Seven reasons why HR needs to think internationally

When the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development celebrates its centenary in York in June 2013 (its forebear, the Workers Welfare Association, held its first meeting in York in 1913, chaired by industrialist Seebohm Rowntree), one of the conference themes will be internationalisation. Bob Dignen, director at York Associates and co-author of Communication for International Business, looks into this relatively new concept.

Our main professional association has not really paid that much attention to “abroad” in the past. My experience is that when you try to talk to British HR about internationalising, its collective eyes quite often start to glaze over very quickly. But it’s important that HR managers start thinking internationally right now. Here are seven reasons why.

We are all international now – or if we are not, we soon will be. The domestic and international diversity agendas are merging. We have mixed workforces. We deal with foreign visitors. We communicate with people across the world by phone and email. More and more of us work in international organisations or work with organisations abroad. We should not be waiting for internationalisation to wash over us because it might wash us away if we’re not ready for it.

Successful international working means exercising a range of competences and behaviour that we need when we’re working with people who have very different backgrounds and reflexes from our own. There are now tools with international competence sets on the market that help people develop awareness of what they are doing and also of those skills they are focusing on and those they are unaware of or are even deliberately ignoring. It’s not just that British managers wilfully continue to ignore the importance of speaking foreign languages. People working internationally need to balance goal and people focus with extra sensitivity. They need to develop the habit of reading the non-linguistic signals that others are sending out and also reading the impact of the signals they themselves are sending out. They need to be slow about making judgements about people very different from themselves. They need to be aware of their own communication style and be able to adapt it people with styles very different from their own. I believe that many HR managers would benefit greatly from lengthy reflection on how they operate in an international context.

HR owes it to the organisation. In an international organisation, whether public or private sector, HR successfully manages change across the world by establishing a strong international HR network. This means organising regional or global network meetings organised round a high degree of interaction rather than a series of PowerPoint presentations from directors, relationship building, objective fixing, and the definition of processes both for maintaining communication and keeping on track with targets.

HR people not only need awareness of competences that they and their people need but they need to know how to manage cultural difference. How do you deal with people who make decisions in a quite different way from you, or conduct meetings, or think about punctuality and time in general, or working relationships? When there is a clash of behaviour or values, as we all know only too well, we can start to feel confused, defensive, angry, judgmental about the other, and sure that our way is the right way. In fact, what we need to do is surface the misunderstandings – discuss them, hear the others’ point of view, listen and try to understand; and then try to reach an agreement about how to proceed that both parties can accept. In other words, we need to negotiate – processes in particular.

Skills transfer requires people not only to do the right thing, but to know what they are doing and to be able to say what they do. HR people should be able to describe the cultures they work within – national, organisational, sectoral, professional. Indeed, the first step in developing cultural awareness is developing the ability to step back from your own cultures (note the plural: culture is not just a matter of nationality) and see them as others see them. HR people don’t always make a very good job of this. For example, some confuse questions about organisational culture with questions about vision, values and missions. But any kind of merger, acquisition, joint venture or other form of international collaborating requires a process of cultural due diligence which HR people should be driving. These are important skills to develop in today’s complex, ambiguous, uncertain globalised world.

HR managers don’t always have enough power (an interesting subject to discuss in any HR training seminar in itself: not for grumbling but to establish how you can get more) so HR people need to learn to influence. It’s not something they seem to teach at HR school and yet people can develop this skill – read about it, talk about it, buy in training – and if you understand that what we now call influence used to be called rhetoric, there is a tradition a couple of thousand years old or more that you can tap into to get some more tips.

Developing people’s international skills makes them more employable – this isgood for the organisation (it becomes more competitive) and good for the individuals, so therefore good for the organisation again because it becomes a more attractive employer. French companies can often be as culturally insular as any but there’s one major French bank I know where the HR director has created a genuinely international team to drive the internationalisation process across the globe, which has quickly become a honey pot for international talent: it can be a real selling point to ambitious, intelligent and curious young people to have the opportunity to work in a team of people with the same kind of profile but coming from every major continent on the planet. Harnessing diversity at a global level creates synergies whose enormous potential for competitive advantage we are only just beginning to see.

In an extremely competitive and global business arena, employers must do all they can to get a competitive edge; and an internationally-minded workforce is a powerful asset. HR must play an important part in helping companies face outwards rather than inwards.

Bob Dignen, director at York Associates, is co-author of Communication for International Business

For more information and resources on international HR, visit XpertHR.

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