Culturalize your people to achieve global competitive advantage

Let me start by defining a key term – ‘Business Driver’.  According to Business Intelligence’s dictionary:

“Business drivers are the factors that spur growth in the areas most important to an enterprise’s success.”

Factors specifically mentioned are: economic and market conditions, key players, critical information, assets, and processes.

Nowhere in the definition are cultural factors mentioned, and that is unfortunate. Global businesses will never reach their potential until they recognize that cultural intelligence is not simply a passive gathering of knowledge and know-how about interacting with pre-defined groups of people (useful at a very general level for ex and in-pats, perhaps), but is a conscious, active and ongoing journey of discovery and experimentation in connecting with others (customers, colleagues, partners, officials) whose cultural identities and practices are increasingly complex and fluid.

This is the age of the internet, social media, the borderless workplace, and millennials – all having little respect for pre-imposed boundaries and traditional expectations.  Culture is a verb as much as it is a noun, and everyone must become more aware – and proactive – in undertaking the roles they need to play in purposeful culture-work.  By purposeful culture work, I mean the ongoing and intentional creation, reinforcement, monitoring, and change management of the macro and micro assumptions, beliefs, behaviors, and work practices necessary to facilitate the achievement of strategic business objectives.  To ‘culturize your people’ is to ensure they focus their attention and actions on the critical few cultural drivers critical to achieving results.  While there will be similarities in cultural drivers across businesses, each business (and even parts of a business) must understand their own specific cultural drivers.

Critical Cultural Drivers

Here are three areas in which the critical few cultural drivers should be addressed explicitly for key interactions within the business and with interactions between the business and the rest of the world:

Customer Experience

According to Laura McLellan of Gartner, “Customer experience will be the battleground marketers are fighting over.”

Other commentators argue convincingly that we have entered the era of the Experience Economy in which product-based competitive advantages have become narrow and short-lived.  The differentiator is customer experience.  Isn’t this the same as being customer-focused?  Not really.  Customer focus was primarily about paying attention to the specific business touchpoints that a customer came into contact with.  Customer experience according to Martin Zwilling in Forbes is “your customer’s end-to-end journey with you, not just the key touchpoints or critical moments when customers interact with your organization.  Customer experience is the cumulative impact of multiple touchpoints over time, which result in a real relationship feeling, or lack of it . . . The advent of social media and real-time interactive feedback via the internet allows every customer to build and expect a relationship with your business, rather than just touchpoints.”

Touchpoints can be created and managed to some extent by technology.  But a ‘relationship’ is primarily the cultural dimension of a customer’s experience.

What critical few cultural drivers in your business will enable you to build a relationship with your customers?

Digital Transformation

Businesses are busy integrating the transformative powers of social, mobile, analytic, and cloud technologies into their business models.  Where is most of the investment made in enabling digital transformation?  No surprise – technology!  Time after time it has been shown that simply bringing in new technologies and hoping for exponential improvements in results is nonsensical.  Why?  Digital transformation is as much a cultural transformation as it is technological.  In a 2012 TED talk, Don Tapscott introduced four cultural principles (what I’ll call drivers) for succeeding in this new world:

  • Openness
  • Transparency
  • Sharing
  • Empowerment

What critical few cultural drivers in your business will power your digital transformation?

Innovation

I can’t think of a company that doesn’t want to increase its continuous innovation capability.  When planning for continuous innovation most companies aim for improvements in processes, systems, and structures.  These are valuable, of course, but again tend toward technical improvements that can only take us so far in meeting our goals.

The PWC report, Global Innovation 1000,  highlights the following cultural attributes:

  • Strong identification with the customer and overall orientation toward the customer experience
  • Passion for and pride in the products and services offered
  • Reverence and respect for technical talent and knowledge
  • Openness to new ideas from customers, suppliers, competitors, and other industries
  • Culture of collaboration across functions and geographies

What critical few cultural drivers in your business will fuel your continuous innovation?

I’ve been doing a lot of intercontinental travel lately, and so airlines are on my mind.   When I step onto a plane for a long distance flight, I’m not thinking too much about the technical/operational capabilities needed for running an airline.  I tend to assume the technical/operational knowledge and know-how for getting the plane in the air and getting it back down on the ground safely is revered and respected (a cultural driver for airline success).  To get and keep my business, attention must also be given to other cultural drivers that determine checking in, boarding, and the in-flight experience.

Technical/operational expertise is essential for those activities as well, of course, but it is the degree to which ground and aircrew members embody the critical few cultural drivers of the business (i.e. the degree to which they are ‘culturized’) that makes the most profound difference.

Let me leave you with one thought:

“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game.” – Lou Gerstner, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance.


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About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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