Thursday, February 24, 2011

Global Working: It's Not All About Culture!

This week I delivered a webinar to HR managers. Before the webinar, a colleague of mine conducted some interviews to gather more context about their specific issues. Let me say that that the topic of the webinar was to be developing cultural intelligence for managing a global workforce. Although the interview questions were specifically related to challenges of managing cultural differences, the feedback to the questions was wide ranging.

Some of the challenges were related to underlying cultural orientations like differences in value placed on individual vs. group, or shared power vs. concentrated power, but many were not.

The problem with the concept of culture is that it can be like a waste basket into which everything is thrown. This is a problem because when we do that culture becomes everything and nothing. Having just moved to California, I am now much more aware of the value of unbundling waste into various types so that it can be treated more appropriately - and maybe value derived from the treatment of different types.

Let me give you my definition of culture: The learned set of assumptions, expectations, values, beliefs and behaviors that distinguish one group of people from another. It's all about the inner world of the group, and how that inner world drives the behaviors of group members.

The challenges raised during the interviews were as much about the difficulties of global working as they were about 'culture'. Challenges raised can be divided into:
Logistics - for example, setting up and running meetings across time zones.
Infrastructure - for example,the unreliability of phone systems in emerging markets along with issues of bad roads, traffic, crime, and lack of a sophisticated technological infrastructure. When remote managers are unaware of such ground realities are very likely going to make wrong assumptions, incorrectly diagnose performance discrepancies, and make unrealistic demands - while all the time giving cultural explanations.
Expertise - for example,a lack of training given to people in local facilities in relation to company systems or necessary working methods.

The simple issue is, no amount of cross-cultural training will solve the challenges of logistics, infrastructure, and expertise. They must be dealt with on their own terms. Putting them into the catch-all of culture doesn't help managers sort through and manage the varied challenges of global working.