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Blog Category: Cultural Fluency

Cultural Fluency


Why cultural fluency in sales and marketing is paramount

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’.


3 reasons why global law firms need to develop global cultural fluency

Over the past decade, I have worked with some of the world’s greatest international Law Firms and I have been heavily involved with their globalization processes.

This has been a fascinating journey and I’ve learnt an enormous amount along the way. Many of the firms have grown from local powerhouses to global super powers and their progress has been fast and furious. Looking at various Acritas surveys over the past few years, it shows how the legal landscape has changed dramatically with many of the historically stellar names falling away as newer upstarts begin to assert themselves.

One thing, however, that all the major international firms struggle with is trying to make the dream of ‘a seamless service across the jurisdictions’ become a reality. All the firms purport to deliver this seamless service and yet behind the scenes all the firms realise that this aspiration is easier to write in a brochure than it is to achieve in reality. Making global firms ‘work’ cross-jurisdictionally remains a challenge to even the most sophisticated outfit and close attention is required to prevent the undoubted benefits of a global footprint becoming a colossal millstone around the neck.

One of the key essentials for any global firm is to ensure that they work hard to develop a ‘global mindset’ across the entire fee earning base as well as within the support functions. Far too often partners and associates are parochially focused – they often don’t see beyond their practice area let alone across national borders. This is not just my opinion – it’s borne out by the facts. The level of cross-selling across jurisdictions is often very poor in major firms and this remains a real break on the growth and profit levels of those firms.

So from my perspective the 3 key reasons firm’s need to work increasingly hard to develop better levels of global awareness and cultural fluency amongst their employee base are:

Clients demand it from their trusted advisers

As well as working with global law firms, I work with in-house counsel teams and Global General Counsels are getting tired of firms telling them they work seamlessly across the jurisdictions and then not delivering on that promise. One GC from a global corporation recently told me he has moved away from using firms across multiple jurisdictions and gone back to a model of hand-picking firms in specific counties. ‘It’s much more work for us but I owe it to my company to get the best level of service I can. I’ve tried a number of global firms and none of them have delivered on their promise.’

The more offices a client works with, the stickier the client

All of the statistics show that the more international offices a client works with, the more likely they are to remain loyal over the long term – and the more offices a client works with the more profitable the client becomes. These facts are well-known and yet high volumes of cross-border, cross-selling remain a distant aspiration for many firms. I have often encountered levels of mistrust across offices which manifests itself as a suspicion over quality levels in other countries. However, this mistrust is often based on a lack of knowledge about ‘how things are done’ in that other jurisdiction and what ‘good’ might look like over there. Working with a large UK firm who merged with a large German firm I heard a lot of comments along the lines of ‘the way they do things over there – it’s all wrong’. What people really meant was that things were different over there and they simply didn’t like it.

If you don’t understand an overseas client’s expectations, you can’t deliver against them

Not all clients think the same way and not all clients have the same expectations from lawyers in terms of approach and service. If you are working into a global client base you need to develop high levels of knowledge of different cultural approaches to business around the world – and that is not about how to hand over a business card in Japan. You need to understand what psychology (the result of your own country cultural programming) you are taking into any client engagement, how that differs from the psychology of your overseas counterparty (the result of their country cultural programming) and what the impacts of those differences are for you and your client. Without this knowledge you are fighting with one hand behind your back.

In a modern, ultra-competitive, cut-throat global legal market place, developing high levels of global cultural fluency within a firm is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s a ‘need to have’. At Global Business Culture we have unparalleled experience of working on these issues with global law firms. If you would like to discuss how we can help your firm gain a competitive edge in this area please contact us.


Why should an organisation build cultural fluency?

I really believe this statement is true if an organisation is to be able to work really effectively across the barriers of culture, language, geography and time. The problem is that people are not necessarily born with an innate understanding of how business works in areas of the globe they don’t know and maybe have never visited.

