Tag Archives: Global Cultural Differences


It’s probably not a great idea to start a post by appearing to insult most of our clients…

… So I’d better quickly explain what I mean by calling you WEIRD.

Joseph Henrich, Steven J Heine and Ara Norenzayan issued a research paper a few years ago showing that most behavioural science theory is built upon research that examines an intensely narrow sample of human variation – disproportionately biased towards US university undergraduates and that this has skewed the findings of a great deal of research when you try to make it fit a culturally diverse world. Their definition of the sample base was that they were quite simply WEIRD

Western
Educated
Industrialised
Rational
Democratic

I think that all of this seems very likely to be true but I think that you can take the hypothesis way beyond the fields of behavioural science into the world of politics and it also seems incredibly true in the world of commerce.

I spend my days working with (mainly) western companies who are international in nature and who struggle with the complexities of interacting across the boundaries of global culture, time zones and geography. We help them understand how significantly and deeply cultural differences can impact on the effectiveness and efficiencies of their global operations. The longer I work in this field the more I come to realise that this WEIRD issue is at the heart of a lot of the dilemmas our clients face.

I have come to realise that (either consciously or subconsciously) people who are WEIRD in North America and Europe look around the world and think that the rest of the world is also WEIRD or, if they are not, would really like to become WEIRD at some stage in their ‘evolution’. The problem is that probably 80% of the world (by population) actually are not WEIRD and have no desire to become so. In fact the 80% of the world’s population who are not WEIRD look back at North America and Europe and think ‘those guys are seriously WEIRD’.

Where are most global compliance policies driven from? Europe and North America on the whole. We are moving around the world trying to apply WEIRD policies, processes and ethics into an un-WEIRD world and people simply just ‘don’t get’ what we are talking about. Our core values and beliefs are simply an irrelevance to people in many parts of the world.

A very good, very topical example of this would be the reaction of the majority of Russians to Vladimir Putin’s close association with the recent Panama leaks which highlight tax evasion amongst the rich and powerful. A BBC reporter, when interviewing ‘the man in the street’ in Russia was greeted with this reaction. “People high up have always had accounts like these and they always will. Putin can’t keep an eye on everyone.” In other words – it doesn’t matter and I don’t care. Contrast that with the reactions to the news that the Icelandic Prime Minister, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, was associated with the scandal or that David Cameron’s father had been named.

I’m not saying that I disagree with the ethical and commercial standpoints espoused by the WEIRD – I’m WEIRD myself – it’s more about getting people in the WEIRD countries to recognise that the ‘universal’ truths that they see as ‘self-evident’ are only ‘self-evident’ to a very small minority of the people on the planet. The starting point should be that ‘there may very possibly be a fundamental disagreement on this issue’ rather than am assumption that everybody, everywhere will ‘get it’.

It will be interesting to see, as China and India evolve as global super-powers, whether these WEIRD ideas will prevail globally or be eclipsed by other philosophies and approaches. Any thoughts from my WEIRD (and non-WEIRD) contacts?

For more information on how Global Business Culture can help you become more globally savvy contact me at keith@globalbusinessculture.com

A report published by Control Risks titled ‘International Business Attitudes to Corruption’ succinctly highlighted some of the extreme challenges faced by Compliance Officers within global organisations.

As regulators increasingly extend their global reach whilst at the same time anti-corruption laws become ever more comprehensive, Global Compliance comes face-to-face with 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 lead to an increase in non-compliance – 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, 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 and 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 ‘global’ but rail against it when the local comes through strongly.  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’.

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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