Bridging Cultural Gaps

A Strategic Approach to Adaptation

As business operations continue to shift to the global marketplace, businessmen and women increasingly find themselves working with those in other countries. To communicate successfully in this global environment, one must learn not just another language, but another culture—something not done easily from books or tapes. Fortunately, companies like Aperian Global are there to provide consulting and training to help overcome cultural barriers that can hinder success abroad.

 

 

Ernie Gundling, PhD., co-president and co-founder, has been involved with Aperian Global since its inception in 1990. Currently acting as a senior Asia specialist, Gundling helps clients develop strategic global approaches to leadership, organizational development and relationships with key business partnerships. He graciously took time to tell us about the company and how it fulfills its mission to develop the capabilities of individuals, teams and organizations to work effectively across cultures.

 

What types of companies do you typically work with?

In Peoria, we work in heavy manufacturing and also do work with other industry segments, such as high-tech, pharmaceutical, aeronautical and financial. It’s really a mix across a variety of industries.

Which are more prevalent—one-time or ongoing training events?

What’s more common for us, and what we value very much, are relationships with clients with whom we have worked for years—where our people know the organization, the people in it, and the business objectives of the organization.

We try to create a larger context for any training event that includes, first of all, that before, during and after approach. That is supplemented by web tools and other forms of contact with participants, such as coaching, and we also try to put that into the larger context of our relationship with the customer, their business priorities and contact with various sites or locations.

Which countries are most in demand by U.S. companies?

This year, we have done training in 50 or 60 different countries. There’s certainly a very broad range that clients have an interest in, depending on the nature of their business, where they’re trying to grow, and the ways in which they’re trying to become more efficient operationally. The ones we do a lot of work for are India, China and Europe.

Over the last five years, we’ve done a lot of work in the Middle East, both for U.S. companies that are sending people there, but also for companies based in the Middle East that have an interest in expanding their presence, for example, in Asia.

So you provide similar services for overseas companies looking to do business in the U.S.?

Absolutely, that’s certainly another part of our business. We have this GlobeSmart web tool where you can go and gather information on any country. It’s a kind of online reference tool, and we track the hits on various countries. The last time I looked, the No. 1 country in terms of hits was the U.S. That means that either employees from U.S. companies who live abroad are interested in working more effectively with their U.S. counterparts, or that non-U.S. employees who work for U.S. companies have an interest in learning about the U.S. Also, employees of companies based in countries outside the U.S. have a special interest. It’s actually a big market for them that they want to be in. So, somewhat to our surprise, the U.S. has been the No. 1 country in terms of hits.

What countries or cultures are the most difficult for Americans to adapt to? Why?

If you look at the experiences of expatriates and the literature, the largest gaps in terms of somebody’s cultural dimension—certainly places like Japan, Korea and China—represent formidable gaps that are cultural, linguistic and also geographical in terms of time zone challenges.

On the other hand, I think it’s easy to underestimate the difficulty and challenges involved in going to another country where English is spoken as the native tongue. We’ve certainly encountered many Americans, for example, working in the U.K. who go in assuming things will be the same because we speak a common language. They soon find that there are subtle, but very important, differences in terms of communication style and the directives of communication, the way conflicts are approached, the way that one establishes one’s credibility initially or gives and receives feedback to others. All of those are differences among English-speaking countries, and you can get yourself into a lot of trouble by assuming that there are more similarities than there actually are.

I would also say that we have an increasing number of clients who are doing more in the Middle East, and for women, of course, and especially for female expatriates, working in some of the Middle Eastern countries is a challenge.

What is the biggest impediment to a successful transition to a new country?

If you’re going there as a traveler, it’s assumptions like:

  • Everybody’s going to speak English.
  • The customer I’m visiting is comfortable speaking my language.
  • The pace at which I would go from a polite chitchat to a more in-depth discussion of business is going to be the same as in my country back home.
  • Others will welcome the change that I’m here to implement.

It’s assumptions that usually involve the imposition of our values, ideas and views of the world on the country. For starters, usually in the host country environment, they don’t appreciate that assumption. As a practical matter, there are simply differences in a business context that do matter.