The process of changing global mindsets in any international organisation is a three step process:

  • Awareness building: You have to get people to intellectually buy-in to the fact that international cultural differences can have a very significant impact on the efficiencies of any global organisation – and therefore its profitability. Sounds like an easy step but it isn’t.
  • Knowledge development: unfortunately it isn’t enough to be aware that cultural differences exist – you then need to acquire the specific knowledge to interface effectively in lots of different markets. Awareness will get you to accept the need to be adaptive and not make assumptions but the adaptations needed when dealing in India or Brazil will be very different. This knowledge can be acquired over long periods of time and through making countless errors or the process can be speeded up through good quality training interventions.
  • Embedding insight into corporate processes: Once people have awareness and knowledge, they need to embed the lessons learned into the warp and the weft of the organisation. If you work in a global environment, every time you make a decision the impacts of that decision land differently in different places. How can you control the potential negatives of the impact of unforeseen cultural consequences and reactions? It’s not easy but it can be done.

In my experience – and I’ve worked with major organisations all over the world on these issues – this process is rarely approached with a consistent, whole organisation plan and progress towards better quality and more effective global co-operation is slow.

If you would like to discuss how Global Business Culture can help you develop greater levels of cultural awareness and fluency within your organisation, please contact me on keith@globalbusinessculture.com


You really need to build your own levels of Cultural Fluency

I really believe this statement is true if any person is to be able to work really effectively across the barriers of culture, language, geography and time. The basic problem is that people are not born with an innate understanding of how business works in areas of the globe they don’t know and maybe have never visited – this knowledge and awareness needs to be developed.

The process of changing your mindset and developing better levels of global fluency and therefore the ability to work seamlessly across cultures is a three step process:

  • Awareness building:You have to intellectually buy-in to the fact that international cultural differences can have a very significant impact on the efficiencies of any global organisation – and therefore its profitability. You also have to accept that you have a role to play in this process. Sounds like an easy step but it isn’t.  If things go wrong when you are working cross-border it’s always partly your fault.
  • Knowledge development:unfortunately it isn’t enough to be aware that cultural differences exist – you then need to acquire the specific knowledge to interface effectively in lots of different markets. Awareness will get you to accept the need to be adaptive and not make assumptions but the adaptations needed when dealing in India or Brazil will be very different. This knowledge can be acquired over long periods of time and through making countless errors or the process can be speeded up through research and good quality training interventions.

  • Embedding insight into corporate processes:Once you have awareness and knowledge, you need to embed the lessons learned into the warp and the weft of the  way in which you do things on a daily basis. If you work in a global environment, every time you make a decision the impacts of that decision land differently in different places. How can you control the potential negatives of the impact of unforeseen cultural consequences and reactions? It’s not easy but it can be done if you have a deep understanding and the requisite level of knowledge.

In my experience – and I’ve worked with business people all over the world on these issues – few people really take the time to understand the impact of cultural differences.  People only tend to think about these things when something goes wrong and that’s usually too late.

If you would like to discuss how Global Business Culture can help you develop greater levels of cultural awareness and fluency personally or within your organisation, please contact me on keith@globalbusinessculture.com


Ethics and Global Culture

Global Business Culture works with a large number of major global corporations and as they become more and more engaged in business activities outside their home bases in North America and Western Europe, they seem to be asking increasingly difficult questions about the difference between cultural sensitivity and ethical correctness. I suppose the question boils down to a simple one – should we always play by the rules of the country we find ourselves operating in or should we always apply the rules that work in our home country? Those of a culturally understanding nature, as well as those who place the commercial imperative before all else tend to argue that ‘when in Rome do as the Romans.’ But is it really that simple? Should local norms always trump home country beliefs?

One of my North American clients placed a female employee as the project lead on a project with a certain Asian client. They received an email from the client in Asia saying they would prefer a man as the project lead. What should the North American company do? Should they acquiesce to the demands of the client even though that would contradict both the law in their own country and their strong corporate policy of being a gender blind employer? When I pose this question to clients around the world, responses vary enormously and not just, as might be expected, along gender lines. I’ve had female managers in the US saying that the client is always right but then being argued with by male colleagues who say that corporate policies should be adhered to regardless of the commercial consequences.

