Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Communicating Across Cultures

Do you really understand
Do you really understand? Communicating across culturesImagine a situation. You have just received a memo from your CEO (you work for a huge global organisation). In the memo, the newly appointed CEO states his vision for the company, and the core values he will be implementing as part of his new strategy. The core values are: Freedom, Respect, Integrity. Very simple values and easily understandable. In fact there is little doubt what he is looking for......or is there?Are you really sure that you have the same definition of respect, freedom and integrity as your CEO?

Some examples might help, one I have lifted shamelessly from Mijnd Huijser (Author of “The Cultural Advantage”). An American newspaper published an article denouncing the levels of freedom and democracy in Singapore. It cited laws banning smoking in public places, consumption of chewing gum, the seemingly hereditary post of Prime Minister, the authoritarian manner of policing, and dictatorial government style. The conclusion of the article was that Singapore was not a free country, and the US government should be pressurising Singapore towards democratic reform. This article prompted (unsurprisingly) a large response from Singaporeans – one in particular was highlighted by Mijnd Huijser, which pointed out that if you were to walk two blocks from the Post building after dark you had a very high chance of mugging. Americans may well have the freedom to smoke and chew gum in public, but Singaporeans had the freedom from the fear of mugging (Singapore has one of the lowest crime rates in the world) and a very stable government that is able to present a consistent style. For the American “freedom” is “freedom to....” – to the Singaporean, “freedom” means “freedom from....” Which interpretation is correct?

What about “respect”? For Western cultures, respect is largely a two-way process, that allows each person to value the others, to listen carefully, be polite, but it allows a certain amount of conflict (i.e. providing I am constructive and polite, I reserve the right to criticise, disagree, and ignore). In Asian cultures “respect” is one way – from the bottom to the top. In other words, your boss gets all your respect, whether you like him or not, whether you are work or not. Fons Trompenaars (one of the founding fathers of intercultural theories) uses a dilemma – would you paint your bosses house if he asked you to? To us Westerners, once you had removed the expletives, the answer would be “no”. However studies show that, for example, in China almost 70% of the workforce would definitely paint their boss’ house!Again, we can ask, which interpretation is correct?

Integrity is another grey area. I suspect I am not shaking any idealist too much if I claim that everyone lies to some extent in their day-to-day life. However we try to remain true to our concept of integrity – honesty in our negotiations and relationships. Trompenaars uses the dilemma of a car crash which is entirely your fault, but witnessed by your friend. How will you expect your friend to describe the event to the police? In many cultures (covering approx. 80% of the world’s population) they would expect the friend to tell a huge lie to protect your driving licence. In Britain we would probably expect our friend to avoid the truth, by saying for example, they couldn’t really judge the speed, or they hadn’t noticed me drinking etc. In Switzerland 97% of those asked said they would tell the truth (that I was over the speed limit and had been drinking) – in fact there is a joke about the Swiss: Why is the crime rate so low in Switzerland? Because breaking the law is illegal!Is it fair for the Swiss to judge the remainder (80% of the world’s population) as dishonest liars? Is it fair for a Venezuelan (70% of whom would tell a lie to protect their friend) to judge the Swiss as traitors to their friendship? Again, who is right?

If we return to our imaginary CEO and his equally imaginary memo above, we realise that he (or she) has a huge problem. If his core message cannot be communicated clearly, he is going to have to explain to his shareholders that he has failed in setting a new strategy for the company.Again a hypothetical situation: a company wants to tap into the success of the Coffee shop franchise and make its chain of small coffee shops more “upmarket”. The CEO sends a memo to the local franchisees around the world– bring in some class to your operations. In New York the coffee shop brings in Styrofoam cups with lids on, and speeds up the service time. In Germany, they bring in recyclable cups. In Italy, the franchisees invest in bone china, expensive furnishings and artwork. In Britain, they put the price up. Unsurprisingly the CEO is horrified out how his employees have completely missed his point!

Intercultural communications skills focus on ensuring that your meaning is the same as the meaning as perceived by those who hear your message. We have to remove our assumptions of comprehension and become more explicit. Testing and retesting comprehension (obviously in a culturally sensitive manner – no one likes being patronised!). Learning how to transfer a message across cultures is one of the most important skills an international manager can have!

