I’ve been a bit disturbed by the general tenor of the conversation on the LinkedIn group ExpatWeb (members only) the past week or so. The opening question was, “Cross-cultural training: waste of time, money and efforts?” The reaction from the cultural professionals was, of course, unanimously “NO!” with a host of reasons why not. Most of these reasons I use myself, seeing as we all reference the same research materials.
That was predictable.
What was disturbing were the answers from businesspeople. The ones who eventually are, or are not as the case may be, our clients. Their responses were all, to a man: “Yes!!” that cross-cultural training is a colossal waste of time, money and effort. Some of the responses were telling:
- “Absolutely [cross-cultural training is a waste of time]; time better invested in a nice holiday!”
- “The most expensive consultant can give you cross-cultural coaching in Spain about communicating with Arabs, but a good Arab friend can give it to you over a nice meal and a few drinks…”. I assume he means non-alcoholic drinks.
- “Who cares if you shake hands ‘right’ – it’s all about the deal.”
Of course my immediate response to these businesspeople is to quote Donald Rumsfeld*, of all people, about “unknown unknowns”. In other words: they don’t know what they don’t know.
- Multiple cultural interpretations of meeting agreements
- How to relate/associate with “distant” cultures
- Gaining a consensus from a large number of organizations
- Gaining a consensus from a large number of diverse cultures
- Gaining a consensus from a large number of individuals
- Gaining commitment / involvement of all the cultural positions
- Overcoming language / physical / technological barriers
By the end of the course I can confidently state that the participants increased their understanding enormously, as well as being in a far better position to recognize and deal with intercultural difficulties in the future. But that’s not the point of this post.
The point is: there are very distinct problems endemic to this particular organization, and I suspect many many others, that heretofore have gone unrecognized as having an intercultural origin. These problems can benefit enormously from an increase in knowledge, expertise and tools to deal with cultural conflicts. How that should be approached and what possible concrete tools the participants gained from this particular training will be addressed in a later post.
* I’m aware that “unknown unknowns” are well known postulations in epistemology and decision theory circles. But it’s more fun to quote the then-Secretary of Defense when he stated, “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don’t know.”