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Feature: Cultural CompetenCy
“even how we address people will be different,” he says. “We
may need to alter our facial expressions, or the tone and pitch of
our voice, or the length of ou r pauses. importantly, you need to
ask, how am i listening?”
A further complication, says chan, is the instability of corporate
life. it constantly undermines many companies’ attempts to cement
business relationships in unfamiliar cultures.
“take the example of young english-speaking executives who
are sent to Asia and learn the ropes. By the time they’re in their
30s or 40s, they move on or get replaced. the expertise of a
professional with experience in Asia isn’t as valued as it should be.”
As immigration into Australia from Asia and beyond increases,
even companies with no plans to do business overseas must face
the challenge of cultural competency.
“the main challenge is to reconcile the need for standardisation
– ‘the Australian way’ – with respect for diversity, and integrating
people from different backgrounds,” says Dr Fons trompenaars,
author of riding the Waves of culture.
trompenaars makes the point that cultural differences are not
just geographical, but can equally be generational, gender-based
“my advice for Hr professionals is to work on a mindset of
how to deal with diversity, regardless of where the diversity is
in the interface between a more individualistic western culture
and a more collective Asian culture, a good example might be
finding ways to reward individuals to become better team players,
while at the same time motivating teams to nurture individual
excellence. “if you’re faced with diversity, find out what you share.
if you’re faced with sharing, think about diversity,” he says.
it has long been recognised that english is the international
language of business, but even that is changing, says Babani. many
business people are now learning mandarin and other languages.
Time and patience
James chan – who was born in guangzhou, china and grew up
in Hong kong, but is now based in the united states – has carved
out a career as a cultural competency consultant since 1981, when
he helped a Fortune 500 company sell its journals in china.
He says operating overseas still presents problems for many us
companies. “it’s outside their comfort zone. [they have] a fear of
the unknown and of dealing with another language,” he says.
patience is indeed a virtue he advises. “it takes a long gestation
period to succeed. often five to 15 years is normal.” He cites
the example of one of his clients, a philadelphia machine tool
company, which took seven years of engagement in china to get
its fi rst order, worth us$330,000.
organisations must be clear about their motivations and how
much time and effort they are going to put into grappling with
cultural competency, says Dr tom Verghese, an executive cultural
coach and founder of cultural synergies. not surprisingly, the
wider the cultural distance, the more effort it requires. “Australia
and new Z ealand are culturally close. Australia and china are
further apart, so going into Asia requires a long-term view.”
For chan, training is the key to any successful cross-cultural
interaction. “H r departments need to engage external experts
who can prepare their colleagues to do business overseas. i
believe individuals require a minimum of 15 hours of
country-specific training about a destination. it should be like
basic training in the military.”
many companies still blunder into the area of cultural
competency, with decision-makers at high levels not very savvy
about other cultures, says chan.
“it all starts with management. if management doesn’t get it,
then an Hr person can’t do it. you can’t fight a war if the emperor
doesn’t want to.”
Verghese also sees training as crucial, with the resulting
knowledge ranging from the expectations around gift-giving and
entertainment, to the importance of family in many Asian cultures.
“WE M AY NEED TO ALTER
OUR FACIAL EXPRESSIONS,
OR THE TONE AND PITCH
OF OUR VOICE, OR THE
LENGTH OF OUR PAUSES.
NEED TO ASK, HOW
AM I LISTENING?”
DR TOM VERGHESE, FoUnDeR oF
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