The importance of intercultural understanding

Intercultural awareness has always been a complex and difficult construct to define

Intercultural training is becoming more important than we might have imagined and in today’s borderless world, where cultures increasingly connect and collide, the art of finding distinctive or even unique characteristics of any national culture is becoming even harder.

Greater access to knowledge, data, and multiple perspectives add complexity rather than simplify our ability to capture and distil the essence of a nation’s culture accurately and objectively.

So how does this impact on the challenges of preparing managers for working internationally, where intercultural awareness is often cited as being ‘the critical ingredient for success’?

The truth is it’s not always essential for success. Indeed information on customer preferences, local talent capabilities, local laws, rules and regulations and organizational performance may have much more of a positive impact on a manager’s performance than acutely tuned intercultural insight. But this is far from being true in all cases.

When it comes to the relative importance of intercultural awareness in international business, there is an uneven landscape;

  • Some industries require more intercultural awareness than others
  • Some countries require greater intercultural sensitivity and analysis than others
  • Some functions need more specific intercultural knowledge than others
  • Some people, because of their role and personality, need more intercultural insight than others

Whilst the global financial services industry is highly integrated and can easily cohere cosmopolitan individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds seamlessly through technology, the management of extractive industries like mining, oil, gas, or retail management are often far more localized. Operating in Australia, as an American-headquartered, multinational company may be considerably more straight-forward compared to establishing operations in Russia, where political savvy and context may be the central differentiator between success or stalemate. A manager with minimal international work experience, regardless of how internationally connected he or she is on social or professional networks, will have different needs to those who can process their experience on the back of ‘lived’ international exposure.

In short, cultural intelligence is relatively important; but just how important it is, is differentiated around the globe and determined by its context. There is a dangerous tendency to over familiarize the similar (“it’s all just common sense”) whilst mystifying the exotic or unusual to the point of incomprehension or incompatibility.

There are many considerations in assessing the relevant level of emphasis to place on intercultural awareness before specifying what type of intercultural learning is appropriate for your international managers.

Here are five:

  • Priorities – The relative importance of a country / market in relation to your international strategy
  • Economics – The alignment of favourable national economic conditions at a macro and market level
  • Politics – The relative compatibility of national political intentions and the prevailing ideology
  • Legal – The consistency of legal infrastructure and the fit of ethical codes with company requirements
  • Linguistic Compatibility – The ease of linguistic clarity between key people operating in different languages
  • Engagement – The degree of success dependent or reliant upon high levels of local workforce performance

The greater the lack of compatibility… the greater the need to enhance your organization-s intercultural capability.

Be globally minded but also worldly wise.
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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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