Country survey: Australia

Doing business interculturally
Understanding local cultures is an essential part of good business practice. It helps avoid pitfalls and adds value. International marketing consultant Roland Dunne argues that companies doing business in Australia, as in any other country for that matter, should undertake an intercultural audit

e all know Australia, right? Where else in the world would you read this notice in the company lobby: ÒYou may notice that the person you have come to see is dressed casually. We like to respect the way our employees prefer to dress. But be assured, although they may look casual, they mean business.Ó If that isnÕt showing attitude I donÕt know what is. Apocryphal though that may be it does tell a story: what you see in culture is not always what you get. Nor should the tip-of-the-iceberg characteristics of a countryÕs culture be the basis of your approach to business. Going intercultural helps avoid pratfalls but it also adds value. Businesses that go intercultural survive and thrive. In Australia, as in every other country, this means that an intercultural audit of a businessÕs brand, product and people will pay dividends. The benefits of an intercultural approach are from both risk reduction and value enhancement of your companyÕs business. Oil companies, airlines, software houses and increasingly financial services companies are seeing hard bottom-line benefits from what appears to be the soft science of intercultural development. Becoming an interculturally mature company involves an awareness of where your business is Òcoming fromÓ, Ògoing toÓ and operating. In this article I take a look at the defining characteristics of Australian culture, and then make some general observations about Ògoing interculturalÓ.


First impressions Australian culture affects the way business operates there. Cultures are defined by their characteristic approaches to work, leisure, politics and communication styles. A host of psychological factors like attitudes to authority and hierarchy also apply. All this affects the uptake and response to your products externally, and how you run your company internally. In Australia, your first tip-of-the-iceberg impressions might be gained from a native who could tell you a number of things about formality, language and work style (see panels 1-3). But what you see is not what you are dealing with If you misread those tip-of-the-iceberg characteristics you are in trouble. The tendency in doing business (as in life) is to take the first impressions and respond to them. First impressions may be true but itÕs in drawing a conclusion from them that we need to be careful. Let's take the case of ÒdonÕt act on assumptions that informality is laxityÓ. It would be easy to see and treat Australian culture as lax. But assuming that informality is the same as laxity could bring big trouble. Informality is NOT laxity. As Martin Sims, a Sydney-based intercultural consultant, puts it: ÒI read laxity as laziness. Informality is different in the Aussie context. Informality means using first names, sometimes calling people ÔMateÕ, feet on chair, not sitting up straight Ð generally behaving at work as more formal cultures might expect people

to behave at a barbecue.Ó Reading only the tip of the iceberg could result in the same errors as a superficial reading of a report: misreading, simplification and miscasting. Misreading. Sims says that Americans tend to interpret the informal approach of Australians as indicating that they are not serious about business. That misreading
1: What an Aussie might tell you about his country: formality and authority The first thing is to recognise that in Australia we are very informal and laid back, perhaps amongst the most informal in the world, so standing on ceremony doesn't go down well. Australians are very direct – VERY DIRECT – and are known to call a spade a shovel. There’s no need to beat about the bush or be indirect. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Coming from a convict heritage, we have a healthy disrespect for authority – we respect the boss who is willing to get his hands dirty – but in reality we don't expect him to do it too often. We want to be left to get on with the job, and to have the confidence of the boss that we CAN do it. Aussies HATE to be told what to do by USians [Americans]. We think they have got so many things wrong themselves that they have no right to assume that they are right. We have a ‘tall poppy syndrome’: if someone tries to ‘lord it over us’ we almost take it as an article of faith to cut them down.

