Cultural Awareness - an HR perspective

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Cultural Awareness - an HR perspective

By: N.A. Johnson

The use of cultural awareness training has increased rapidly in the majority of global companies over the last decade.

My experience working in global companies in which effective cross-cultural functioning was critical, involved the devotion of considerable time and energies to ensuring that cultural training needs were identified and accommodated as necessary.

This commitment to bridging cultural gaps represents a perceptible shift in attitudes amongst British company global thinking. This is a shift from the prevalent subconscious (and sometimes not so subconscious) driver, which existed in previous years. Thinking typically held that the way in which the West did business was the norm to which to strive and that non-western citizens should assimilate into our own particular mode of cultural thinking as opposed to vice versa.

Little effort was truly made to understand the cultural differences between countries. This thinking was gradually moulded and changed by the realities of the failure of such thinking - including ineffective team functioning, lack of productivity and general dissatisfaction amongst cross culturally functioning staff. It also become apparent that the financial costs of failed cross-cultural initiatives could be readily assessed and had a tangible impact on the financial bottom line.

It is also interesting to note that the view that cultural awareness is unnecessary within other western groups has also changed.

Commonality of language can sometimes be an impediment as opposed to an advantage as it disguises the differences of thinking and approach, which may underlie whole strands of business practice. When dealing with countries with obvious 'differences' in respect to language, religion, values and behaviours etc., then individuals more readily accept the need to understand the motivations of the other party. When multicultural differences arise between western groups however, conflict within approach is often attributed to the 'ineptness' / 'stubbornness' of the other party. When such attitudes become ingrained within teams, then self fulfilling prophecy may kick in and poor relationships become the norm - affecting productivity and hence financial gain.

Recent experiences of running cultural awareness sessions for a UK team dealing on a regular basis with the US proved invaluable to overcoming a number of issues which had become entrenched into the operating behaviours of the teams. The sessions heightened awareness within the team of operating differences and helped to generate an understanding of why these differences existed within the groups. It also presented the teams with an opportunity to understand the potential frustrations that their US colleagues may have had with their UK peers in respect to their own personal approach to managing meetings, negotiations, making decisions, resolving issues etc.

Involvement in awareness programmes across a range of diverse issues is proving invaluable in resolving numerous poor performances in international business and in enhancing day to day HR practices; for example:

  • Expatriate assignments, management, training and benefits
  • Production of international relocation guides and related support materials
  • International company and office relocations
  • International recruitment
  • Corporate mergers and acquisitions
  • Training and development
  • Policy development

Clearly from an HR, and hence a business perspective, cultural awareness has been critical to the success of global companies with the progression of strong acceptance within businesses for the need to enhance cultural awareness through diverse cultural interventions.

About The Author

N.A. Johnson was an HR consultant for many years with the world's leading global companies. She now works freelance as a consultant on HR issues. This article was written for www.kwintessential.co.uk

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