I spend a lot of time explaining the impact of differing attitudes to meetings, decision-making styles etc. on global business and my usual advice is to adapt to the expectations of the client as this can help you meet your goals on time and on budget. Nobody objects to the idea of adapting to a different meeting style – but condoning gender bias or bribery is a whole different ball game!

These issues are really complex and there is no simple answer to them. However, I strongly believe that a global company needs to address these difficulties rather than sweep them under the carpet. Organisations need a clear policy on all of these issues which is then effectively communicated and they also need to be strong enough to apply that policy in all situations – no matter how commercially uncomfortable that might be. It just not fair to say ‘we don’t pay bribes’ but then to punish a sales guy for losing a contract because they were competing with someone who did. It sounds bizarre but it happens.

If you’d like to discuss how increased cultural fluency can help you develop and implement effect global compliance policies, please contact me at keith@globalbusinessculture.com


English as the Global Communication Language

Like it or not, English is the common global language adopted by most international companies.  The trouble is that language levels in English vary around the world – even within one organisation.  Native speakers often assume that ‘if somebody is working in my company, they have to have really high levels of English.’ This is often a dangerous assumption.  Just because people don’t tell you they haven’t understood, doesn’t mean they have understood!  People often don’t tell you – it’s a face thing.

So when communicating in English in a global environment, everybody needs to think very carefully about the way they use English.

Be aware of the following at all times:

Control Your Speed

  • Keep at the forefront of your mind: slow down, slow down, slow down.
  • Speak at the same pace regardless of who you are talking to.
  • Don’t speak more slowly to non-native speakers only to speed up when conversing with other native speakers.

 Vocabulary 

  • Native speakers use all kinds of vocabulary that non-native speakers simply do not know.
  • When working internationally it is a good thing to use the same vocabulary over and over again.  It is the message which is important, not the style of the messenger.

Sayings

  • These figures of speech such as ‘cheesed off’ (unhappy), ‘sticky wicket’ (difficult situation) are usually very difficult for non-native speakers because they are often illogical.
  • Colloquialisms (sayings) are very confusing when used in an international situation.  There is always another way to say the same thing – choose the other way.
  • Colloquialisms (‘sayings’) are a good thing to talk about in social situations as people love to learn them.  In serious meetings, however, they can cause great confusion.

Humour

  • Humour is usually at the edge of linguistic difficulty.
  • Humour is very often culturally specific.  What one country finds funny, people from another culture may find irrelevant or even slightly surreal.

Abbreviations

  • Very few abbreviations are universally understood and it is best to be very careful about their usage.
  • Abbreviations are usually short forms of common phases such as a.s.a.p. (as soon as possible) or abbreviations of Latin phrases such as n.b. (nota bona).
  • TLAs (three letter acronyms) – which are often used to describe products or parts of your organization – should be used very carefully.  Does everybody understand them?

Silence

  • When people do not respond quickly to questions, non-native speakers usually answer the question themselves or simply move on and ignore the silence.
  • Often, non-native speakers do not respond immediately because they need a little more time to form an answer than they would if they were speaking their own language.
  • Give non-native speakers a little more time and space in which to operate.

Non-native speakers

  • Never be afraid to say you don’t understand
  • Never worry that people will think badly of you if you ask them to repeat things
  • Ask people to slow down if they are speaking too quickly
  • Ask people to follow-up in writing if you are worried you might have missed or misunderstood something

You can probably think of other useful hints and tips but these are a good starting point.

At Global Business Culture we run training programmes on global communication all over the world – if you’re interested to find out more please email me at keith@globalbusinessculture.com


Shared Service Centres and Global Cultural Differences

It may be a contentious statement but many of the well-documented difficulties associated with getting international shared service centres (ISSC’s) to work effectively and efficiently are actually cultural and linguistic in origin.

Maybe it isn’t that contentious a statement after all because what you are actually saying when moving to an ISSC model is that ‘we think we can make things run more smoothly and more efficiently by taking operations out of the country which they service and replace the operations of 10 countries, 10 different business cultures and 10 languages within 1 remote location’.  The process sounds complex to me but, having worked on dozens of these transitions over the years, the mindset seems to be that these issues will sort themselves out somehow over time.

