Learning about different cultures is one way to broaden your problem-solving skills, become more creative and enhance business interactions, according to research cited by Adam Galinsky and researchers at Columbia Business School.
Galinsky and colleagues explain that the more exposed you are to multiculturalism, the likelier you’ll be able to produce new ideas in the corporate sphere.
Why? Communication methods may vary across the globe, social interactions have different rules of decorum, thus lending themselves to increased cognitive flexibility.
“There are no monocultural environments any more. So the ability to navigate various cultures is the single most important management and leadership skill in business,” remarked Scott Hammond, a clinical professor of management in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University.
Hammond is also a partner in Culture3, a consulting firm that helps businesses build productive global partnerships.
“You will not survive in a business large or small if you do not know how to attract, serve and retain customers from multiple cultures,” he notes. “Or attract, develop and retain talented employees from multiple cultures. Or see sales opportunities and business partnership opportunities in diverse cultures.”
One example he cited was a small manufacturer of bicycle parts that had a unique light for the back of the bicycle. According to Hammond, the corporation was puzzled, as they were unable to break into the India marketplace.
“Why did these young bike riders from India show disinterest? But it was obvious to the newly hired marketing director from Mumbai. Indian boys like to keep their rack free so that they can pick up a girl to ride on the back of the bike.”
Subsequently, they redesigned the product to place on the front, and sales took off.
The importance of diversity in supply chain management
Companies and governments are seeing the advantages of the staff diversity in the supply chain.
Last week, the Canadian Minister of Labour and Minister of Status of Women, announced a new $125,000 grant to improve workplace diversity and inclusion in the logistics, transportation and supply chain industry. The stated aim is to improve the representation of people with disabilities, women, Aboriginal people, and members of visible minorities in federally regulated workplaces.
“Such [diversity] programs can help manufacturers connect with a major portion of their customer base,” writes Jonathan Katz of Industry Week.
He wrote in the 1990s a supplier diversity initiative was launched by General Motors, and that as of three years ago included more than 200 women- and minority-owned businesses that supply GM. An executive of one supplier, ChemicoMays LLC, said that engineers, technicians, managers or executives would not have been available but for the diversity program.
According to Katz, in 2010 suppliers within the program held a number of test drive events at ethnic gatherings, African-American churches and an India Day event, resulting in greater profits.
Nelson Bennett of Business Vancouver says that diversity programs “promote innovation and cost savings.” He writes that large corporations such as Telus, TD Bank and EY have already adopted supplier diversity policies to reach a greater demographic.
Expose that culture
Employees who have experience with other cultures are more likely to reduce cross-cultural conflict, improve interpersonal relationships and offer culturally appropriate customer service, according to Lauren Supraner, of CAL Learning in New York.
CAL Learning provides language and cross cultural training to multicultural organizations throughout the US.
One item that HR managers could tweak is to not always look at hiring through an American’s eyes. “Doing so may overlook qualified candidates,” Supraner said.
“In the US you’re taught to sell yourself. Me, I, me. In Asian cultures, you’ll say what your team accomplished. And then you have to ask ‘what was your role in that team?’”
Being multiculturally aware adds “flexibility – and adapting your communication and behaviour in a cultural context, means more opportunities for customers.”
Fatimah Gilliam, founder and CEO of the consulting firm Azara Group in New York City, has helped companies diversify their work and professional environments.
Formerly a Wall Street corporate attorney, she was also responsible for diversity hiring at CitiGroup, and fundraising for the World Food Program.
“Companies that have a more diverse corporate board in terms of racial and gender diversity tend to outperform,” she said.
“With increased diversity I see companies come up with better business solutions.”
It’s important for employees and management to learn social and ethnic norms that vary from nationality to nationality “so that the company can grow, and can return better value for the shareholders over time,” Gilliam added.
There has to be a meaningful strategy in place, she stressed. “Diversity in the workplace goes beyond tacos in the cafeteria on cinqo de mayo.”
She cited a recent example where Apple offered $40 million to the Thurgood Marshall Fund, to encourage African-Americans to enter the tech sector. “They wanted in on the diversity game.”
Patty Dedominic, from Santa Barbara, California, is an international business coach for growing enterprises who noted that “living and working in another country is a powerful and valuable mind expanding opportunity.”
She coaches clientele in China, the US and Canada, who have mentioned “their international travel and work opened their eyes.”
Previously, she owned a recruiting and search firm for 25 years, where she would favor those who came from a culturally diverse background, or were internationally travelled. “We felt the [client] would appreciate differences in people and environments more,” she said.
“It’s good to increase your awareness of differences in leadership styles, know other perspectives are valid, and it boosts your ability to get things done.”
But North Americans, in general, need more work to sensitize themselves to global interactions, she maintains.
“It’s a big problem. Sometimes we don’t know what is considered right in one culture, or being unreasonable in another?”
One example she gives is about building a door: the contrast between craftsmanship qualities with an Italian designer, versus a designer in a developing country.
“In the latter, they might be happy they got the hinges to work. But the Italian wouldn’t be happy until he found the exact shade of purple.”
In certain South American countries, she added, they value personal favors more than a multi-million dollar contract. “If someone helps you, they’re more likely to invest in your company’s success.”
That’s why it’s important for the supply chain to visit their distributors, she added: Visiting them on their home turn means getting acquainted with the operation, production and people.
“We live in a world that does business around the world. There’s nothing that a business person can touch these days that hasn’t been contributed by someone in another country,” said Dedominic.
“Being diverse increases your network internationally, and adds to your resources exponentially.”
Photo via Flickr, Creative Commons