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by Vault Consulting Editors | March 10, 2009


By definition, when you want to be global as a consultant you have to be able to manage and think across cultures. However, attempts to createcommon values - this means between yourself and the other culture thatconsult in - can create tension. Here's how to manage.

Nowadays, everyone is talking or hearing about the need to establishthemselves in the international arena. As consultants, we especiallywant the people within our organization, as well as our clients, to"sing from the same hymn sheet," so to speak. However, just as companies cannotoperate independently from their environments, consultants can'teither.

They bring with them values and beliefs shaped by thesociety that they grew up in, as well as the ones in which they live. Asmuch as we standardize products, technologies, processes andstructures,consultants will always remain products of their culture.

The fact that national cultures affect the way we do business posessignificant challenges for the development of commoncorporate values. One way of meeting this challenge is to focus on thekey values which define the organization, and then to express thesevalues in ways that depending on the local circumstances. Forexample, if the corporate values emphasize performance-related rewards,they may be expressed in terms individual rewards in one country, and ateam-based performance in another - very much one of the keydifferences between the US and Japan, for example.

Making this happen sounds easy for a consultant, but it is actuallynot.Consultants and other business people often make mistakes, not becausethe strategy or plan itself is wrong, but because they lack anunderstanding of other cultures. Naturally, to talk of "national"cultures is a simplification, but there are nevertheless some commonthreads which distinguish, let's say, the American culture from theGerman or the Japanese. Faced with the same incident, for example,consultants as well as managers from different cultures usually reactreact according to their specific orientations. In the US, peoplemeeting for the first time will be on first name terms quickly. TheSwiss or the Germans expect to be introduced as Herr, Frau or Doktor -even if you have worked with them for a long time. Moving to firstnames is seen as improper or rude.

A good way to analyze cultural differences is to observe the way peoplesee key dimensions, such as space, time, activity, and relationships. Inmost societies, for example there are rules which that define personaland intimate space. Physical barriers such as walls and partitions cansay a lot about how people relate and communicate important messagesabout status and privileges. Another means could be body position andeven eye contact. For example, the Japanese keep physicallydistant, whereas people in the greater Mediterranean countries, such asItaly and Spain, tend to require less personal space. Goodcommunication, therefore, is the one of the most important qualitiesconsultants need to possess to be a successful consultant.

Another big difference in cultures that global consultants need to beaware of is the perception of time. In societies such as the NorthernEuropean countries and the US, time is observed as something thatstretches before the individual. Mostly, it is divided into neatcompartments, allowing for one thing to be done at a one time. In thesecultures, individuals tend to plan with cleartargets, milestones, and end dates. On the other hand, in regions suchasthe West Africa, Southern Europe, and the Middle East, time is seenmuch more as something to measure accomplishments than as a timepiece.It can be said that people are "in time" and many things can beaccomplished simultaneously. The completion of a task on time is oflessimportance than the process by which it is accomplished.

Another aspect of time perception is the attitude towards the past,present, and future. Some cultures tend to look backwards, say tosignificant events in the past, while other cultures are more heavilyoriented towards the future and progress. When it comes to activity,theAmerican society has a strong focus towards "doing." This assumes thatit is natural to take charge and assume control over the environment.Inother cultures, such as in many Asian coutnries, tend to have a "being"orientation, which places people in a subservient position to nature.Other cultures have a "becoming" orientation,where people see life as a journey, with each step offeringopportunities to learn and grow.

Consultants that desire to go global also need to be aware thatCultures can also differ in their approach to reality. For example, the US andthe UK, tend to be "low context" cultures, where information exchangestend to be expressed unambiguously, and where there is a strongemphasison law, contracts, rules and policies and procedures. In these cultures,people favor a " speak your mind" approach. This is in contrast to highcontext cultures such as the Middle East, wherethere is a more indirect approach to information exchange. In these cultures, small talk and intuition play a more important role in determining what information is accepted.

Another key dimension of cultural contrasts is relationships. Somecultures focus on the individual. Rights of the individuals are veryimportant to them and nonconformist behavior is accepted. Advancementis based mainly on an individual's abilities and meritocracy is preferred.There is a high emphasis on equality of opportunity. Group-orientedcultures consider "the whole" more important than "the parts." A highpremium is placed on loyalty to the group, as well as consensus indecision-making.

Blunders can easily be made by consultants working with people fromdifferent cultures simply because of a lack of awareness in thesedifferences. It is easy to make assumptions -- the wrong assumptions --about another culture. Therefore, the starting point of being asuccessful, international consultant is awareness. Developing anunderstanding and awareness of cultural differences is an importantfirst step in responding to international consulting challenges.


Filed Under: Consulting
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