By Lameck Otim
With increasing globalizations, one of the mainstays of a growing business is to go international by conquering borders and different territories. In this endeavor a business will face many challenges, and one of these is dealing with different cultures.
I have had a personal experience with the challenge posed by different cultures when dealing with an international fund management company that started business in my country many years back. I opened up an account with this company while it was in its early days, dealing with an astute local account manager employed by them; this process went well and I was a happy customer.
Several years later, in the midst of personal financial challenges, I decided to close the account and draw out what I could. This was where I began to experience bottlenecks in what started out very well:
First, I noticed that they had closed the local office. I had to coordinate the process of closing my account with a faceless officer based in Dubai. This alone was a taunting experience for an African man like myself, who desires personal contact in all important negotiations; because communication for us is not only in the words but a full body experience. However, I managed to get by somewhat with cold emails.
Then, we hit the next hurdle in meeting the strict documentation requirements; after several exchanges of documents and emails the contention got to the document confirming my place of residence. Now, anybody who lives in Africa knows that it is only in the metropolitan areas that one will find well organized street plans. The rest of the country outside the big city center is pretty much un-mapped for the unschooled eye. The rest of us find our way around quite easily, with the odd stop to inquire of human GPS systems.
I tried hard to explain to my foreign counterpart this challenge but only managed to receive more “European standard requirements”. And, after several months our exchange still continues with little success.
#1 Mistake Entrepreneurs Make In Crossing Borders
An article by Industry Week (Jan 19 2012) titled 3 keys to Successful Globalization says “the opportunities for global expansion are infinite and the potential for exponential growth is alluring. However, attaining success demands a well-conceived global expansion plan that is grounded in accomplishing specific corporate goals through the careful formulation of business development strategies. Paying special attention to cultural issues often makes the difference between success and failure”.
Ivey Business journal in its March / April 2015 issue on the Top 10 ways that culture can affect International Negotiations introduces the topic with “international business deals not only cross borders, they also cross cultures. Culture profoundly influences how people think, communicate and behave. It also affects the kinds of global transactions they make and the way they negotiate them. Differences in culture between business executives can create barriers that impede or completely stymie the negotiating process”
When Enron was still a pipeline company, it lost a major contract in India because local authorities felt that it was pushing negotiations too fast. The Indian grounds for cancellation was that the contract was concluded in unseemly haste and had been subject to fast track procedures, segments of the Indian public assumed that the government had failed to protect the public interest because the negotiations were so quick. In Enron’s defense the CEO, Rebecca Mark pointed out to the press that “We are extremely concerned with time, because time is money for us”.
Looking back to the fund management company that I am dealing with, it therefore comes as no surprise that they have closed shop in our country because I can now see that they failed to surmount the cross cultural challenges between our two territories. This thorn is still very prominent in their side to this day.
In a paper on the Influence of culture on international business in EnANPAD 2006; the writers state that anyone who wishes to do business with a foreign country can make the mistake of thinking that everything that works in one’s own country will work in other countries”. This danger which is referred to as ethnocentrism presents itself as a belief in the superiority of one’s own race or culture. The writers warn that ethnocentrism goes beyond and can lead to a complete disrespect for culture in other countries and I believe has been the stumbling stone of many a business gone global.
A Biblical Lesson on Working Across Cultures
As I continued to understand the treacherous landscape of business and culture, I sought what the scriptures, the book of all truth, would teach. Christians have had to face the challenge of transacting across cultures head on in fulfilling the Great Commission to take the Gospel to the world and I wanted to know how the Bible instructed in maneuvering cultural differences.
I saw that in sending out the first 70 missionaries, Jesus beseeched them that for whatever city they enter and are received they should first eat such things as are set before them before engaging in the work of evangelizing. I understand that matters of food and drink across cultures in those days was a major place of contention. Therefore in Jesus exhorting his disciples to first receive what was set before them was to counsel them to first accept the culture of their hosts before trying to influence them. This I believe has been the secret of the success of the Gospel missionaries through the ages. A successful practice of this is seen in the famous evangelical work of John Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission in which he exhorted his missionaries to wear the Chinese cultural dress as he also did when he first evangelized in China.
Paul in his epistles to the Romans writes that “yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died”. The lesson here for the business going global is this: It will need to take a critical look at the acceptable culture of its hosts and not export behaviors that may offend the new market hence destroying the relationship with consumers and ultimately negatively impacting the business.
Culture is something intangible being spread in individual and group behavior, however with the level of global interaction through crossing frontiers physically or the world wide web in pursuit of exploits, it is an important factor to pay attention to. For an ill-informed visitor, it is a potential wellspring of an expensive penalty.
Proverbs 13:18 states that poverty and shame will come to him who disdains correction, but he who regards reproof will be honored.
By Lameck Otim