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Managing Businesses Interculturally

By Rohit Kumar

Working Abroad - Intercultural Training

There are a variety of training techniques that prepare people for foreign work assignments. They range from documentary programs that merely expose people to a new culture through materials about the country's socio-political history, geography, economics, language and cultural institutions, to intense inter-personal-experience training, in which individuals participate in role-playing exercises, simulated social settings and similar experiences in order to "feel" the differences in a new culture.

Although generic programs exist, cross-cultural training is most effective when it's tailored to the specific needs of the expatriate and the host country. Because learning about a new culture requires an understanding of one's own cultural biases and behavioral traits, companies that use customized, cross-cultural training typically receive better results.

Successful cross-cultural programs can include the following:

Host country information. Basic information about the assignee's host country, including its history, common religions, political structure and recent events, so employees can understand citizens' values and beliefs.

Behavior adaptation. Although people have a hard time changing their cultural understanding, they can learn to alter their behavior to adapt to a new culture. In this phase of cross-cultural training, expatriates examine the way they currently handle a situation and what is required in the new culture.

Local business etiquette. Even the most veteran and prolific employee can have difficulty without an understanding of business etiquette in other cultures. For example, the U.S. tendency to "get down to business" is regarded as rude in Japan, where business transactions often have a greater personal relationship component. An employee who appears impatient with Japanese traditions designed to establish friendship and trust will have little success in business negotiations.

Communication techniques. A manager going to live in a foreign country for the first time might not realize how communication styles differ around the world. For example, U.S. employees tend to use "low context" communication, which is direct and task-oriented. Many other cultures have "high context" communication, in which messages are more indirect, like in the Middle East.

Cultural biases. International assignees should always examine the way their own culture affects their perceptions of right and wrong, good and bad manners, values, dress and other customs.

Cultural training can improve understanding of the cultural forces that affect their own behaviors and help assignees learn how to adapt to new cultural demands.

Cultural variances. This part of a cultural program compares and contrasts the expatriate's culture of origin with the culture of assignment. For example, in Australia, people are quick to address one another by their first names, while in France, such informality can be insulting.

Cultural profile. In this part of cultural training, employees develop personal cultural profiles that indicate their positions in relation to their larger national culture, since people who come from the same society do not necessarily all behave in the same way. The cultural profile helps expatriates determine how to develop an effective behavior to adapt to the host country's culture.

Role play and simulations. Role play and simulations help expatriates apply the lessons they have learned to new situations they will likely encounter. Training not only includes the situations that might come up in the workplace, but also those situations the expatriate (and his or her family) might encounter in daily life.

Don't Forget the Family. Just as spouses should be involved in the assignment selection process, they should be involved in training for global assignments. Some experts estimate that nearly 80 percent of all failed global assignments can be linked to the spouse's inability to adjust to the new environment. Each member of the family faces special issues in the expatriate environment that should be addressed.

Some culture tips to be successful in India:

- The Indian business culture is inherently hierarchical, with respect for age and status affecting all business interactions.

- Decisions will always follow a strict regimen of command and will route through the complete hierarchical map before a decision can be contemplated.

- Never be friendly with subordinates or lesser rank officers as you might brush the seniors the wrong way.

- Always confirm all appointments.

- India is a formal culture, and employees should never address their subordinates or superiors by first names, always the surnames should be used.

- Indian ponder over decisions. So pushing for immediate answers is not advisable.

- Indians will always negotiate. And concessions are expected and a given.

About the Author

Rohit Kumar, is the Managing Director of IKAN Relocations, a Pan -India Relocation Advisory. The writer is an expatriate advisor based in New Delhi, India. He is also an expert on cross cultural management. He can be contacted on .

First Published: Nov 18, 2006

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