Cross-cultural training: the melting pot Trying to do international business without prior cross-cultural training is a recipe

for disaster. But there is more to such training than learning how to order a five-course meal, says Sudipta Dev. When organizations become cross-border entities, cross-cultural factors start affecting every aspect of the business. Whether in multi-cultural teams or in business interactions, the variants of cultural nuances eventually end up affecting the business. Cross-cultural training is conducted by many Indian IT organisations to equip their employees with skills to do business in a global environment. But there is much more to cross-cultural training than a crash course in etiquette or learning how to order a five-course meal; it is about a deeper understanding of the values and ethos that define a culture. However, this starts by understanding one’s own culture and then graduating to understanding and appreciating the differences of another. Misinterpretations and misconceptions are common when the same situation is viewed differently by people from different cultures. The basis of inter-cultural relations are not about changing other people, but adapting oneself to another culture. In India, while earlier the focus was on training professionals working with software companies on international assignments, today it is an integral part of BPO culture for those personnel who have to interact with overseas clients. Training process Cross-cultural training can be divided into three categories—education, actual training and coaching. Explains Stephen Martin, president of ITAP Europe, which provides cross-cultural training and consulting to many organizations worldwide, “Education helps managers understand how cultures affect them as individuals. Training is conducted looking at the way companies manage their workforce. It focuses on different ways of management in different countries. Next follows the coaching stage which includes consulting, including that for particular projects.” The

whole process gets more complex when it involves integration of more than two cultures, which is a common occurrence in global organizations today. For instance, take the case of an Italian manager of an American company working with an Indian workforce. Even the way cross-cultural training is imparted differs from country to country. Technology can be an enabler or a barrier. “There is a huge amount of localization as the learning methodologies differ. For instance, in the US, computer-based training is popular, and case studies are appropriate, whereas in India instructor-led learning is assimilated well and role-play holds the interest of students,” observes Pradeep Arora, managing director and principal consultant, Tasmac Management Training Resources. This organisation, which has been imparting crosscultural training to many IT companies, has entered into a tie-up with ITAP. “We will extend cross-cultural training to encompass attitude, thinking and problem-solving,” states Martin. ITAP has in-depth research on the behavioural aspects of learning. “Culture has a big impact on how one learns. For instance, in Eastern Europe, participants are expected to sit in class quietly and listen to their teacher. When American trainers go there they expect people to ask questions. They get exasperated when participants are not interactive, while the latter feel that they will be showing disrespect if they question an instructor,” adds Martin. He asserts that before training people in someone else’s culture, it is important to make them understand their own, following which they should look at other people’s approaches and try to understand that they are not inferior or superior, only different. ITAP uses tools such as the ‘Culture in the Workplace Questionnaire’ developed by Dutch social scientist Dr Geert Hofstede to illustrate culturally-dependent work preferences. It focuses on the fact that it is important for individuals to learn about their own cultural profile and then compare it with others. “Responses to the questionnaire help to illuminate attitudes and values, and provide a springboard to understanding and discussing cultural differences and similarities. The insights are then built upon to create

more effective cross-cultural working relationships,” states Martin. (The training modules are specific to particular companies.) Cross-cultural teams The Global Team Process Questionnaire (GTPQ) developed by ITAP International founder, Dr John Bing, studies the relationships between processes and team management, and helps global teams improve their productivity. Managing cross-cultural teams is a complex process. This is of particular significance in the IT industry, where globally-dispersed virtual teams are a common occurrence. “Many virtual teams fail because they follow a mono-cultural model. GTPQ analyses how to fix things that are going wrong, and generates solutions,” informs Martin. It is the lack of understanding because of cultural assumptions that often breaks down teams. Martin points out that as we grow older we start representing more cultural norms of the country. National cultures are very robust and do not go away. For example, people in the US and Britain are more individualistic, while in Asia, the group is the primary reference point. Mergers and acquisitions Some mergers and acquisitions (M&As) fail because of people factors when two work cultures fail to integrate well. The situation worsens when it is also a cross-border integration. What drives most M&As is the business logic. However, Martin points out that a KPMG study indicates that financial sense is not enough to succeed; one has to address the issue of national culture early on. There is apparently no off-the-shelf solution for this problem. He cites the example of a conglomerate of 10 American companies which were bought by a French organisation. A few French employees were sent to the US by the headquarters in Paris. These people were asked to make a daily report in French (a language which the Americans did not know) of the activities in the office. They were considered to be spies by the Americans. In the French business model, hierarchy is important and everything is centralised. In the US, it is just the opposite—processes are informal, they believe in decentralisation, and decisions are made near the customer. Soon after,

business started dropping as employees were continuously living in a state of mistrust and suspicion. “The solution was to make the senior managers in America understand that this was how life was going to be because they were now a French organisation; hoping that the French would change their behaviour was not realistic. The CEOs of the 10 companies started a relationshipbuilding exercise with the French headquarters; they understood that it was better to have their own connection in Paris than a ‘spy’ in their office. Gradually the situation started improving,” recalls Martin, insisting that such relationship-building efforts are not short-time solutions but an investment for the long-term. Small differences, big impact Many a time, it is the little-known cultural nuances that spoil a situation. A case in point is the BPO industry, where thousands of youngsters in India have to interact with US-based clients everyday. “While searching for the answer to a query, the agents normally keep the call on hold; this is considered rude by the clients, because the call centre agent is expected to keep chatting. While silence is considered an insult in some cultures, it is a show of respect in another,” states Arora. Even small practices such as addressing people as “Sir” and “Ma’am” in the US, and not addressing them in Britain, can turn people off. Dhananjay Savarkar, head of training department, L&T Infotech, cites this incident when the L&T team stood up as soon as their American clients walked into the conference room. While the former were trying to show their respect, the latter misinterpreted the gesture—they thought that the Indian delegation wanted them to walk out of the room. Although the confusion was cleared up, and the business deal completed successfully, this incident highlights the pitfalls of doing business when the concerned teams have radically different cultures. About Author Dr. Shailesh Thaker renowned management guru, human potentialist, philosopher, author and motivator in India, offers HR/HRD Training,

Leadership Workshops, Management Training, CEO Training and business consulting services through Knowledge Inc

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful