The Global Cultural Imperative

The Global Cultural Imperative


 Indian and Southern Ocean-Perth

The Economist Intelligence Unit is a leader in pursuing the global cultural imperative, knowing that in today’s global marketplace we need to be better equipped to handle the complexity of dealing with cultural differences.  Its landmark survey of over 500 global executives in 2012[1] examined their organizations’ current level of cross-border engagement as well as future plans for global engagement.  Seventy percent of respondents predicted a 78% increase in operations overseas – indicating that there will be more cross-border collaboration of teams – which translates into a huge potential for cultural misunderstandings across languages, with social norms, and about expectations.

Fifty percent of these respondents specifically mentioned that communication misunderstandings are one of the biggest obstacles that have affected business dealings and ultimately the bottom line.  Even more specifically – this response indicated that having clarity in intercultural communication is just as important as financial gain.  In addition, 50% said that differences in cultural norms impede smooth operations; and 90% said that being able to understand how to communicate across such differences would lead to improved profit, revenue, and market share.  Interestingly, executives reported that something must be done to educate their employees.  But here’s the catch – this report showed that only 47% of the executives indicated that their organizations were doing something to help train employees for cross-border communication – and/or had a system for selecting people who were appropriate for such interactions. While 47% may appear to be a positive number, the question is – what was the training; and how effective was their training?

Global mobility and cross-border interactions are here to stay – to that end, there is a critical need for cultural and relational readiness for training and development of employees who will be able to advance your organization’s success in the global marketplace. Key opportunities exist for your organization if you have come to the realization of your responsibility in meeting the global cultural imperative.  In other words, cultural difference demands our attention and we have an obligation to understand and deal with it effectively.

Last week I talked about a specific intercultural assessment tool, the IDI – Intercultural Development Inventory, and its effectiveness in establishing one’s level of intercultural competence as well as indicating one’s need for development, which can be done through the Intercultural Development Plan.

Cultural competence doesn’t happen overnight.  Unfortunately, most of us want a quick fix and expect that if we learn a bit and perhaps try a little harder, voila, we are therefore more competent.  It doesn’t work this way. Research has shown that it isn’t the amount of time spent abroad, whether you speak another language, or even have consistent interaction with people from another culture(e.g., having close friends or living with a host family).  It is the intentional, persistent, and focused attention on a person’s self-reflection – over time – that leads to greater understanding and competence.[2]

In other words, we don’t become interculturally competent through osmosis.  This research conducted by my esteemed colleagues, Mick Vande Berg and Michael Paige, demonstrates that what matters regarding gains in intercultural learning outcomes is the intervention by a ‘cultural mentor’ who facilitates intentional and structured learning/ reflection opportunities – before, during and after. Unfortunately THIS TAKES TIME.   There is no “quick fix”.  But fortunately, those who do take the time to work at it can and do achieve a higher level and satisfaction with their intercultural exchanges.

In the courses that I teach, the training and executive coaching that I do, and in the study abroad programs that I lead, this is what I do – facilitate structured, intentional, and reflective learning.  And it works!

For example, in a six-week study abroad program in China last year, my program consisted of several pre-departure sessions where we focused on the foundational aspects of understanding culture in general and then Chinese culture in particular.  Throughout my students’ immersion experience, they engaged in readings, discussions with me and other faculty, completed writing assignments, and then did an intercultural development plan.  In using my pre- and post-assessments of the IDI my group of 22 students achieved a 38.2% increase in their cultural competence – which is quite statistically significant!

Whether working on cultural competence as an individual, a small group, or a large group, the hard work of becoming more sensitive, insightful, and reflective can become a reality.  And in today’s global environment, it is a cultural imperative.


[1] The Economist Intelligence Unit, Competing across borders: How cultural and communication barriers affect business. 2012.
[2] The Georgetown Consortium Project: Interventions for Student Learning Abroad. Michael Vande Berg; Jeffrey Connor-Linton; R. Michael Paige, Volume XVIII Fall 2009.


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