The Competitive Edge: Cross-Cultural & Language Training

The Competitive Edge: Training

By David James

David JamesAmong many business people, there is the common belief that "Business is business wherever you are." Yet it is more accurate to say that "Business is different wherever you are, and there are bottom line costs to ignoring the differences."

Business Is Different Wherever... Cultural gaffes and blunders often lead to broken deals and lost opportunities. Unfortunately in the world of international business both Asian and American companies in particular fail to focus adequate attention on the areas of cross-cultural and language training. This is a surprise, considering Asia’s dedication to education in general and America ’s long experience in international business.

A recent survey sponsored by the National Foreign Trade Council and Windham International found that 61 percent of U.S. multinationals offered such programs, but only 67 percent of employees who were offered the programs actually participated in them.

However, American companies on tight budgets often cut or curtail such programs, and employees who are anxious to "hit the ground running" on a new overseas assignment often forgo the opportunity, according to Sylvia Dickinson, head of Dickinson Consulting, a Menlo Park, California, firm that provides orientation and pre-departure programs for international transferees in the semiconductor and other high tech industries.

In Asia, the acceptance of cross-cultural and language training programs is no better with the exception of a few Japanese corporations, including NEC Corporation, which consistently offer such programs to their international executives and their families.

It is the enlightened multinational company that recognizes the need to provide general cross-cultural training for all their employees and country-specific training for those who are working in a single country, according to Diana Rowland, president of Rowland & Associates, Inc., a training firm in San Diego , California . Roland is also author of Japanese Business Etiquette: A Practical Guide to Success with the Japanese (Warner Books, 1993) and co-author of International Excellence: Seven Breakthrough Strategies for Personal and Professional Success (Kodansha America, 1996).

"Global competition is too great to ‘wing it’ when you go abroad. Savvy business people learn about the specific cultural differences for each country where they do business. And the differences are significant," she says.

Language Training at Home Moreover, adds Rowland, some enlightened companies provide cross-cultural training to employees who never leave home but need to understand the mindset of the people and companies they deal with overseas. One client, Callaway Golf Company, even provides language training to the stay-at-homes to enhance their understanding of their foreign counterparts.

All companies seem to do better when it comes to providing executive education to senior managers. Many graduate business schools in the United States have thriving programs that offer management courses to mid-career corporate managers who attend for periods varying from two days to three months.

Asian companies and governments also support executive education, often sending senior managers to courses in the United States . In recent years, I have given a number of lectures to delegations of managers from China visiting the United States to learn how American corporations are organized, managed and financed. Many of these were managers of state-owned enterprises, and their most urgent interest was in learning how corporations go private!

Why are so many Asian and American companies lukewarm toward cross-cultural and language training but are generally enthusiastic about executive education? For different reasons – ironically, both cultural in nature. In Asian collectivist societies, there is a subtle indifference toward foreigners, a lack of interest in those outside the family, nation or ethnic group. This is the opposite side of the coin of cultures that demand strict allegiance to their own group interests.

In contrast, in America ’s individualistic society, there are strong attitudes of independence and, God help us, arrogance. Here people cherish the values of self-reliance and the images of the Western frontier, and macho business people tend to believe that their way of doing things is best. Cross-cultural and language training is an uncomfortable thing; it focuses attention on our most basic traits and customs, indeed our very identity. Executive education, on the other hand, with its focus on skills and techniques, does not challenge (or modify) a person’s cultural predilections.

Is there a lesson here for the CEOs of international companies? You bet there is. The lesson is that education has more to do with understanding than with learning. Cross-cultural and language training are essential building blocks in educational programs that create success in international business.  

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