44 Business Money International

March/April 2005

Country survey: Australia

2: What an Aussie might tell you about his country: language & communications We often use humour as a way of defusing tense situations. We are very ironic and self-deprecatory, which is similar to English humour. Language is also very informal. There’s lots of chat about sport, and Aussies will tend to be fairly open-minded and trusting until someone demonstrates that the trust is ill-founded. Communication is very low context – emphasising the criticality of words and rules. We want it in writing, and if it's not, then it's almost useless. We tend to let people finish before we talk. People should have their turn. If someone interrupts, an Aussie will probably say, ‘please let me finish’.

can lead to approaching business from the wrong angle. Simplification. While hands-off and self-reliance management styles may seem appropriate in authority-averse Australia the corresponding attitude exists Ð ÒYes, but you'd better be there to help if I need youÓ. So the upside of that is youÕll be dealing with self-reliant people who expect others to deliver the goods and support them when needed Miscasting. Strong-image countries and cultures like Australia, Britain and America tend to be pigeon-holed too early and for the wrong reasons. Managers often find theyÕve been typecast in terms of their nationality before they even get started. Intercultural training helps avoid these problems. A real example – work and leisure ÒYou should try not to get between an Australian and his leisure time,Ó says Sims. ÒIt is very important in Australia. For example, we get a minimum of four weeks annual leave each year (increasing with service in some cases) and a minimum of three months additional leave after 15 yearsÕ service Ð or after 10 yearsÕ service if you work for the Government.Ó Think about that for a moment; ÒauditÓ your reaction to this aspect of Australian life. An American with the standard twoweek vacation allowance will probably be
March/April 2005

horrified, fascinated and jealous. A Caribbean or Latin American manager may think that amount of holiday is not out of the ordinary. Going beyond initial reactions into a more curiosity and opportunity driven mode is where interculturally-adept companies and management can gain the edge over their competitors. We might start by examining the terminology we use and so attitudes to leisure might equally well be renamed attitudes to life if we want to understand other cultures in which work is less central as a defining characteristic of identity. LetÕs take a light-hearted look at this in terms of how a typical factoring or invoice discounting product might be brand-positioned differently in Australian and American markets. In Australia, it might be a case of: ÒWhy worry about collections while you are away? WeÕll cover you, while you uncover on the beach.Ó In America, the assumption of who is on holiday might be reversed, so the message could be: "Why are you sitting there waiting for payment until your client gets back from his annual vacation? WeÕll advance you the money right away.Ó From realignment to real alignment How do companies come to adopt this intercultural perspective? Traditionally intercultural briefings have been the exclusive preserve of presidents, CEOs and other senior officers in marketing, finance and HR. Once exposed to intercultural ways of planning and operating these senior managers often become crusaders for the intercultural cause because they see it as a means of improving excellence, performance and prof3: What an Aussie might tell you about his country: work style and personality

itability in their company. Initial diffidence is displaced by awareness of bottom-line benefits. An interculturally adept company will go beyond simply avoiding intercultural pratfalls and go for value enhancement by developing products, positioning its brand and training its senior management to take advantage of the unique Australian way of doing business. Sometimes that will involve minor modifications in product offering or there may be an opportunity developing a new product for that market, which may in turn be re-exported to other countries. You wonÕt know that until youÕve undertaken the intercultural audit. Of course, there is a danger of taking a too simplistic approach. Within every country there are an enormous range of cultures and in America, for example, specific Hispanic, Asian, and Afro-American consumer banking products are offered. In B2B markets this product differentiation may be less important but the brand positioning and people training will be. In conclusion The key parameters to take account of in doing business in and with Australia are: 1. Work/life balance issues. 2. Attitudes to authority and self reliance. 3. Communication styles. In other countries other parameters may take greater precedence Ð religion and ethical systems will be of more importance in India or political considerations in China. In every case, time spent in intercultural reconnaissance is rarely wasted. Becoming a fully fledged interculturally adept company will provide a competitive edge for both niche and major players in every industry, including factoring, invoice discounting and other areas of asset-based lending. Going intercultural lifts companies from being commodity based product providers into strong brands, relevant to the country markets they operate in. y Roland Dunne is president of Transpond, an intercultural management and marketing consulting practice in the UK and US. Email: Tel: +44 (0) 1227 749 179; +1 917 340 9912
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We are very monochronic – we have trouble doing more than one thing at a time. We find it hard to multi-process as well as people from many Asian cultures. We are a very accepting lot, but fiercely independent and proud of our ability to stand on our own two feet, as individuals, as companies and as a country.

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