It is telling that in every single example where Global Business Culture has been called in to help with cultural problems at a major ISSC, we have been called into the frame well after the transition has happened – nobody seems to want to look at these issues in advance for some reason despite the fact that so much academic research and pure anecdotal evidence point to cultural differences as the key stumbling block.

So what tend to be the problems?  There are many but here are a few for starters:

  • From mono to multi-cultures: Many managers suddenly find that they are, almost overnight, transitioned from a position where all of their reports are in one country, speak one language and have one culture to a position where they are having to deal with a mass of different and new cultural approaches.  They are seldom ever given any help in addressing these issues and then negatively appraised on how they are doing.
  • Erasing of years of process and knowledge: People are expected to abandon the way in which they do things for a new approach that they don’t understand or agree with and which will often ride rough-shod over cultural attitudes and expectations.  Actually that is almost the key objective of undertaking an ISSC project in the first place – to iron out all those costly differences in approach and process and replace them with a single, ‘better’ system.  There may well be logic and efficiencies in the new process (almost definitely there will be) but if this transition is badly handled, the resentment ensuing will very, very quickly negate any benefit accrued.
  • Lack of relationship-building opportunities: In-country contacts built over many years are replaced with new colleagues in a distant location with very few, if any, opportunities to build the all-important relationships which can help to smooth out problems which inevitably arise during and after transition.  This problem is often exacerbated through the use of nameless ‘ticketing’ systems that mean most issues are handled by multiple (nameless and faceless) hands at the ISSC.
  • Attrition: This is a perennial problem at most ISSC’s and one which increases the difficulty of the relationship-building process.  After the initial adrenalin rush of the ISSC start-up phase, the work often settles down into a routine and humdrum process and then people simply get bored and move on.  This can lead to more inefficiency as new people are on-boarded and tensions between the ISSC and the home teams can slowly rise as a result.

I could enumerate many other areas of potential tension and inefficiencies but what is important is that all of these issues are addressed either before transition or as the difficulties arise, rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist or will disappear through osmosis.

You can address these issues through timely and targeted interventions and if any of these issues ring true to you and you would like to see how we could help, contact me at keith@globalbusinessculture.com

This post was originally p


The Globalisation Gap

A recent Boston Consulting Group report highlighted the capability gap companies are faced with when trying to achieve their global ambitions.  The work Global Business Culture has done over the past 15 years or so with companies going through this globalisation process would fully support the findings of this report which highlights a number of key deficiencies.  Our assertion would be that one of the core knowledge gaps (if not the key knowledge gap) companies struggle with is a lack of understanding of the profound effect local cultural business approaches can have on the delivery of any global strategy.

 

When going through this globalisation process I’m afraid you just have to face two unassailable realities:

  • In a global environment, you just don’t know what you don’t know.

and……

  • Every time you drop a pebble into the global pond the ripples will go to places you have just never thought of – and maybe didn’t even know existed.

The BCG report highlights three key areas of concern:

  1. Go-to-market capabilities:  How can you successfully penetrate a market when you just don’t know what makes the people in that market tick?  How can you sell when you don’t know what the ‘hot buttons’ are? This is completely cultural.
  2. Supply chain and logistics:   These areas are massively impacted by culturally differing approaches to such issues as attitudes to contracts, time scales, supplier selection difficulties and communication problems.
  3. Spreading best practice: This is often done in a colonial way – ‘this is the way we do it back home’ tends to go down really badly in countries who might feel their ‘normal’ way of doing things is far superior to this newly imposed dictat.  This lack of accommodation to local sensitivities often leads to international merger and acquisitions failing badly with key people leaving quickly after the merger and taking key contacts and clients with them.

I have seen all of these problems happening time after time, year after year with monotonous regularity.  Globalisation is a mindset not a word.  Understand your own view of the world, your counter-parties’ view of the world and where the similarities and differences are.  The similarities are the points of contact where you can build bridges and forge efficient common practices; the differences need to be acknowledged and worked on.

Deep cultural understanding is a ‘must’ not a ‘nice to have’ – but then I suppose I would say that wouldn’t I?

