A recent survey of the top 100 fastest-growing companies in Australia found that only 18 per cent set out to sell their goods and services overseas. The ability to find a suitable joint-venture partner in target countries was one problem cited by respondents, but the critical issues were cultural differences and the language divide.
Companies said it was hard enough to get cultural fits within the US, Britain and New Zealand, let alone with cultures that are vastly different.
As a nation with a population of just 22 million, Australia lacks scale. Much has been made of ANZ bank’s reliance on Asia for growth, but it is not just the larger companies that should be seeking offshore opportunities. If this is the Asian Century, it seems training is required to fill the cultural gaps.
However, INTHEBLACK found the human resources departments of major corporations, such as GE Capital, BHP Billiton and ANZ, and the Big Four consulting firm Ernst & Young, revealed they offer no in-house programs. Some multinationals run “inpat” training courses, which include a cultural awareness module, but nearly all take on external suppliers for such upskilling.
An exception is financial services firm Citi, a group with 250,000 employees (60,000 in Asia), where transferring to and seconding from other parts of the world is a natural part of the business. Citi has taken on the GlobeSmart website tool described by Citi’s Peter Cappie-Wood, who heads Citi’s learning and development for Asia-Pacific, as a “deep dive resource base”. Developed by consulting firm Aperian Global, the program allows employees to plug into banking practice in Shanghai or management practice in Thailand should the need arise. It delivers data on customer-supplier relationships, training and coaching in another culture. In addition, GlobeSmart helps staff understand the core values, business protocols, demographics and even the religious implications of doing business in a new country, says Cappie-Wood.
Many training schemes are designed to test business assumptions and personal behaviour patterns, then cross-reference them against other cultures. In the GlobeSmart case, the program asks if you are independent or inter dependent that is, do you operate better independently or are you a team player?
Are you status- or egalitarian-focused? A risk taker or risk averse? Do you communicate directly or indirectly? Are you task- or relationship-focused?
In the language of cross-cultural trainers, this is known as setting up contrastive patterns. UGM Consulting, co-run by socio linguist Dr Margaret Byrnes, says stripping back cultural predilections is a large part of the training process, often aided by enacting settings that will expose cultural differences. It could be a meeting format, or in the context of negotiations, joint ventures or alliances, Byrnes says.
Deconstructing your own culture is as much a part of the training as learning about the new culture you are about to work in, says James Hudson, CSIRO’s East Asia adviser and the person who hired UGM to provide training at Australia’s key research organisation.
Hudson says he was impressed by UGM’s framework, which went way beyond how to present business cards and when to indulge in giving gifts.
“It made me realise how culture is ingrained in everything we do,” he says.
“We had one exercise where a Chinese person was presenting information and the challenge was to decipher exactly what he was saying it was all about the way people present information and what they actually mean.”
Dan Caprar, management lecturer at the Australian School of Business, says the best approach to cross-cultural training is to drain people of their assumptions and equip them to be ready for surprises.
What a person may have learnt about a country and its business practices is less a recipe for action, more a hypothesis that requires constant tuning and testing.
A$17,520: The cost of postgraduate master of crosscultural communication degree at the University of Sydney.
The notion of the expat running a team of other expats on the ground is a dying one. It’s increasingly being replaced with the Asia-Pacific head managing a portfolio of 14 countries, flying in and out at regular intervals and managing locally born and bred employees. But how can a regional head raise their cultural awareness (let alone language skills) to an appropriate level?
Byrnes says the new skills lie in areas such as finding good, reliable translators as well as leading a diverse range of geographically dispersed employees. What happens if you are in Sydney and have a performance problem with someone in Mumbai? “It’s now about managing across distance, time zones and culture,” Byrnes says. “This wasn’t being asked of people 10 years ago.”
Such questions are being addressed in academia. Caprar has involved his students in the Florida Institute of Technology’s X-Culture Project. Each student joins five others from universities around the world in a team project that covers four or five different time zones, exposing them all to the cross-cultural challenges inherent in an international business situation (see breakout).
However, there is no magic wand in the cross-cultural training sphere. It seems the best training involves adapting people to the shock of the new.
In the end, Caprar concludes there’s only one piece of advice worth giving: “Be ready for everything to be completely different. Then adjust accordingly.”
A cross-cultural hand: the second line of diplomacy
Cross-cultural education does not just cater for private companies looking for offshore profits. Dr Margaret Byrnes at UGM Consulting says just about every Australian Government department is seeking an Asia-Pacific connection what she calls “our second line of diplomacy”.
Some fragile economies in the region, such as the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, are obvious examples of countries that need infrastructural and technical help. International expertise is frequently called upon. For example, expert Australian meteorologists are helping to build a tsunami early warning system for Indonesia, while the Australian Electoral Commission is assisting regional governments to improve election techniques, Byrnes notes.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has been a client of UGM since 1994. If there’s a train crash in Indonesia, Australian expertise will always be called upon, she says.
“It’s in our interests to support capability development in those countries so that they can be strong and thriving democracies. The onus is on us to get on the front foot.”
X-factor helps defeat the tyranny of time zones
Forget Esperanto, the international language originally created by a Russian ophthalmologist in the 1870s. Step forward, Globish a cultureless English that is the brainchild of former IBM executive Jean-Paul Nerriere. Nerriere believes that if we can strip the idioms from English and render it homogeneous, we will all get along and work seamlessly in the global village.
Globish may work in an Orwellian universe, but a more practical approach to speaking or working as one is the X-Culture Project initiated by the Florida Institute of Technology in the US.
In May, about 1600 students from 44 universities in 30 countries finished working in teams of five to seven for about eight weeks to produce business proposals and plans for a big multinational company, including such globally recognised employers as Google, BP, Toyota and HSBC.
The students could use any technology accessible for global collaboration, such as telephone, email, Skype, Google+, Google Docs, Doodle and Dropbox.
X-Culture is cross cultural training in real time and Australian School of Business lecturer Dan Caprar, whose students participated in the project, admits it was extremely difficult to pull off. The most interesting part was in dealing with differences in time zones, levels of English and cultural backgrounds.
All problems were aired and worked on in class.