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What ‘take-aways’ will I get from cross-cultural training?

Article by Michael Gates


The expression ‘take-aways’ as the result of training always makes me smile. I cannot help thinking of a ‘take-away’ meal – cheap, portable food, often eaten in a hurry for convenience.

In training where the main purpose is to get across information, perhaps this is close to the truth. I attend training in a computer programme and can operate it afterwards; in an aspect of corporate taxation, after which I understand and can apply it; or in Health and Safety, and I remember to wear a helmet in the factory and where the fire extinguishers are kept.

The more efficiently the knowledge is pumped in, the more of it that sticks, and the more the trainees apply it, the better.

Cross-culture is a softer sort of training, as it can be a fuzzy and abstract concept, where the effects are difficult to measure. “Yes, we got that important Japanese contract, but how can we prove that cross-cultural training was the cause…?” There are no easy answers.

Yet, as someone once said of Jorma Ollila, the former Chairman of Nokia, “It takes a hard manager to deal with soft issues.”

At heart, business is about people, how they behave, and about trust. You could apply the same words to culture.

But it’s all very well analysing and describing cultures – your own included. People will happily listen all day to acutely-observed stories about the Americans, the Japanese and the French, etc. But what will I be able to do differently as a result? Am I left with the feeling that I have had that cheap meal – enjoyable while it lasts, but with no lasting impression, no sense that I have experienced something that will change my view of cuisine for ever?

The key has to be the linkages that are made between self-knowledge, knowledge of other cultures, and the skills needed to do my job: to persuade people, to negotiate with them, to work in teams with them, to get them to trust me and learn to trust them, to praise them and have difficult conversations with them, to lead them.

5 core take-aways from cross-cultural training should be:

  1. The courage to renew the way you view and approach people with different communication styles, behaviour and values
  2. An attitude of mind which constantly tests situations for the cultural dimension, and does something when it is present
  3. The ability to see yourself as others see you, and put yourself in their shoes (especially when under pressure and in conflicts), as a starting-point to influence them
  4. A clear understanding of what skills you will need in different cultural environments
  5. To see that managing cultural difference well is essential to successful global management, and commit to continual personal development

But isn’t this still rather wishy-washy? Not for the Nordic company who saved billions by applying the cultural dimension to a problematic joint venture negotiation with the Japanese, and managed to break deadlock this way; not to the US consultants who tailored their marketing campaign to different countries and saw improved revenues compared to their previous one-size-fits-all campaigns, and not to the American CEO sent to Malaysia who did his homework and made a success of an acquisition in the Malaysian market, where a cultural (and related political) understanding of real attitudes towards inward investment, at ministerial level, were essential.

Travelling a few years back on Air Dolomiti, the meal was provided by the ‘Slow Food’ campaign. Cultures develop slowly, they change slowly. And changing our own attitudes and behaviour cannot happen overnight, or during one short course. Cultural training is not fast food. The key take-away may be a sudden insight about yourself, the rest of the world and your place in it. That insight that somewhere down the road, at that make-or-break meeting, will make all the difference.

Now that’s food for thought…

For multi-active cultures ‘negotiation is an art-form

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