Tag Archives: Global Business Culture


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

I ran two training sessions yesterday at the London Branch office of a major Japanese investment bank.

In the morning, I worked with a group of senior Japanese expatriates who have been seconded into the London Office – we were looking at the major differences in approach to business between Tokyo and London.  This session was designed to help these expatriates integrate more effectively into a UK business environment.

In the afternoon, I spent a few hours with a group of UK employees of the same Japanese investment bank.  The objective of second session was to help those UK employees better understand the internal workings of their Japanese parent company and therefore enable them to effectively influence at the head office level.

Both sessions contained a group discussion in which each group was asked to identify what they felt the major difficulties were when working with their colleagues from the different culture.  Thus, the British were asked to identify issues they encountered when working with the Japanese and the Japanese expatriates in turn were asked to explore the difficulties they had encountered when working in the London Office.

The output of these group discussions was fascinating.  It was almost as if I had influenced them in some way regarding the feedback they should give.  However, the feedback was completely spontaneous and merely highlighted the extreme cultural differences that can still be found within a single global organisation in 2018. Some people would like to contest that the cultural differences no longer exist, but I can assure you there are alive and kicking in 2018 even within highly sophisticated, globally experienced financial institutions.

I have put the feedback from each of the two groups into a table below.

Japanese problems with UK approach UK problems with Japanese approach
Extreme lack of attention to detail Obsessed with irrelevant detail
No preparation for meetings and therefore not possible to get to an answer Always come to meetings having already decided the answer
Make decisions too quickly based on insufficient information Very slow decision-making process caused through detail obsession
Make decisions very quickly but then change the decision just as quickly Once they have eventually made a decision they are nor prepared to change it
Prioritise private life over their working life and the company Obsessed by work to the detriment of their personal lives
Mean ‘no’ when they say ‘no’ Don’t mean ‘yes’ when they say ‘yes’
Speak too much in meetings – even when they have nothing of value to add Don’t speak up in meetings and express their opinions – why do they attend?

As you can see from this feedback, the challenges each group face is an exact mirror image of each other.  What one sees as a problem, the other group sees as a virtue.  There are no rights and wrongs in any of these issues merely deeply held convictions around how best to operate in the working environment in order to deliver the best results for the organisation.

I suppose the question that needs to be asked when confronted with such stark differences in viewpoints has got to be, ‘who should adapt to whom?’  This is a question that must be addressed by any international organization who wishes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their internal operations.  Unfortunately, the answer is not obvious or easy.

We spend a great deal of time working with our client base of major global organisations helping them to address these complex questions in a practical and effective manner.  If you would like to discuss how we can help your company you work smarter across the barriers of culture, language, geography and technology please contact me at www.globalbusinessculture.com

For more information on this and other global virtual team issues contact me at keith@globalbusinessculture.com

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

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

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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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‘International Business Attitudes to Corruption’ a report published by Control Risks, highlighted some of the extreme challenges faced by Compliance Officers within global organisations. As regulators increasingly extend their global reach whilst anti-corruption laws become ever more comprehensive, Global Compliance comes face-to-face often with uncomfortable on-the ground reality of culturally differing norms around the world.

The report points out that an over reliance on a belief that centrally driven compliance programmes will be understood and actively implemented in all parts of the globe can produce a dangerous disconnect between the perceived effectiveness of any programme and the actual reality on the ground.   The danger is that the process looks comprehensive and watertight at HQ but leaks like a sieve when it lands in different geographies.  This can actually lead to an increase in non-compliance rather than a reduction – thereby unwittingly exacerbating the problems.

Why might this disconnect occur and is it a process or a people problem?

I think the answer comes in one particular sentence in the Control Risks report which says that you need to really know who you are dealing with at every stage of your value chain, what motivates them, how they behave and how to forge compliant and collaborative working relationships’.

In reality this sentence is saying that you need to have a comprehensive understanding of the cultural drivers and expectations of the people you are interfacing with around the world and how those things will impact on the way in which your compliance programme lands.  That’s a tall order and requires a huge degree of global cultural fluency – a degree of cultural fluency that is possibly quite rare in global compliance departments.  In my experience some compliance professionals shy away from looking at the cultural nuances of all of this because it simply makes their jobs more difficult.  It may indeed make their jobs more difficult but without the requisite amount of global cultural knowledge, their jobs are actually impossible!

If, for example, your cultural background is one where corruption is so endemic it is as much a part of life as buying bread and where it is considered very bad behaviour if you don’t try to manipulate the system for the benefit of your family, friends or tribe or where it is an insult not to lavish extravagant entertainment on a potential client, then being presented a new programme or process from a faraway head office is unlikely to change your perception of what the world looks like.

How do we address the difficulty of trying to shoehorn a benchmark set of compliance principles into a world in which vast swathes of people simply ‘don’t get it’ or are just not interested? 

We want to be ‘glocal’ but rail against it when the local comes through more strongly than the global.  We want people to be fully integrated into the local market place so we can compete effectively but complain when people act as the locals act.  We want people to be able to compete against the local competition who do not have to conform to the policies of an alien Head Office which might be counter-cultural in that location.

The answer to this has to be education – both at Head Office and throughout the international network – but this education has to go way, way beyond the typical compliance e-learning programme – which is often seen as a backside covering exercise anyway.  The education has to be designed to help people develop a global mindset where all parts of a global organisation can see where the other parts are coming from.  Globalisation is a mindset, not a word.  Compliance is also a mindset, not a word (and certainly not a set of processes).

As Control Risks put it ‘you need to really know who you are dealing with at every stage of your value chain, what motivates them, how they behave and how to forge compliant and collaborative working relationships’.

We can help your organisation develop a global mindset and in so doing we can challenge the way in which you view and address the world. We can help make your compliance programmes meaningful in different territories.

If you would like to discuss these issues contact me at keith@globalbusinessculture.com

This post was originally p2015

In an earlier blog I discussed some of the findings of a recent Boston Consulting Group report which highlighted the fact that many companies face a huge capability gap when it comes to implementing global strategy.  The strategy may be fine but if individuals within the organisation lack the global mindset to enable them to implement the strategy successfully, then things can go badly wrong.

Many of the problems associated with the 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.  In the multi-faceted, complex global world we all work in this simplistic approach just doesn’t work.  Maybe it did twenty years ago when the big global players ruled the roost but the world is a more level playing field these days and a colonial approach is quickly rebuffed just about everywhere.

So what should organisations 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.  Start with the assumption that there are a myriad of unknowns and that it is your responsibility to do some initial research on those unknowns.
  2. Accept that you take into every cross-border transaction your own level of cultural bias. Your background makes you see things in a peculiar 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 in my experience it is very often a difficult message for Head Office to take on board.
  4. Think through the impact of every decision on every location. A centrally determined policy is usually biased towards the country it is originated in (usually where the Head Office is.)  You want to move towards a more matrix 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 should be shaped?  A memo from head office or a town hall meeting is not going to change a mindset 4000 years in the making!
  5. Accept that a good idea is a good idea – regardless of where it originates. Not all good ideas start in the centre.  For me the sign of a truly mature global company is when I hear people in the centre talking about what they can learn from the outside.  Not all good ideas start in your head office – but equally not all ideas which come out of head office are bad.

I think that what I am really saying here is that knowledge is the key.  People in your organisation (and not just a handful 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 navigate a complex global environment and then they need to figure out how to apply that knowledge and awareness to the benefit of the business.

One thing I do know is that this process never happens by osmosis.  It needs careful planning and targeted interventions.

If you would like to find out how Global Business Culture can help you on this journey, contact me at keith@globalbusinessculture.com

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