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Why International Initiatives Often Fail — And What Can Be Done

Exploring International Culture

· Business,Culture,Sample,China Business


The pace of globalization has been transforming business in every country for the past decade, and there is no end in sight. Regardless of the outcome of political issues related to global trade, environmental and labor standards and lingering protectionism, it is increasingly clear that business must adapt to a customer base composed of many different nationalities and cultures.

The current approach to international business is often driven by two assumptions, both mistaken. The first is that international business deals will happen only if the correct governmental policies and legal structures are in place in the target country, and the second is that one can simply extend the domestic strategy to the new international environment and it will accomplish the same objectives it accomplishes at home.

Policies alone do not create business deals, companies do. Business executives are often not literate in how business is done in overseas settings, and so assume that the absence of a legal or regulatory system similar to their own, there can only be chaos. Often, the differences in systems are reflections of differences in the attitudes and values of the cultures that give birth to them. For example, cultures that emphasize collectivism and consensus in their interpersonal relations will generally rely more on the value of verbal agreements than cultures where individuality and competition are emphasized. In a system where the common good is assumed to be the collective goal, there is less need for legislation and court activity to broker potential conflicts. Companies from different cultures will often experience the same kind of uncertainty in making deals that individuals feel when developing relationships with someone from a different culture.

The assumption that domestic strategies for marketing, promotion and sales will work in foreign settings is rooted again in the assumption that your own culture is the “norm,” and the strangers’ culture is the “deviant.” International business, whether in negotiations, work teams or one-to-one sales, requires a different set of skills than domestic. Author Jeswald Salacuse likens the differences to those between domestic politics and international diplomacy.

The Problem: Lack of Cultural Literacy

In both instances, what is lacking is a sense of literacy of the target culture. Failure to understand how the other culture views the world and hears messages leads in almost every circumstance to failure of the product or service being introduced from abroad. This is not exclusively a North American failing; there are as many examples of failed attempts by Europeans or Asians to sell products to North American buyers as there are examples of North American failures to penetrate European or North American markets. Business people, particularly sales people and their management and international work teams and their management, need to acquire a mindset for neutral analysis of culture and communication, both their own and the “other’s.”

Professors William Gudykunst and Young Yun Kim view strangeness and familiarity as a continuum, running from absolutely new experience to interaction with one’s spouse, family members and close friends. The uncertainty created by increasing levels of strangeness results in an instinctive backing away from the interaction. Two possible reactions can result. The first is a fear of the stranger that paralyzes attempts to make meaningful contact, which provides little insight for message development and creates barriers to discovering client needs or understanding how the client is viewing you and your product. The second is cultural defensiveness, in which flag waving and assertions of cultural superiority replace attempts at mutual understanding. This reaction virtually seals the doom of the international initiative before it starts.

Systematic approaches to understanding culture in a communication context are available in the academic world, but little understood in the world of business. Often, when intercultural advice is needed, consultants provide an overview of the etiquette to be observed in interactions (for example, “don’t show the bottom of your feet to people from Southeast Asia,”). While these observations are important and generally well researched, they do nothing to enhance an understanding of how the stranger thinks. The attitudes and values underlying the culture may be expressed to some degree in the rules of etiquette, but understanding the rules does not guarantee an understanding of how to structure the message to make the intended impact on the stranger.

There are a number of possible barriers to reducing uncertainty in intercultural situations. Most fall generally under the heading of anxiety. Most people worry about losing control of situations, especially when the outcome is important, and when we are dealing with people very unfamiliar to us, the sense of control is greatly lessened. We worry about looking foolish or incompetent, giving offense, or being taken advantage of. Reducing anxiety can happen by moving with confidence to ask the stranger about their culture and the meaning of what they say. However, an initial understanding of that culture and culture generally will help business people relax and begin the process of reducing uncertainty.

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The Solution: Effective Training and Coaching on Cultural Literacy Issues

How does one go about creating a training system for cultural confidence? This training, while based in research and fact, is actually persuasive in nature, because it seeks to instill an attitude of curiosity and confidence in the learner, rather than a set of measurable skills. Training for intercultural confidence must provide the learner with a level of awareness that her/his own culture is not the center from which others’ behavior is analyzed. The learner must move “outside her/himself” to see both cultures as equally valid. Once exercises and discussion have created a willingness to look at culture from a neutral perspective, the learner can look at both her/his own culture and the target culture using a framework such as the four categories provided by Professor Geertz Hofstede of the Netherlands. This allows a logical analysis of how cultures’ customs may be affected by underlying beliefs. If there is a specific target culture, extensive time may be devoted to learning its specifics. An action plan for communication is the final step in the process, providing a road map for developing message points and planning “get acquainted” activities.

Even at this point, the designer of intercultural training must know who the audience for the training is and what learning styles are likely to surface. Different cultures learn differently. Shunichiro Ito of Bunkyo Gakuin College in Tokyo, Japan, divides learning styles into two broad categories: Global and Analytical. Global learners (Japan and much of eastern Asia fall into this category, as do some Latin American cultures and much of sub-Saharan Africa) prefer to learn by experience, are image oriented, look for insight and inspiration to bring understanding, prefer a cooperative learning approach, are subjective and poetic in providing explanation, avoid standing out in the group and express opinions indirectly.

Analytical learners (generally North Americans Western Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders) learn by reasoning, are text oriented, look for logic and reasoning to bring understanding, prefer a competitive learning approach, are objective and rational in providing explanation, assert themselves in the group and prefer to express opinions directly. It is not necessary for the training specialist to be from one culture or another, but the trainer must have awareness of who the learners are and how they can be put at ease. This extends also to the development of e-learning and teleconference learning, as the orientation toward text or image and the cooperative versus competitive learning styles will be reflected in the presentation of content over electronic media.

It will be advisable, even after training is provided, for executives and workers to have a consultant or coach available to them as the project is unfolding. Providing ongoing advice on how to use the attitude acquired from the training can help target communication effectively and build stronger rapport between members of the different cultures. Managing conflict and resolving misunderstandings are only two areas where the services of a coach with background in intercultural communication issues can help manage the relationship aspects of a business project.

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In the increasingly global marketplace of the new century, equipping decision-makers, sales people and members of international work teams with intercultural competence is a make-or-break proposition. Success in international markets depends on the ability to build rapport between an organization and overseas customers. Learning what underlies the culture’s communication practices can keep an organization’s message on target and go a long way toward assuring the organization’s global success.

About the author:

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Don Steiner, MA, CLU, has been teaching people to communicate more effectively and speak for success for over twenty years. For the past 18 years, Don has been designing and delivering sales and marketing training to the sales force of one of America’s largest corporations.

In addition, he has coached speakers to national champion status and designed and delivered numerous seminars on professional skills and international/intercultural communication issues, in North America, Europe and the South Pacific.

Don is also is proficient in French, German and Spanish in addition to English, and can make his programs available in those languages upon request.

He can be contacted by e-mail at Don Steiner or by phone at +1 (503) 943-0014.