Regardless of industry, location or even years of experience, people go through a rough time when they have to close deals or manage projects in an environment with vast cultural differences. Moreover, cross-cultural learning poses great challenges because problems are so diverse according to the background of the person working in a new culture and those representing the new culture, and also according to the nature of the project, the resources available and so on. While they both fall under the label “cross-cultural challenge”, trying to meet deadlines in a laid-back, unhurried country in the Middle East or getting one’s bearings in the personal networking environment in the Far East can be totally different experiences.
Yet, if a cross-cultural business consultant like myself wants to deliver practical results, we have to find certain patterns across the diverse experiences. This is the condition not only for comparing the observations of experts in different places and times, but also for creating tools for improving cross-cultural competence.
My “Business across Cultures” aimed exactly at this goal. In April 2009, I asked 100 experts in the fields of management, diplomacy, entrepreneurship, NGOs and education about the difficulties they experience once they start working across cultural boundaries. As I mentioned in the survey, the input I got will help me in giving my consulting tools and products a clearer focus.
The results I got were in line with my experience so far, but they also gave me a few surprises. Here is a breakdown of what 100 representatives of investment banks, production and marketing companies, law firms and organizations such as the World bank and the United Nations shared about their cross-cultural challenges.
“In which geographical area do you live?”
The majority of respondents come from Europe, simply for the reason that I focused my research on people in my network outside of Asia. The products coming out of this survey will be about doing business in Asia, so I asked professionals with less experience there.
“Have you worked or done business outside your own area of residence? Where?”
Here the picture is more diverse. Based on my information on respondents, the two largest groups are Americans on assignments in Europe or Asia, and Europeans working in America or Asia.
“How many years of experience do you have in doing business internationally?”
Most responses reveal several years of experience in working across cultures. This adds to the reliability of the conclusions below.
“Which aspects of working in an international setting have been the biggest challenge for you?”
I asked this question using a matrix where respondents could rank the difficulty level of various aspects of working with a new culture, such as punctuality, social networking and keeping quality up. However, the results can be presented in a simple ranking, with the most challenging ones on top:
1. Overcoming quality problems
2. Managing deadlines
3. Reaching agreements
4. Discussing problems and disagreements
5. Clear tasks and responsibilities
6. Maintaining a personal network
7. Finding flexible solutions
8. Establishing rapport with the partner
9. Following procedures
10. Agreeing on the basic terms of cooperation
As we can see, the list reveals a clear pattern. Our 100 respondents find that while it poses less challenge to lay the groundwork for cooperation and agree on the general terms of agreement, the number of pitfalls increases as the cooperation enters more specific areas and has to produce results.
Accordingly, when I asked the same people about cross-cultural business topics they would be interested in, general topics such as social taboos or business card etiquette in Asia received low scores. Practical topics such as “Common mistakes in drafting contracts”, on the other hand, attracted much more attention.
This, in fact, is the same conclusion as I drew for myself over the last 10 years of dealing with intercultural challenges, including my own as well as those of my clients. Having read books and attended training on cross-cultural business, executives and experts realize that understanding how the other culture works will hardly ever make them more efficient in that culture. Let’s take a live example. My clients from Europe find it relatively easy to identify an available supplier from China and express mutual interest. It is much more challenging to come up with a mutually acceptable contract. The real challenge, however, is to make the cooperation work and enforce the contract through the ups-and-downs of resource shortages, regulation changes and client complaints. Developing the right practical responses either takes time (which is extremely precious, of course), or will require practical and focused help from the cross-cultural consultant.
The tools and products coming out of this survey will do exactly that. In the form of short and practical handouts and multimedia products, they will pinpoint the challenges that stand in the way of cross-cultural projects or teams, and deliver hands-on solutions. Feel free to contact me for updates.