The one with the unconference part 2

During the freeform experience that was the ConnectingHR Unconference I was fortunate enough to run a session alongside the marvellous @floramarriot and despite the call for free flowing conversation and no structure we both gave into our L&D urges and put a little structure and facilitation into the session. It should be noted that we resisted the urge to use blu-tack and post-it notes…

Myself and Flora had gravitated together having respectively posed the following questions during the opening session:

“What does global mean to you?” (Me)

“What can we learn from business in other cultures?” (FM)

If you would like to read Flora’s comprehensive notes from the session check out the Unconference section on ConnectingHR but what follows is a little context on my question and some thoughts having reflected and digested the session.

I have been fortunate enough over the past 3 years to work in several different cultures and if you consider cultures in the context of Edward T. Hall’s Cultural Context I have worked in the polar opposites of China and the USA. China (a high context culture) values the collective and trusted relationships built over time whilst the US (a low context culture) values the individual and relationships are built on merit. One of the things that came through strongly in our session and certainly resonated with me was the admission of how little time we had spent truly learning about the “other” culture and whilst some great sources of information exist, whether you had the time or latitude to use them seemed to be another question. For the record, the UK is far more akin to the US and is considered also, a low context culture.

The frustration that came through from almost everyone was at the physical distance and the constraint presented by time differences and how this restricted the building of in-depth fully functioning relationships, and how key the relationship was to successfully working across cultures. As much as technology in the form of Skype and similar has advanced the ability to communicate across distance, it was agreed that there was no true replacement for spending real time sat across from someone (and I would had sharing a few drinks over dinner but that is not based on empiric data but user experimentation)

I must confess I have learnt the hard way (jet lag, 14 Chinese people and my attempt at humour remains one of the most uncomfortable hours of my life) and I would say to anyone working outside of their own cultural norm for the first time, there is no amount of preparation and reading that can beat the experience of standing there and doing it.

In the context of my Master’s degree (I feel I must mention it from time to time) what I’ve found interesting is that so much of what we use in terms of defining best practice and ‘the next big thing’ is often from “The West” with America as the dominant influence. The limitations of empiric data derived from studies carried out on groups of MBA students aside, there does appear a certain arrogance in assuming that “we” (the West) know better than the most populace country on the planet that has a culture dating back thousands of years. One of our group put this intellectual imperialism in the most straight forward way and his comment remains my favourite of the whole day…. “We need to remember we haven’t got a big d*ck and a gunboat anymore” – it never made it to the visual minutes….

I really enjoyed this session, both the challenge of pulling something together from a pair of questions, ensuring that I didn’t hog it all for “my” question and to trying to make sure everyone contributed if they wanted to. The take home for me was “we” are all struggling with this ever more significant challenge, we can learn from each other through sharing experiences and that investing the time in understanding and learning is the only way to truly achieve the value and results from your global relationships.

As an afterword, if you are interested in exploring the psychology of cultural relationships a great starting point is the work of Geert Hofstede who has published extensively on the subject.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The one with the unconference part 2

  1. Pingback: A round-up of coverage from the second connectingHR unconference | itsdevelopmental.com

  2. Flora

    Hi Rob
    I totally agree with you when you say
    “I would say to anyone working outside of their own cultural norm for the first time, there is no amount of preparation and reading that can beat the experience of standing there and doing it”

    …so long as you are prepared to be open minded and listen and learn. I’ve seen plenty of the gunboat mentality. (Your quote did make it onto the flipchart and my typed notes…look carefully; it’s there in it’s unedited glory).

    Like you, I’ve done the masters, done my international management theory, but that just wasn’t the same as actually being there and seeing, feeling the difference. I recently went on my first work trip to the far east (not China) and although I knew the theory, I was really really struck, jolted, by the huge difference in behaviour and attitude. I could write loads, but one of the main things was the harmony and lack of aggression and frustration that people showed.

    Actually, on the subject of being open minded etc, there’s a useful little chapter in Rees and McBain’s book on people management. Its about the kind of attributes that we should look for in selecting and developing people who work on international roles or who interact alot with colleagues around the world.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/0333920309/ref=redir_mdp_mobile/276-9618887-2906650

  3. I agree with your comments on working across cultures and it’s interesting that you combine this with the difficulty of establishing relationships through technology, across time zones etc…

    We find in our work with global virtual teams that it’s rarely just about culture, but more the interplay of all of these things. There is no culture where a face-to-face relationship doesn’t help but increasingly teams have relatively little time, if any, face-to-face. Despite this they do seem able to sustain functional relationships – if not the deeper friendships we may have been used to in traditional teams.

    There are also some advantages, for example people communicating in a second language often prefer a written medium like e-mail because it can give them time to work on vocabulary and phrasing.

    It’s interesting to work with Asian multinationals who are globalising too, of course they are also bringing their expectations and seeking to globalise what works in their home markets – interesting times!

  4. Pingback: The one where the unconference strikes back | Masters or Bust

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