If you would like to discuss how Global Business Culture can help your business work more effectively in a culturally complex world, contact me at keith@globalbusinessculture.com

This post was originally published on LinkedIn, July 16, 2015. 


Global Culture and Supply Chain

After a lifetime working on Global Supply Chain & Logistics, Think Global Growth’s founding director Neil Moon (ex-Agility Strategic Enterprise VP) realised that many of the key pinch-points within global Supply Chains are actually the direct result of globally differing views about how business is done in various parts of the world.  He saw that many of the problems around such issues as communication break-down, planning, contracting, dispute resolution and adequate staffing were all caused by the fact that people in China simply did things differently than people in the UK and that people in the UK did things differently than their counterparts in Germany.  The problem was that nobody really understood these issues.

As Founder of Global Business Culture I have worked for years on helping with the operational efficiencies of organisations who work cross-border.  Working with many of the world’s major corporates I had also come to realise that the cultural dissonances found within global supply chains were causing huge problems which people often lacked the awareness and knowledge to overcome.

Our meeting resulted in us developing the world’s first programme which fuses global supply chain excellence and global cultural competence.  The programme, called ‘Global Business Culture and Supply Chain Management’ is aimed at helping industry experts hone their skills and really get a better understanding of how global business culture can impact on key elements of supply chain management and what steps can be taken to ensure global effectiveness.

This one-day programme fuses deep global cultural knowledge and a lifetime of supply chain expertise – it’s an essential ‘must do’ for people who look to continually improve their operations.

If you would like more information on the specifics of this programme, please contact me at:  keith@globalbusinessculture.com

This post was originally published on LinkedIn,


5 Reasons your Organisation should become Culturally Fluent

Lots of organisations seem to face huge capability gaps when it comes to successfully implementing global strategy.  The strategy may be fine as a concept but individuals within companies very often lack a sufficiently global mindset to allow them to implement the strategy successfully – and that’s when things can go badly wrong.

Many of the problems related to any corporate globalisation process are caused by a lack of global cultural fluency which leads people to take the same approach to everything, every time, everywhere – they embrace a ‘once size fits all’ mentality.  In the multi-faceted, complex global world we all work in today, this s approach just doesn’t work – perhaps it worked twenty years ago when the big global players ruled the world but the world has since become a much more level playing field these days and a ‘one size fits all’ approach is quickly rejected just about everywhere.

So what should companies and individuals within those organisations do?

  1. Recognise and accept how little you actually know about other countries and other markets. There is no shame in recognising that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’  If you start with the assumption that there are a multitude of unknowns and then accept that it is your responsibility to do some initial research on those unknowns, things will probably work out better.
  2. You also need to accept that you take a significant level of cultural bias into every cross-border transaction. Your background makes you see things in a specific way – but your Chinese counterparty probably looks at the same situation and sees something completely different.
  3. Build into your thinking that ‘just because things are different’ in another country it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are wrong – they might be wrong but a different approach might actually be better than the way you do it ‘back home’. This sounds simplistic but it is very often a difficult message for people to take on board.
  4. Think about the impact of every decision for every location. A centrally determined policy is usually biased towards the country it originate from (usually where the Head Office is.)  You want to move towards a flatter structure?  Great – but how do you make that work in a country where hierarchy is not only the norm but seen as the way in which the whole world (both business and private) is and always has been shaped?  A message from head office or a town hall meeting is not going to change a mindset 4000 years in the making! (Indeed is town hall meeting a good thing in the first place in certain countries?)
  5. Accept that a good idea is a good idea – regardless of where it started. Not all good ideas start with you or in your country.  The sign of a truly mature global company is when you begin to hear people in the centre talking about the things they can learn from the outside (other countries.)  Not all good ideas start in your head office – but equally not all ideas which come out of head office are bad.

What I am really saying here is that knowledge is the key.

People in your organisation (and not just a few at the top or in the ‘international function’) need to be more aware of the impact that international culture has on every facet of business, they need to be given the specific knowledge necessary to work their way around a complex global environment and then they need to apply that knowledge and awareness f0r the benefit of the business.

One thing is certain – cultural fluency within an organisation never happens by accident.  It needs careful planning, training and targeted interventions.