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Why is cultural intelligence important?

14th Jan 2013
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Clodagh O'Reilly explains how the importance of understanding cultural differences can positivwely impact on your L&D capability. 

Multinational corporations account for a significant share of the world’s industrial investment, production, employment and trade. Tens of thousands of parent firms, with hundreds of thousands of foreign affiliates, employ millions of people globally. Many individuals within these MNCs are required to work with colleagues from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures.
When organisations require people to connect internationally - working with colleagues who are located internationally, working with newcomers to their home countries or working in a foreign country - it is critical for them to demonstrate cultural sensitivity in order to achieve business objectives. 
What is culture?
Culture can be described as the relatively stable set of inner values and beliefs generally held by groups of people, and the noticeable impact those values and beliefs have on the outward behaviours and environment. In this context I’m referring primarily to national culture, as observed in countries or regions.
Human beings are more than a product of their circumstances or geographic location. Their innermost beliefs and values ultimately influence how they act. Differences in attitudes towards work, time, relationships and risk taking, for example, are often defined as cultural difference.
Cultures comprise of a range of variances by degree on scales of difference, or commonality. Here are some examples that could contribute to your knowledge about culture.
  • Power: The structure of organisations, and the distribution of responsibility and power, can vary a great deal. The two ends of the scale relating to the manifestation of power and structure are hierarchal, where power and control are clearly defined and usually centralised or flat, where power and responsibility are shared.
  • Transaction: Varying degrees of priority are placed on interpersonal interactions in relation to professional transactions. There is a shared disposition towards others in one's environment. Whereas some cultures tend to prioritise closeness and connection with clients and colleagues, others favour practical, transactional relationships.
  • Contribution: Cultures can be defined in terms of being individually- or collectively-oriented. These descriptors refer to the typical focus of an individual’s energy and ambition, whether it is directed for themselves or for the larger group.
  • Trust: Varying degrees of trust are assumed in different contexts. This can be observed in the degree of openness or caution that occurs naturally in environments.
  • Status: Groups differ significantly in their approach to granting of recognition, position, power or status. This can be done on the basis of ascription or achievement, or a combination of the two.
  • Risk: There are differing views of the merit of risk taking and the associated outcomes. Some cultures encourage risk seeking whilst others are somewhat risk-averse.
  • Rules: Rules and regulation are given varying degrees of priority, in relation to relationships, time and results. The relative priority given to rules determines the extent to which individuals are disposed to rule following or rule breaking.
  • Time: Like rules (above), time can be given varying degrees of priority, in relation to relationships, rules and results. The relative priority given to time determines the extent to which individuals are single-minded in their focus on speed versus people, process and even quality.
  • Past, present and future orientation: Most cultures have a particular orientation to think in terms of either the past, present or future. Some have the belief that the past is to be respected. They may see little value in change. They would rather keep things the way they've always been. Others live and work in the 'here and now'. They believe that only the present counts or matters. What works now is important now; what gets results in the present is what matters. Those who are future-oriented believe that the future holds potential to be realised. Investment of effort now is made with a view to longer-term benefits/advantage.    
                                              
Developing your cultural intelligence
Gain knowledge: Commit to increasing your knowledge of facts about different people and places, their political and economic systems, their traditions, diet, fashion and the like. You can do this formally, through reading newspapers and exploring international websites; or informally, by engaging colleagues who have experience of different cultures, learning from their first-hand experiences.
Organisations can provide this education through formal and informal learning modules, campaigns, communications and events which celebrate the value of diversity and sponsorship of employee networks that increase cultural awareness and foster cooperation.
Increase your practical awareness: Take time to reflect on the visible and invisible differences that manifest in different cultural groups. Can you identify, in colleagues or friends from different backgrounds to your own, which cultural preferences you find easy to identify and understand? And then consider how you might better recognise and understand the many more are subliminal and complex factors that differentiate cultural groups. Through what you learn and hear and observe, you might recognise and account for the differences that exist in the values and patterns which create culture. These factors may be historical and deeply embedded, so consider the history and events and societal influences that may have created them. Reflect on how people might differ in their view of property, resources and personal space. Consider how the governance of a territory might impact on people's perception of power, their approach to team work or taking responsibility.
Organisations can educate their leadership in the organisations culture and heritage to support their understanding of how this will align to some, but challenge others' country norms. Leaders in turn can role model sensitivity and transparency which foster international collaboration.
Apply what you learn: Review your existing working relationships and identify opportunities to gain more cultural understanding for the individuals you work with who have a different background to your own. Consider engaging in international teams or volunteering for foreign assignments that will give you an opportunity to observe and learn from people of other cultural backgrounds first-hand.
Organisations that invest in supportive global mobility programmes can reap rewards as members of their leadership population have first-hand experience of cross-cultural working, often associated with increased sensitivity and professional effectiveness.

Clodagh O’Reilly is Leader, Assessment Consulting EMEA, at global human resources consultancy Kenexa, with expertise in large-scale recruitment, development and change programs. Kenexa is an IBM company

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