(Sources: The Cultural Advantage, Mijnd Huijser; The World’s Business Cultures, Tomalin/Nicks; Riding the Waves of Culture, Fons Trompenaars)

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Secure in the knowledge

Personal security and safety are, for many assignees and frequent business travellers, two of the most important considerations overseas. In certain regions of the world and in specific countries national values of security and safety may be well below the norm expected by assignees.

Informed approach
A professional and informed approach to personal safety awareness should assess driving hazards, maintenance and safety in national airlines, the capability of fire services, effectiveness of medical support, attitudes of national police and the impact of judicial processes.
Individuals who have never lived or worked abroad may feel exposed and vulnerable. They will need help on how to get professional advice and security support. Large multinationals usually have retained on-board security advisers but many companies or agencies do not.

Potential threats
The cost of locating and maintaining expatriates overseas is extremely high and, therefore, it is important to avoid unnecessary risks which might end an assignment prematurely. It is prudent for corporations to invest in time and funds to provide security support for expatriates. The level of budget commitment will obviously depend upon the level of threat to be faced. In many countries in Sub-Sahara Africa problems of political instability and severe civil unrest are predictable, as are security costs. Others like Indonesia more recently, are potential threat areas for expatriates with unforeseen costs and risks which may accelerate.

Expatriates and business people may live and operate in countries of high unemployment and severe poverty where social and medical services are non-existent. These conditions usually lead to serious levels of crime: on the street, in vehicles and against residential and commercial property. A further problem may be the doubtful support of the police who may have low morale and be poorly paid. In many countries it is the army and not the police that quickly responds to problems of civil unrest and militant strikes. Other areas of concern for executives are pressures from corrupt business practices and the involvement, however remote, with persons in government who are connected with drug trafficking.

The most vulnerable period for expatriates is the first three months after arrival when the executive is heavily committed to taking over a job and the family unit is left to cope with a bewildering and sometimes risky domestic environment.

Who is at risk?
Profiles of multinationals, individual job positions and the working environment will also affect the threat spectrum. For example, marketing executives will attract considerable attention to themselves and their families. Oil company executives are generally regarded as opulent, bankers are at higher risk and food production companies generally create a bland image for their executives. Social support agencies will usually be accepted at face value and have a relatively trouble-free lifestyle except in conditions of severe unrest and civil war when they are very exposed to hazards. Fortunately the great majority of individuals and family units, using common sense and accepting advice, have uneventful visits overseas.

Family security
The objective of the short Security Awareness modules offered on briefings at Farnham Castle, where relevant, is to provide a general, balanced approach to security (and safety) problems in the country of assignment.

The working partner may be based in one country but also involved in much internal travel or frequent visits to other countries. This can leave the family unit alone for days or weeks. Therefore, the bottom line of the Security Awareness module is the well being and security of the family unit.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

The Cosmopolitan Challenge in the Central Asian States

Why preparation is the key to successful development in the rapidly developing market in the 'Stans'

The former Soviet republics of Central Asia - namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tadjikistan - have come a long way in liberalising their economies since becoming independent countries at the start of the 1990s. While for much of the twentieth century, these countries were largely closedoff to trade and commerce with the outside world during their time under central authority directed from Moscow, in the 1990s they have become increasingly open to foreign businessmen.

The massive task of re-constructing their planned Soviet economies to ones based on market institutions, has called for voluminous capital injection into these states and resulted in their governments actively seeking to co-operate with the international business community. Many vital sectors of their economies, including oil and gas, mining, agriculture, telecommunications, power, steel works and tobacco, have been officially open to foreign businessmen for much of the past decade, resulting in an increasingly cosmopolitan business environment.

However, despite this new-found economic cosmopolitism, doing business in Central Asia's former Soviet republics remains a substantially more challenging experience than one may expect in the mature market economies of Europe, North America and other parts of Asia. In particular, from the perspective of business culture, one should appreciate that these are culturally very different societies to those in which we have developed our business acumen. Much of the population of the Central Asian countries hails from a Muslim civilisation that, while containing many of the personality traits from the Middle Eastern and South Asian Islamic societies, has been absorbed by the social values and the business practices which prevailed under the Soviet Union.

