Knowledge of cultures goes a long way for staff working abroad

Many discerning tourists happily set off abroad in search of new experiences armed only with a guidebook. But, according to companies specialising in cross-cultural training, business travellers need to be much better prepared if they are to get the most out of trips to destinations where the culture differs radically from their own.

These firmsreport a growing number of requests for cross-cultural development programmes from organisations that are increasingly aware of the need to groom employees for new cultural situations they may face.

“Today,no company can assume that customers and suppliers in other countries work the same way as we do,” says Norman Renshaw, managing director at training company Intuition. “Cross-cultural training is about understanding how to work effectively with people from different cultures and, by doing so, optimise relationships and build trust.”

And organisations that ignore these cultural differences do so at their peril, according to Richard Cross, chairman at cross-cultural training company Richard Cross Communications, which has worked with major companies such as Unilever and Nokia.

Be aware

Go to Saudi Arabiaexpecting to conclude business after a short meeting, and you risk offending people who prefer to conduct commercial matters only after they have got to know you.And ride roughshod over Japanese conventions for politeness and cordiality, and your business deal will soon be dead in the water.

“Most culture awareness training looks at varying communication styles and different cultural values, such as concepts of time and what constitutes fair play,” says Cross.

And it is not just the international businessman heading overseas who could benefit from cross-cultural learning.

At training firm Culture Smart Consulting (CSC), account manager Amy Celino Potter says her clients represent a broad spectrum of scenarios where cultural awareness is an issue.

Executives involved in international mergers and acquisitions, charities parachuting workers into crisis zones, business development managers setting up call centres in India and Eastern Europe, and members of multinational teams collaborating within global organisationshave all benefited from CSC’s programmes.

The company has also delivered cross-cultural training to help staffin the IT and sales divisions of a large organisation appreciate each other’s priorities, and to enable police officers to become more culturally sensitive tothe communities they police.

Tailored programmes

CSC is typical of the vast majority of cross-cultural training companies in that each programme they devise is tailored to the specific situation of the client.

At training company Farnham Castle, for example, director of client services,Jeff Toms, says training may range from the day-to-day issues of living in China, to an introduction to doing business in the US.

Specific skills can also be catered for, such as negotiating skills when dealing with Asian companies, or when chairing a meeting in southern Europe.

Tuition is generally delivered face-to-facein the UK, either to an individual or group, and costs between £300 and £500 per head, per day. Most providers also offer telephone tutoring, andmay be able to arrange for a tutor to deliver classes on location abroad if the situation demands it.

Some suppliers say they are also developing e-learning packages in this area, but the most common use of the internet by cross-cultural trainers is for electronic profiling. Richard Lewis Communications, for example, offers an online tool where users answer up to 300 questions to draw out their own cultural behaviour to better understand how they may act in certain situations.

For training professionals interested in developing expertisein this area, Intuition offers a three-day Business Cultural Trainers Certificate -a train the trainers course. This is aimed at companies who want to incorporate cultural awareness into in-house cross-cultural and diversity training, and costs £3,000 per head.

Intuition says all its programmes feature a post-course follow-up session, where a tutor revisits the client two months after the training to ensure the learning has been applied.

Case study: Arup

In July 2005, the training department of Arup, a multinational engineering company, commissioned training firm Communicaid to devise a cross-culture awareness programme for Roger Olsen, an employee who was relocating to Tokyo with his wife, Christine, and two young sons.

Communicaid set up three separate three-hour sessions headed by a trainer who had extensive experience of living and working in Japan.

A session for Olsen covered business issues such as relationship building, communication styles and how to manage meetings in Japan.

The spouse training and support course was developed for his wife, and offered guidance to enable her and her children to cope in Japan.

The final training session was for the whole family. Using interactive activities and visual aids, it covered leisure activities, tasting Japanese food and Japanese etiquette based on mini role plays.

Helped by the training, the family settled successfully in Tokyo.

“I enjoyed hearing first hand about what it is like to be in Japan from someone who has actually been in my situation,” said Christine Olsen. “The training gave me the confidence to do it myself.”

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