There are no doubts about it anymore: the world is definitely getting smaller. And when it comes to business, international trade is now the name of the game. Most multinational organisations now earn the majority of their revenues from outside their home base – they are truly international businesses.
Technology has been the main driver of this shrinking phenomenon. Advances in telecommunications, from the Internet to mobile phones, have made distance largely an irrelevant factor when it comes to meetings. Instead, today’s organisations rely on dispersed teams and virtual communications to manage and run their far-flung operations.
As a result, multicultural and multi-geographical teams are becoming the backbone and building blocks of organisations. Although a face-to-face meeting is still the preferred method of communication, businesses have managed to ration these and provide realistic and useful alternatives when the costs become prohibitive.
But this ease of communication does not necessarily guarantee effective interaction. Indeed, sometimes the ease and frequency of communications across borders can exacerbate the very real problems of misunderstandings and cultural nuances. Just because people or teams are talking together, does not mean they are understanding each other; and a lot can ride on these sorts of cross-border communications being effective and successful.
Sheida Hodge, author of Global Smarts: The Art of Communicating, says this is becoming a very real problem for many cross-border businesses. “Recently, I conducted a series of programs for the Chinese employees of several American companies doing business in Hong Kong and Beijing,” the US-based trainer said. “It became very clear that most of difficulties were related to long distance communications.”
She said the Chinese workers had a number of concerns about the ways they interacted with their US-based bosses. “Common complaints included: ‘I can’t get a word in during conference calls’; ‘Americans just say what comes to mind, we have to think it through to make sure the comment is valid’; ‘Our (US) colleagues don’t give us enough background information’; and ‘we don’t know the specific questions ahead of time so we are unprepared to provide answers’.”
One of the biggest challenges arises from the fact that English has become the language-of-choice for business. It’s something that those in the US and Europe are naturally much more practiced at than staff and leaders in Asia. “An important challenge for Asia is that English has becomes the global business language, and people in the west have had a big advantage in this area.”
Of course, there are some strategies that HR can put in place to improve the success and efficiency of cross-cultural communications. Hodge says cultural training is a vital ingredient. Her HR Summit Presentation, Managing Diversity: Energise your Global Workforce to Achieve Business Objectives, will look at exactly that. “There are many impediments to team efficacy across borders and cultures; including differences in communications, decision-making, and empowerment of team members,” she says. ” In many cases these differences swirl under the surface and don’t rear their head until companies fail in launching a new product or implementing global initiatives.”
She says one of the biggest rules for cultural training is to ensure you are working in the right context. “Usually companies in the West and in Asia hire training and development professionals who use content and methodology that are developed in the West, and particularly in the United States,” Hodge says. “These programs are developed based on American business requirements and might not be as effective in the Asian business culture – the behaviour and leadership competencies that are valued and work in one country might backfire in another.”
Hodge says it is therefore important not to try and judge employees around the world on one cultural benchmark. Rather, an awareness of the different backgrounds is needed to ensure parity. “For example the evaluation system that was developed to promote and pay employees in the United States, if used exactly the same way in an Asian subsidiary, might place Asian employees at a disadvantage,” Hodge advises.
These ideas hold particular relevance for those organisations hosting expatriate workers in Asia. Hodge says appropriate training and acknowledgement of cultural differences can have an immediate impact on the competitive edge that these international staff members provide.
“This presentation will discuss working and communicating effectively across differences in work styles and cultures to achieve measurable business results,” she said. She’ll discuss some of the common cross-cultural discrepencies that can occur, and how to solve them for all stakeholders. “In the short time that I have for my presentation, I will focus on diversity of working styles and will share strategies for effective virtual team communications and specific ideas about obtaining positive results.”
Second time in Singapore
Hodge has been working, speaking, researching and writing in the fields of business and globalisation for more than 28 years. But her presentation at HR Summit this year will mark only her second time in Singapore. The charismatic speaker says she’s looking forward to the return journey.
“I spoke at the World Tax Free Association Conference in Singapore during May 2001,” she said. “I was there for four days and I really loved Singapore.” It wasn’t just the work, or the shopping, or the conference itself that really kept her spirits up – but also the well-known Singapore food. “I even tried Durian for the first time and I liked it,” she laughs. All of these aspects are combining to have Hodge excited about heading back to Asia in May.
“I am looking forward to this trip very much.”
Top 3 take home lessons
+ How to identify cultural issues that may be taking place
+ Getting the best out of cross-cultural training
+ Ensuring expatriates and local staff work effectively together
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