The resulting business culture in Central Asia is therefore an interesting hybrid of Soviet formalities and protocol (very similar to that encountered in Russia or Ukraine for example), and Central-Asian Islamic cultural practices - conservative social values, respect for seniority, strong clans and family networks in business, as well as genuine hospitality and often a highly social attitude towards the conduct of business (ie relentless wining and dining as a means of developing the business relationship). Or, to put it in other words, a strong blend of the post-Soviet secular modernism mixed with the deeply entrenched cultural traditions of the Central Asian states. The business experience awaiting the foreigner in these countries can therefore be just as rewarding socially as it can be challenging from the cross-cultural aspects of doing business itself.

It is rather important for the foreign businessman to develop a good relationship with their potential Central Asian partners during this first meeting, as it will set the standard for much of the subsequent meetings to come and will make the locals feel more comfortable in dealing with the visitors. You will find that the local business population does not like to be talked at and promoting such a course of action will quickly lead to a rather burdensome business experience for the foreigner in Central Asia.

When travelling to countries like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan for example, one will quickly see that the local workforce and business community has little experience with modern business practices equivalent to those long taken for granted in the advanced market economies. This means that the locals are likely to have far less experience in effectively managing a foreign investor's business than one would generally like. However, given their eagerness to learn, and all round good work ethic, it will be far more effective in the long run to persevere with local employees and show patience, rather than getting frustrated when things don't always go as planned. Such gestures on the part of the foreigner will be taken as a sign of "paying your respect", and are often a vital ingredient in developing a harmonious business relationship in Central Asia.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Middle East Issues - Get Contextual

If the word 'contextual' was invented to describe one particular culture, the Arabs would certainly compete with the Chinese. In this article, I wish to go beyond Hall's excellent 'High/Low Context Model' by suggesting that Arabs are highly sensitive to the circumstances that surround any event. They are more likely to show flexibility, be intuitive and be more tolerant of uncertainty in relation to their European counterparts. This, unfortunately, means there are less hard and fast rules in the Arab book of culture.

Inshaalah is a phrase that Muslims and Arabs will use frequently, and it reflects deep-rooted beliefs on pre-destination and fatalism. Literally translated, Inshaalah means God willing. Taken in its everyday use, or abuse, it could mean yes, or no, and it could mean leave it with me, can we talk about this on another occasion or please drop the subject. It is a highly contextual phrase, and its precise meaning will depend on the request or issue being discussed, the relationships, power distance, and naturally body language and intonation. It is thus no wonder that it defeats most newcomers!

Do's and taboos is another area where there are few absolute truths in the Arab culture. Take for example common advice given to newcomers. This tends to urge them to accept coffee offered by their Arab hosts, to shake hands with Arabs, to engage in pleasantries and small talk, to show patience before launching into business, and to avoid paying personal compliments. Whilst generally true, there are many circumstances where shaking hands becomes impractical or undesirable, paying compliments is expected and refusing coffee is used as a sign of dissatisfaction. In this respect, relationships, gender, age and power distance are some of the factors that can play havoc in defining correct and incorrect behaviour.

Contracts and procedures represent the ultimate relative tools in the Arab culture. It is difficult to ignore the fact that the Arab motto runs along the lines of 'for our friends we interpret the law, and for our enemies we apply the law'. Words such as Waasta and Ma'rifa which mean mediation tend to be picked up by newcomers within a few weeks of arriving.

Perhaps, in conclusion, there is a hard and fast rule in the Arab book of culture - always consider the context of your words and actions.

Original article from http://www.intercultural-training.co.uk/articles/middle_east/middle_east_issues.asp

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Doing Business in Morocco

Morocco is the closest African country to Europe separated from the Spanish market and its 60 million tourists by a mere 9 miles through the straits of Gibraltar (a stone through from Tangiers).

Despite its association agreement and its formal application to join the European Community, Morocco is a North African country, an Arab and Islamic state. If Arabic and English are the common business languages in the Middle East, French is a must for doing business in Morocco. Arabic is the official language followed in terms of usage by Berber dialects, Spanish in the North and South . The use of English is on the increase in manufacturing and exporting companies, the Hotel industry, universities and private schools.

Compared to its North African neighbours, Morocco has a more diversified economy with tremendous untapped potential and prospects for business in a number of fields (Agribusiness, fisheries, mining exploration, tourism, export oriented manufacturing, infrastructure development).

France is still Morocco's main client and supplier. However, instead of going through a French or Belgian French speaking agent, British companies are now flying direct from UK airports to Tangiers, Casablanca, Marrakech (the beloved city of Sir Winston Churchill) or Agadir ( Morocco's French Riviera and second largest economic region after Rabat/Casablanca).
As an investor, your Moroccan hosts and partners will invest in supplying the necessary framework for communication. They will either speak English or provide an interpreter.

