Ah, globalization. What seems charming and exotic in the pages of National Geographic becomes downright maddening when you’re trying to get business done on deadline, while navigating the seemingly bizarre customs and social rituals of a foreign location.
Whether you’re an American project manager working in Shanghai, a German engineer on contract in the Middle East, or an Indian software developer trying to make it in Paris, the ability to work across cultures is becoming as important as engineering prowess—particularly as high-tech firms open more and more overseas facilities, engage in multinational projects, and outsource to companies in still other countries. Not to mention that, for engineers moving into management positions, overseas postings are often key to ascending corporate ladders. The most successful will be those who can most readily adjust to local business norms.
Accepted practices in one country are sometimes taboo or irritating in another. America’s ”time is money, so what can we get done today” expediency is at loggerheads with the more circuitous Latin, Asian, and Middle Eastern dance of engaging prospective business partners over lengthy meals and conversation. The Western concept of using contracts to establish cast-iron rules for every possible future scenario is absurd to Asians. In their view, contracts are merely a sign that you can now do business together, which itself is an ongoing process of give and take. Excessive drinking is a sign of weakness in America—but of mettle in Japan. Asking someone’s age is a no-no in the West, but a way of determining social hierarchy in the East.
Some customs are so downright disorienting that you just have to give up and go with the flow. When Los Angelesbased Michael Blum was sent to oversee the design and programming of a new television studio in Singapore, Blum never dreamed his job duties would include hiring a Hindu priest and a local shaman to bless the building before people felt comfortable working there.
Universities have begun taking notice of the trend toward globalization and the difficulties that can arise when working in a foreign environment. Many now offer degrees in international engineering, as well as trips abroad designed to help technology students bridge cultural gaps. But businesses are lagging behind. Several consultants I spoke with note that many high-tech companies need to be more aggressive in such training, while others question the wisdom of a new corporate trend in coping with culture shock: setting up isolated expatriate communities that leave little room for day-to-day interaction with locals.
”The biggest challenge to those working internationally is one of awareness of cultural differences—and understanding them without judgment,” says Mary Teagarden, professor of global management at Thunderbird, The Garvin School of International Management, in Glendale, Ariz., and a contributor to the book Expatriate Management: New Ideas for International Business (Quorum Books, 1995).
”That’s why many people who work in high-tech fields get into trouble,” Teagarden says. ”Engineers are not only trained to make judgments but, by nature, tend to be decisive people who come to the point quickly and defend their positions. Cross-cultural understanding demands the opposite.”