Ed Frauenheim of Workforce.com wrote an interesting article about Intel dealing with the reality of being a global business by investing heavily in cross-cultural training for mid-level managers. It’s a trend that has emerged from consultancies that do this sort of thing – more and more US corporations are asking for cross-cultural training. This is a turning point for the business world – where understanding cultural differences of employees and customers is no longer a secondary concern – it’s being taken very seriously and is becoming an integral part of business strategy and success, if not survival.
Intel’s program, Leading Through People, brings together mid-level managers from all over their global offices to not listen to lectures, but to work on business leadership issues. The key is – they are grouped into smaller culturally diverse groups and are tasked to work together to complete a project or solve a problem, all the while confronting cultural differences. It’s classic tacit learning – learning by doing.
I think this is an effective way of educating people on dealing with cultural differences, rather than by informing them out of context - because sometimes, some differences can be perceived as being cultural, when in fact, they just aren't. And sometimes, one culture will automatically give deference to another culture, simply because they assumed it was the right thing to do. Multi-cultural means just that - multi - so there's got to be a meeting of the minds to find the best way to work together. And it seems that this type of training program at Intel is finding success in achieving better cohesiveness and management.
With a cost of $3 million to do this, however, I wonder how small-medium size businesses that also operate on a global (but much smaller) scale and without Intel-size resources pursue this kind of training?
Here's my take on it:
1) Follow Intel’s lead – the tacit learning part, that is. In lower-budget training seminars, have multi-cultural employees work together on business issues and problems that are designed to confront cultural differences, but ultimately lead to successfully accomplishing a task.
2) Make both sides take responsibility - it is too easy to sit back and make it the dominant culture's responsibility to push cultural understanding in a business. Both sides need to let the other know of the cultural differences that are in play - in particular, with Asia and the US or Europe. Both sides need to be proactive in explaining why and how. The dominant culture does need to promote "openness" to accepting ideas. Without that, employees will not feel comfortable in giving feedback.
3) No time for training? Do it as you go, make the cultural training a part of everything you do with your employees. Remember, a better understanding of your local employees can only increase the depth of understanding of your customers. Ask for feedback, build your knowledge as to why your customers, employees are suggesting certain things in different regions. Engage them to understand why and let them know you are open to learning about them. Not all differences are cultural and there is definite danger in assuming they are.
4) "This is not an issue for us, we are a local firm". I pity the company who says this because in multi-cultural societies, these are real issues in the workplace to productivity. New Zealand definitely has a lot to learn in this area and I plead with clients not to overlook the productivity gains made from understanding your employees' backgrounds better.