However if your aim is pure export of goods or services to Morocco ( you may already have dealings with France), you're advised to prepare yourself and be accompanied by a private or public export/consultant/interpreter who could guide you into the market both before, during and most importantly after the market visits.

The public sector projects are important but the private sector is very active in commercial and industrial activities. In the clothing sector alone, over 50 British manufacturers are operating from Morocco for re-exports to UK, Europe and world markets.

Kacem Debar speaks Arabic, French and English From 1982-1985 he was Economic Counsellor (Export Promoter) at the Moroccan Embassy in London. At present he is a Markeing and Business Consultant specialising in two way trade investments between the UK/France/Morocco and North Africa and other Arab and French speaking countries.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Doing Business in Kuwait - Be Yourself

Dr Jehad Al-Omari, Middle East Consultant, provides some important advice for expatriates and frequent business travellers.

One of the first things which strikes you when you arrive at Kuwait International Airport is that sense of modernity. You will be right in thinking that you are stepping into a highly prosperous society where only the best technology will do. Wander around the city of Kuwait, and you will be impressed by the high rise buildings, modern office blocks and electronic shops selling the latest technology on offer.

Investigate further, and you will realise that apart from being an oil producing country, Kuwait city is one of the oldest trading nations in the Gulf region, has the longest democratic tradition, and where freedom of speech is part of everyday life, whether you are sitting in a Diwanych or reading one of Kuwait's many daily newspapers.

Yet, you must dig deeper to realise behind all of this there is a deep-rooted pride in history, Islam, traditions, family and culture. Kuwait's modernity and outlook derives from a rich synthesis of the old and new, and the desire to acquire the best the world can offer while maintaining a firm grip on tradition. A Kuwaiti official once commented to a Western journalist that in buying Western-made fridges he does not have to eat souffles. Kuwaitis have gone a long way in developing their oil, investment and trading sectors, without compromising their family values. Putting one's parents in old people's homes is perceived as being inhumane and barbaric.
Talk to Kuwaiti managers and professionals and you would soon recognise that they are the product of a sophisticated educational system which ranks amongst the best in the Arab world. You will certainly come across more Kuwaiti managers with degrees behind them than you would in the UK - that is assuming that they have not done a second degree somewhere in the UK or USA. You will again be right to relax, and assume that the majority can speak your language, metaphorically speaking.

However, you must not drop your guard completely. Business and business dealings are not exempt from this blend of old and new. Great and lavish hospitality to guests is pursued with the same vigour as productivity and efficiency. Open door policy and consultation go hand in hand with delegation and empowerment. Loyalty to superiors and clients will override systems and procedures. Timing and confrontation avoidance remain as far more important than time and results.

In other words, "Business is Personal", and you cannot afford to ignore the subtleties of this simple statement. Your ability to engage in small talk, to carry out favours, to develop personal relationships, to avoid confrontations and to cultivate loyalty will all convince you that the most important thing you will be selling to the Kuwaitis is yourself.

Whether you are thinking of going to Kuwait on business for one week, or whether you intend to live and work there for the next three years, you will need a good deal of preparation.
Looking up books from libraries and information centres is a good starting point, but a more effective way would be to attend a specialised briefing where you will meet both expatriate and Arab experts who will be able to answer your queries, provide you with practical tips, and point you in the right direction.

Farnham Castle International Briefing Centre offers regular programmes for both expatriates and frequent business travellers on a scheduled and customised basis. Intensive language tuition in Arabic is also available.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Developing the multi-cultural organisation: managing diversity or respecting differences?

Face the Challenge

Today's business and service organisations face a three-fold challenge. With management and employees of a variety of national and cultural backgrounds, they must:
1 enable this heterogeneous workforce to work together harmoniously toward their common goals;
2 maximise the contribution of each member of what is in fact a large team;
3 ensure fair treatment for all, irrespective of background.

Meeting this challenge demands systematic efforts on the part of these organisations, as many of them have come to realise. Whether the multi-cultural character of the company arises from its internationally mobile workforce and its local operations in various countries, or from the mixed backgrounds of a workforce in a single location, the organisation must address this diversity if it is to be successful.

