Sunday 27th Sep 2020 - Logistics & Supply Chain

Culture shock

(From Supply Chain Standard, November 2012)

It dominates your social thinking, your moral thinking and your character altogether. Get it wrong and it could damage your business.

Here’s a question. You’re going to a meeting. Around the table are a Brit, a Frenchman and someone from Japan. There might also be the ubiquitous American company vice-president. How should you run the meeting to get the best result?

I should start by pointing out that this is not going to be an article about running meetings. More, it’s about getting the best decisions when you’re dealing with business people from a variety of cultures.

Skills in multi-cultural management among supply chain professionals should be high considering that many supply chains stretch across the globe. But it’s not always true that supply chain managers are good at managing a team of people from diverse cultures – or of getting the best from a meeting where even two or three corners of the globe are represented around the table.

Financial success

A report from the respected Economist Intelligence Unit earlier this year pointed out that effective cross-border communication and collaboration are increasingly critical to international companies’ financial success. The report, Competing Across Borders, says that even though most companies understand the need to improve staff cross-border skills, many are not doing enough to meet the challenge.

The report quotes Nancy J Alder, chair in management at McGill University in Montreal, Canada: “There is a false assumption that just because we can reach anyone in the world so easily through e-mail of Skype, we are, therefore, all the same.”

The biggest problem the EIU identifies is that misunderstandings rooted in cultural differences present the greatest obstacle to productive cross-border collaboration. In its survey, the EIU found that 51 per cent of people believe “differences in cultural traditions” and 49 per cent “different workplace norms” are the biggest threats to effective cross-border relationships.

The report cites Nandita Gurjar, global head of human resources at the giant Indian IT services company Infosys: “We are a global company. We simply cannot progress without the know-how and experience to deal with other cultures.”

Which brings us back to that meeting. I’ve been talking to Richard Lewis who is just about the guru’s guru when it comes to dealing with international business cultures. His book, When Cultures Collide, is effectively an encyclopaedia of world cultures. He tells me: “The main barrier to doing business between countries is culture. That’s because when you’ve been brought up in a country, your character and culture are embedded into you in the first 12 years of your life.

“Culture is such a strong thing it governs all kinds of behaviour such as decision making and attitudes to business. It dominates your social thinking, your moral thinking and your character altogether.”

And that’s why meetings where people from different cultures are sitting round the table can be such a management minefield.

Lewis tells me: “Various nationalities go to meetings with a different concept of the role of the meeting and with different aims. Americans go to meetings to get decisions and implement them. French people go to air their opinions and examine problems from all sides in an elegant manner. British people often hold meetings to seek agreement among members of their own staff – to gain a consensus.”

He says: “When people come together with different cultures, you can have dysfunctional meetings. For example, the Germans and British want agendas and they will follow the agenda faithfully and segment problems which they solve one by one. If you’re having a meeting with Italians, French or Spaniards, they roughly follow an agenda but they constantly digress from it. They believe that you can’t segment problems across agenda items. Everything hangs together in their minds and they can’t agree on any one thing until they can agree to the whole thing.”

Better decision

So what’s to be done. One important point is that a diverse group of managers from different cultures may well produce a better decision than one rooted in a single culture. That’s because the diverse group can see many points of view and steer towards a solution that will be acceptable in all cultures rather than just one.

But that still leaves individual logistics managers with the problem of how to engage with different cultures.

Richard Lewis suggests: “A good first step when trying to get to grips with a new culture is to read the history of the country carefully – that always helps a lot because it enables you to find out about their cultural habits.”

And he adds: “The extent to which you should adapt depends on where you’re doing business because the host country will impose certain rules. So I would say three-quarters of the way the home country does things and a quarter the other culture.”

It’s a simple rule of thumb but not a bad one for breaking down those cultural barriers and becoming a true management citizen of the world.

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