The English are reserved, Italians passionate, Germans matter-of-fact, and Americans brash and loud.
These are national stereotypes, but they exist because they reflect an element of truth – a fact recognised by an increasing number of organisations which, according to specialist training firms, are requesting more cross-cultural training.
Norman Renshaw, managing director of training specialist Intuition, believes cross-cultural training is about understanding how people from different countries behave and conduct business. “This helps to optimise international relationships and build trust,” he says.
Sales managers heading abroad to negotiate a deal businessmen or government officials relocating to foreign climes multicultural teams within large organisations and individuals involved in international merger and acquisition activities are just some of the groups that may benefit from cross -cultural development.
The pitfalls for businesses that skimp on training in this area are numerous and potentially very damaging, warns Jeff Toms, a director at intercultural trainers Farnham Castle, which has worked with several well-known clients, including AstraZeneca and Tesco.
He says that those who go to Japan unprepared for the high levels of etiquette and ceremony risk offending valuable clients, for example.
Ditto those who arrange a week-long visit to China expecting to return with a signed contract, who could well be frustrated by a culture where businessmen take their time, often months, to suss out potential partners.
The attitudes of different cultures to time and their varying decision-making processes are common subject areas covered by many cross-cultural training providers.
Typically, each programme is tailored to the specific situation of the client after an initial meeting where aims and requirements are discussed.
Cath Weelings, culture and communication manager at training company Communicaid, says courses can be devised to deal with specific issues. For example, the cultural aspects of living in Spain, or the basic rules of doing business in Russia. Employers may, on the other hand, want to explore more specialist skills such as making a presentation to Saudi clients or chairing a meeting in Korea.
Cross-cultural trainers generally deliver tuition face-to-face, either to an individual or group, and it costs around £500 per head per day. Most providers also offer telephone tutoring, and, if the price is right, they can fly a tutor to most locations in the world if it is required.
Intuition, for example, offers a three-day Business Cultural Trainers Certificate. This is a ‘train the trainer’ course for companies that want to incorporate cultural awareness into in-house cross-cultural and diversity training. It costs £3,000 per head.
Many programmes feature a post-course troubleshooting session where a tutor revisits the client to ensure techniques have been applied and any problems have been ironed out.
For organisations looking fore-learning alternatives, these are not as readily available.
However, some providers are using the internet to assess participants before training. Cross-cultural training specialist Richard Lewis Communications, for instance, offers online personal cultural profiling. This uses software to assess where an individual’s cultural profile fits in national contexts.
And while some cross-cultural training may simply be expert advice and tips on how to survive abroad, other programmes take a more scientific approach. Culture Smart Consulting, for example, bases its training on the findings of retired Dutch professor Geert Hofstede, who has specialised in the cross-cultural field since the 1960s.
Hofstede defines five dimensions that affect culture, such as hierarchy, risk aversion and whether a culture is more feminine or masculine.
The benefits of cross-cultural training may ultimately be more visible than those of other training initiatives. A client list bursting with international business is a clear indication that an investment in building awareness of other cultures was worthwhile.
Case study: De Beers
In 2003, upmarket diamond jewellery retailer De Beers was preparing to open three new stores in Japan.
The project was being overseen by a 25-person teamin London. HR manager Claire Lamb commissioned training firm Communicaid to design and deliver a training programme for these employees, who were anticipating more contact time with their opposite numbers in Japan as the launch dates drew nearer.
Communicaid’s approach was to divide the team into smaller groups of five or six delegates and provide them with a series of one-day face-to-face sessions.
The two parties agreed on a standardised programme to increase the participants’ awareness of the cultural differences affecting communication styles and working practices. They devised bespoke modules for each group, according to their job functions, with specific advice and tool kits on marketing, sales and merchandising.
The programme was deemed a success and sincethen more UK-based employees have taken the training.
“The Japanese briefing provided an invaluable insight into working effectively with our Japanese counterparts and an understanding of Japanese society andvalues – key to the success of our new operationsin Japan,” says Lamb.
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