Every organisation has a strategic choice to make in how it will face this issue, between a fundamentally defensive approach, and one that is developmental in nature and effect.
An organisation which adopts the defensive approach treats cultural differences as hazards - a series of weak links between people in which there is great potential for misunderstanding, conflict, mistrust and even resentment. It assumes at the start that certain people are inherently culturally insensitive to others. Handling 'cultural diversity' therefore means avoiding giving offence to groups or individuals, preventing harassment, and managing grievances. It may have an implicit political objective as well, to reduce the alleged dominance of one 'culture' or another.
The developmental approach, on the other hand, first of all sees cultural differences for what they are - potentially different values, assumptions, expectations, and behaviour which people bring to business as a result of their differing backgrounds. As expressed by one prominent writer in the field, culture is "the way in which a group of people solves problems" (Trompenaars). Moreover, the developmental approach recognises that these collective tendencies reveal themselves as individual differences. Members of a team are not there to represent a 'culture' or particular ethnic group - they represent themselves.
In this way, handling cultural differences means recognising
1 that these differences can have a significant impact on how people of different national or ethnic backgrounds approach the day-to-day issues of business and professional life, and
2 that people want those differences, where they exist, to be acknowledged. The developmental approach begins with the more positive assumption that while people may sometimes be unaware of these differences, they are not automatically insensitive to them.

The outcome of the developmental approach is a recognition of these different perspectives as alternative ways of handling particular situations. Cultural differences are no longer hazards - they are opportunities to strengthen the organisation through shared learning, better communication, and new perspectives.

How can one tell whether an organisation has adopted the defensive or the developmental approach? After all, any organisation can use terms such as 'diversity,' 'culture,' 'differences,' or even 'inclusiveness' to its general goals in this area, whatever the reality.

For a start, the defensive approach often arises as a reaction to grievances or conflicts. The organisation may define it through policies, procedures, and public relations statements, and make it visible through initiatives and 'programmes.' 'Training' is preoccupied with reducing insensitivity, often by trying to induce certain subjects to admit how insensitive they are. To the extent that such efforts are presented positively (or in the words of one company's website, "leverage[d] for competitive advantage"), it is as a question of equal employment opportunity.

Farnham Castle helps its clients follow a developmental route, which assumes a very different form. It often starts at a local level, on a practical basis, with an individual's or a team's efforts to improve the way people work together, or to prepare for wider international responsibilities. It tends not to be fixed in policy or procedure, but instead is most often driven by business needs and actual situations faced by people. Training is interactive, involving exchanges of impressions, experiences, and problems amongst learners. It recognises that perceived differences are as important as 'real' ones, for it is our perceptions of others that give rise to our reactions and judgements.

People learning to handle cultural differences will learn a great deal when they become aware of how they are culturally viewed by others. In addition to awareness, informational briefings increase people's knowledge of possible differences between cultures. That insight in turn helps them see how apparently 'strange' behaviour has its own cultural 'logic,' as the way in which a group of people have, as we said, solved universal problems. With increased mutual awareness and knowledge, mistrust tends to evaporate and questions of cultural 'dominance' become irrelevant.

The practical benefits of the developmental approach are seen in their effects on management style and on the way a team works together. 'Cultural' differences are now seen as individual differences arising out of people's backgrounds. These various points of view, openly communicated, represent alternatives and choices available to the group for consideration and negotiation. A greater willingness to talk directly about differences helps build trust, facilitates decision-making and opens the way, where appropriate, to compromise.

The developmental approach, as we have labelled it, needs sound leadership if it is to take root. It will be nourished by the resources of an organisation such as Farnham Castle, which is able to offer (1) collaborative training to raise awareness and increase knowledge, (2) extensive expertise in various business cultures and in the challenges and goals of international business. The developmental approach is further enhanced by training that strengthens the skills required to handle difficult situations and to communicate effectively in intercultural settings.

None of this, of course, is to imply that organisations should not concern themselves with the indispensable goals of providing a working environment that is free of 'harassment' and discrimination, and of ensuring equal career opportunities for all. We would simply say, however, that truly 'valuing diversity' means valuing the contributions that 'diverse' individuals can make. A developmental, rather than a purely defensive, approach to dealing with cultural differences will help make that a reality.

Article by Robert Day, a senior consultant for Farnham Castle specialising in effective communication/negotiation, team development, and cross-cultural issues in international business

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