Blog Category: Cultural Awareness

Cultural Awareness

Why invest in Cultural Awareness Training?

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.

What makes a good cultural awareness trainer?

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.

What is cultural awareness training for business?

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.

What does a good cultural awareness training course look like?

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.

Is it possible to build a Global Appraisal System in a Culturally Complex Organisation?

As more and more companies organise themselves in regional or even global structures, the need for some form of global bench-marking of performance becomes ever more pressing – but is it really possible to have one system that can accurately grade performance in the USA, China and Nigeria?

The problems start to arise as soon as you try to set benchmarks for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in any interpersonal situation. The complexities of global cultural differences mean that what is considered poor behaviour in one country is likely to be viewed positively in another:


  • Is direct and honest feedback to a co-worker good practice? It probably is in the Netherlands but just as probably isn’t in Japan (or even the UK).
  • Is individual initiative to be encouraged? Definitely in the USA but less so in India.

So who chooses what is deemed to be ‘good’ behaviour and what a corporation wants to encourage in its employees? In my experience it is usually the Head Office who calls the shots and who decides positive from negative, good from bad – and then fails to understand when it is accused of latter-day colonialism.

How globally savvy and well-equipped with cultural knowledge and empathy are key HR team members and how open are they to a challenge to some of their basic beliefs in this area?

These are all difficult questions but ones that need addressing. The Mercer survey of 2013, stated that only 3% of respondents from a sample of 1056 global companies said their current appraisal systems were delivering value – so something is obviously not working at the moment.

If you would like to understand how Global Business Culture can help your HR team develop the necessary levels of cultural fluency to tackle this issue effectively, please contact me at keith@globalbusinessculture.com

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