Business moving East demands greater cultural awareness

TH Ong, VP, Global Integration

Post by TH Ong, Vice President, Global Integration

Companies in ‘Western’ countries, including the US, UK and Europe, need to brush up on their intercultural skills – and fast!

There are billions of pounds of trade at stake. US Trade with India was around $US 49 billion in 2010. US Trade with China in the same period was almost ten times that amount. And although tiny by comparison, India is seeking to increase its bilateral trade with the UK to a not insubstantial £24 billion in the next few years. Almost one in five of every Euro spent outside of Europe by European countries was with China (18%).

Our (Global Integration) recent online poll revealed that 83% of companies are seeing a trend for more business with ‘Eastern’ (Asian) countries (India, China etc). We know that this figure could be affected by the kinds of companies that we engage with, who are often multi-nationals, but this figure surprised even us.

Cultural awareness is an absolute must for people looking to do business in Asia.  Yet many fail to realise that there is so much more to culture than learning the external signs like handshakes, nods and eye contact. Whilst using these external signs may make a good first impression, but don’t make you culturally aware any more than putting on a flamenco dress makes you Spanish. Cultural awareness goes far deeper – it reaches a point of acceptance, tolerance and understanding rather than mere emulation.

All cultures are logical, so a wider awareness – developing approaches that work across a range of very different cultures – can prove a great way of stimulating innovation and flexibility. It would be rare for this awareness not to spill into the immediate workplace as well, as it’s based on a far wider cultural understanding and a deeper understanding of how others see the world. India has 1.2 billion inhabitants (and rising), China 1.3 billion – to suggest that everyone in each of these countries sees the world the same way would be foolish.

Culture is tangible. Knowing how to read it, and respond, makes for much better business decisions and huge competitive advantage when it comes to the cultural complexities in businesses. Many people promote the understanding part of it but often give very rudimentary ‘recipes’ to dealing with cultures. To deal successfully with someone from another culture, wherever on the planet (and sometimes even within our own countries), culture needs to look beyond the meet and greet.

We’d argue that it’s far more important than that: culture needs to be part of the mix when thinking of strategy, structure, systems and skills.


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