If you visit Latin America or Southern Europe for the first time and insist on getting into business too quickly in an initial meeting with your host, it can really be a turn-off and suggest that you’re not interested in them and are just interested in business. You can be politely shown the door in many ways around the world because you didn’t begin with the respect and spirit of inquiry which people appreciate.

There are several things you can do initially that will help to establish your credibility in a new context, the first of which is to gain some level of cultural awareness. Recognize that you’re a particular type of person, given your personality, that’s been shaped by a cultural context, and that the aspects of the work that you take for granted may not be similar to those in the host country environment. And likewise, have a sincere and demonstrated curiosity or spirit of inquiry that demonstrates your respect for them and their practices and be willing to acknowledge what they do well and their history and past successes before you start talking about solutions that you’ve brought.

Are there instances when it is acceptable not to adapt to the other culture?

We did a set of interviews with some 60 expatriates who were identified as having been the most successful expatriates in their company—all people who had been on assignment for 18 months or more—and 80 percent of them had also been on multiple assignments. These were all veterans, people who had lived abroad in various different circumstances and locations, and one of the things they told us is that adaptation is critical. Often we err on the side of not adapting or coming in and assuming we know the answer and that whatever they’re doing in that local context needs to be fixed.

How do you screen potential specialists on their cultural expertise?

We use a variety of different criteria. Ideally, they’ve lived abroad outside of their home country for several years. If they’re offering training on a particular country, they’ve lived in that country for several years, speak the language and have worked in a business environment. They’ve experienced successes and failures of their own and stubbed their toe a little bit and are in a position to help clients accelerate their own learning by sharing their experiences. So it’s living experience in the country, it’s linguistic ability—most of our employees are multilingual—and we feel that many culture and business norms are embedded in the language, so the more you know the language, the more you really understand the way business is done.

We also normally take people with at least a master’s degree, meaning they’ve been trained in some professional discipline. A variety of disciplines contribute to the work that we do. Today, we have a number of MBAs coming in who were trained in global or international business. We also normally want to have somebody who has professional qualifications and training that matches the needs of our clients.

Given our increasing global interconnectedness, do you feel that businesses and cultures in other countries are becoming more, or less, similar to those in the U.S.?

The answer that you see in the research literature is that you have both. You have emerging similarities, for example, in terms of infrastructure or organizational structure. We use similar IT architecture whether we’re an Indian company or a U.S. company.

But in terms of everyday business practices, in many areas, there’s continued divergence. In some countries, we see a deliberate attempt to move away from U.S. practices where formerly, there was a tendency on the part of countries in other parts of the world to idealize U.S. practices or bring them in regardless of local circumstances.

What has been the impact of the global economic crisis on international business?

A couple of things. What often happens initially is people get their travel budgets cut and the implication is that more and more has to be done with global virtual teams. And so I think one implication that becomes crucial, and in fact, a competitive differentiator, is to get virtual teamwork right. That includes virtual team startup, leadership, meetings, diversity, innovation…There are many aspects to virtual teamwork, and the stakes are higher—even higher than before—given that so many people can’t meet face to face with the same frequency as before.

I think it’s also caused companies to more carefully scrutinize their growth markets in terms of being able to grow the company and get more efficient at the same time. Where can we really grow? How can we accomplish the most with reduced resources? Where are we going to place our debts for the future? Companies are getting very strategic about where to place their bets, and that’s geographically, it’s in terms of technology, and talent growth and development. I think it’s a very interesting time where we’re seeing the critical importance for business success and execution of these global virtual teams.

What about the threat of terrorism, now back in the forefront with the attacks in Mumbai?

It has certainly slowed things down in Mumbai, and among our clients, we’ve seen events that have been cancelled, but mostly postponed or moved to other parts of the country. But, India is a huge country population-wise and geographically, with vast differences between East and West, and North and South. I think the organizations and people who know India well are saying there’s more that can be done in Mumbai or in Bangalore or Calcutta—in these enormous cities that are a part of the global future. In a free market, companies will find a way, and it offers tremendous growth opportunities for the private security industry in India. iBi

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