (for example) they need to understand what these sectors are and where the cultural challenges might lie.
  • It’s not all about them: Any good cultural awareness training course needs to make people look at their own behaviour as well as the behavioural norms in a target country.  Delegates need to leave the training course with a realisation that they themselves are also part of the problem and with an awareness that they might need to modify their own behaviours.
  • From awareness to knowledge:  Although the topic is often referred to as ‘cultural awareness’, a good programme should move from awareness to knowledge.  People need to be aware of cultural differences and the profound impact they can have on cross-border activities, but they also need to have knowledge of the behavioural norms in a target country.  The trainer needs to be able to focus on delivering the most important areas knowledge to the client on that country.
  • Beyond the superficial:  Too many courses focus on the superficial cultural differences in another country.  If the programme is about Japan, the course will focus on business card giving etiquette for example.  You will never lose a deal in Japan if you inadvertently offer your card in the wrong manner. I’m sorry but you just won’t!  You might lose the deal though if you don’t understand Japanese attitudes to risk and how to address that much more profound issue.

This is obviously not an exhaustive list but looking back at the key points it leads me to one conclusion –  that the training deliverer needs to have real, in-depth knowledge of not only cultural issues but also a wealth of commercial experience. You can’t talk about this stuff unless you’ve been there and done it. You need to have walked the talk.

The internet and digital marketing bring the world to our door and make access to new markets infinitely easier – or that is the current perceived wisdom. Things might not, however, be that straightforward.

The first, and pretty obvious, caveat to the notion that digital makes global access more easily attainable is that if digital makes it easier for you it also makes it easier for everyone else – including your competition. If it’s cheap and easy for you to attack a new market, logic dictates that the same must apply to everybody and the only possible result of that process is that every single market place around the world becomes ever more competitive and ‘full’. You’ll therefore need something pretty special to stand out from the crowd and that, unfortunately, is not merely a brilliant product which is appropriately priced. If people can’t find you it doesn’t matter how good your product and pricing strategy are – when you’re hidden, you’re hidden.

So if you need to be able to stand out from the crowd in multiple countries what do you need to know? To paraphrase: it’s all about the local culture, stupid! Each market place is different. The stalls are differently constructed, the colours chosen are bright or pastel according to local tastes, the products are arranged in weird and wonderful ways and the sales people use completely different patter.

Do you understand how each market works and how local consumers like to be approached? Probably not if you’ve never done business in that market before – so here are a few things you probably need to consider:

Develop cultural fluency

You are culturally biased. Sorry it’s just a fact. I am as well. Everybody is. We are all massively influenced by our own cultural background and those strong influences colour the way in which we view the world. Our cultural background dictates that we are all wearing a pair of cultural spectacles with thick lenses and those spectacles control the way in which we view the world – it gives us all a series of subconscious cultural and commercial preferences and biases. Ditch your cultural spectacles! Be objective in your assessment of other ways of doing things and approaches to business. Without cultural fluency, global marketing becomes homogenous and colourless.

Learn from the competition

Find out who is successful in your target market – both local and international competitors – and study what they are doing. Look particularly at the local competition and how they address the market and then look at the ways in which the international competitors have attempted to differentiate themselves from local players. What do the different websites look like – and don’t just dismiss the local websites as poor or amateurish because they don’t look and feel like you think they should. (That’s your cultural spectacles talking). There could be a very good local reason why a local website looks the way it does and that reason could be because the local companies really understand what their local customers want.

You only need to look at a few local China or India websites to see how different they look and feel from a more ‘usual’ western site – but often the local companies hosting those ‘amateurish’ sites are massively successful. Maybe you have something to learn from them rather than assuming they have things to learn from you. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with busy (China) or brightly coloured (India) – it’s just a matter of local preference and you need to understand what the local preference is.

Know the local rules of engagement

Different colours have different significance in different countries. Red is a lucky colour in China but is often used as the colour to alert people to danger in other countries. Semi-clad models are the norm in many western countries but taboo in many Middle Eastern markets.

The humour in your campaign that works well in one market will probably be incomprehensible in another market. (The only form of humour which is universally understood is slapstick and do you really want your brand to be dependent on the use of slapstick?)

If you are serious about penetrating a new market shouldn’t you do the requisite amount of research up-front to give yourself the best chance of success? Sure digital is global but it needs to be localised. It’s just lazy to put up a site and think it’s going to work everywhere or to assume that your product’s USP will be the same in every market.

Engage with locals – and then engage again

It sounds obvious but locals probably understand their own environment and customer base better than you do. So why not engage with them. Of course you need to question their assertions and not everything you are told will necessarily be accurate but local insight is vital and you are strongly advised to get good local advice and act on it as early in the process as possible.

Yes, digital is an enabler – but without a global mindset and an infinite amount or curiosity digital also has the danger of being a refuge for the intellectually lazy.