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Globalisation & local customs dilemmas

[fa icon="calendar"] 18-Sep-2009 15:04:00 / by Carolyn Taylor

Globalisation & local customs
As I write this blog for a global audience, I became acutely aware of a choice I have to make. Do I use US or English spelling? Center or centre? Behavior or behaviour? Organization, or organisation?

I work with organizations all over the world, but with an individual client I am able to adapt to their standard. Here I have to make a choice. And there is no possibility of a win/win solution. It’s one or the other. Unless I alternate, and I think that would drive everyone mad and leave us all thinking my spell check was not working. So, I went with the US version, and hope my English family will not be horrified.

Ten years ago, when my work was focused primarily on two geographies, I would not have been aware of this dilemma. I would have blindly used English spelling and been unconscious that this might have made US readers feel slightly off center. The gift that globalization in my career has given me is the realization that my way is not the only way. The perspective from all those air miles is that that different communities do things differently, not better or worse, just different. I always knew that theoretically, but now I really got it. The underlying shift that produced was one of sensitivity to and respect for difference. I am very grateful for that.

Now that I am aware, I can raise the issue, as I am in this blog, but still I have to make a choice – US or English? In this example I see a microcosm of the dilemma facing many global organizations. ‘Think global, act local’ is all very well as an aspiration, but there are many areas which impact culture where acting global may be the logical way to go. Most organizations are looking to build a shared culture with shared values, recognizing that the strength of their brand is dependent on common shared values.

As you plan and lead your culture, consider this. What are the common values and the common standards of behavior you expect across the whole organization? The values piece can be fairly easy at the high level, but as you get more deeply into interpretation, and the behaviors in particular, you run into the differences between national heritage. If ‘challenging the status quo’ is a cultural value, does this disadvantage people who come from countries where being very respectful of superiors is important? What will you do about this when you have to choose between two people for a promotion?

  • Step 1 in your plan should be to put in place initiatives which will give a much broader group of people the global perspective which leads to increased awareness and respect. This is especially important for head office people, is a valuable as an explicit goal of any organization operating globally.
  • Step 2 is to use this increased awareness to select the places where ‘one way’ is important, and where difference is useful. For example, the reporting requirements of your head office country are going to influence the culture globally. As several of the oil companies discovered, lapses in safety standards in one country impacts the brand worldwide. These things need to be global, no matter what the local country standards are.

Then there are others, such as spelling, where you have to make a call one way or the other. Your culture will have many traits which are common throughout the world. My advice is to explicitly acknowledge this, don’t apologize for it, but do recognize the change this will require for individuals. I was asked last year by a group in one of the high tech companies to provide coaching for some Chinese managers who were doing an outstanding job locally, but struggling to gain the respect of their Californian based functional bosses. Their unwillingness to challenge was costing them dearly and, in the view of the Californians, costing the company too. This seems an enlightened move which sets a single expected standard, shows awareness of local customs and respects that difference.

Those of you who are used to English spelling, I ask for your understanding of the choice I made for a single standard. If you need coaching to accommodate this, let me know.

Image via Creative Commons.


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Topics: Behaviour, Communication, Values

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