Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Learning a new language

I am one of those fortunate people who speaks a foreign language well – English is my native language, but I also speak Russian fluently. People I meet often say, "How clever you must be to speak Russian". But I am almost embarrassed to say that learning Russian was not hard at all. So am I "gifted" at languages? I answer emphatically, "No, I'm not". I did French, German and Latin at school, and my second language at University was Czech. German and Czech are completely alien to me (except where the Czech and Russian overlap, which they do occasionally), and I can struggle through in basic French. I really had a hard time at languages at school, and did not take to Czech at all later on. I will freely admit that my Russian was helped by extensive time in country, although I have also lived in Czech Republic and visited France frequently.

I strongly believe that there is no such thing as "being good at languages". The vast majority of people acquire their first language fairly easily from parents and siblings, and later on at school, and although there are some factors around the written language that cause some problems, the spoken language is learned at an instinctive level – in my view this shows that we have the ability to learn language. Whether we learn a new language as a child, or later on in life as an adult, my belief that there are two overriding factors that influence our success: methodology and motivation.


The single most important factor is your desire to learn. Learning purely for academic purposes is hard, because you cannot necessarily see the end result. If however you have an end goal (a successful business negotiation or you cannot shop locally for example) you have a good reason that can inspire you. It is not a surprise that unaccompanied expats often find it much easier to acquire a good standard of the local language – chatting someone up is much easier if you can understand each other, and those who are romantically attached to a native speaker can have an advantage, although, in my experience, the first language you speak to someone tends to be the one you continue in – so if you start speaking English on the first date, you will almost certainly continue speaking English.


However motivation is not enough – I have a really important meeting with a Japanese client in three months, huge bonuses await, I've got a Japanese girlfriend, but the language is going nowhere. The second most important element is the way you learn, and there are several parts of that:


You have to make time (not TAKE time, but MAKE time) to devote to study. Language learning requires full concentration, constant repetition and practice, and it is an active skill that you can lose if you don't keep using it. Drip-feed tuition (i.e one or two hour lessons a couple of times a week) is one way to learn, but it is hugely inefficient – you spend a lot of time at the beginning of each lesson revisiting the previous lesson, and unless you are very disciplined in keeping up with the practice between lessons, progress is slow and can be demotivating. Much better, although much harder to fit in to most people's schedules is an intensive course – one-to-one tuition or at most a group of two learners to one tutor is the best way to learn a language, when you have a specific short term goal and can form a great basis for doing a drip-feed course later on. You spend each day practising the skills you have learned at the same time as moving on to the next. There is very little knowledge loss, because you are immersed in the language, and have no other distractions


It goes without saying that you need a good teacher with whom you can develop a close rapport. But the style of learning has to suit you as well. A lot of research has been done into learning styles, and language learning is a very personal form of learning that takes you out of your comfort zone, it is essential to take your learning style into account when deciding how you will be taught.


As mentioned earlier, you need to practice a new language, as much as any new skill. Using a language socially will have much greater benefit that continuing lessons, because you utilise the language you need for communication. In my view teaching of Latin is doomed because one of the first phrases you learn is "Davus servus est" (Davus is a slave). I will never ever ever need that phrase, even if I study old texts. In communicating socially you are talking about thing s you want to talk about and are interested in, but more importantly the focus is on communication not necessarily on grammatical accuracy, and after all that is what language is all about!




Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Why is Intercultural Training for expats so important?

Because it is! OK, so I'm expected to say that aren't I? If I was working in the mobile phone industry, I'd probably be saying that you can't live without the newest handset.

But in this case there are serious objective reasons why preparing expats in advance of a move abroad is important. There is plenty of research available, some of it quite recent that gives the return on investment, and the statistics showing that expats who have been prepared are more efficient, settle better, and improve the company's image in the host country – but again, we are in a generation that doesn't tend to believe statistics. I also agree that not all pre-departure training is the same, and that I am speaking with experience of one (and of course in my opinion the best!) provider – Farnham Castle

So let's try and look at some of the issues involved in relocating a family to a new country and how a good pre-departure training session can help.

Culture Shock

"Culture shock is a term used to describe the anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, confusion, etc.) felt by an individual caused by coming into contact with an entirely different environment, such as a different country. It often relates to the inability to assimilate the new culture, causing difficulty in knowing what is appropriate and what is not. Often this is combined with strong disgust (moral or aesthetical) about certain aspects of the foreign culture. "

Anxiety and stress are suffered by 1 in 5 UK employees (http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Employment/Employees/HealthAndSafetyAtWork/DG_10026604 ). It is one of the biggest causes of sick leave, and is an element in relationship breakdowns. UK employers are obliged by law to take steps to alleviate workplace stress. Reread the definition of culture shock above – it has much in common with stress, and it is an element of stress that can be removed. The surprise and confusion elements can be almost entirely removed by preparing employees for the different culture they will be encountering. If you know in advance that Brazil is a very hierarchical country and that time is more flexible, then you are not going to be overly concerned that your boss constantly keeps you waiting, and is quite distant. As a Brit I expect to have quite a friendly relationship with my line manager at work, and that if we arrange a meeting for 3pm, s/he will make every effort to be there on time, and won't be late back from lunch.

A genuine example at a very basic level. A Brit was hugely frustrated by his US boss: he had emailed a suggestion to him before an important strategy meeting. He had taken a lot of time and effort into researching figures and predictions, and was confident that, although radical, there was a lot of potential. His US boss emailed back "I think we'll table that proposal". Leaving aside the level of context provided, if you are more used to UK English, you will understand that the Brit was hugely disappointed that his proposal was not even mentioned at the strategy meeting, and in fact in this instance he assumed that his boss had stolen the idea and presented it as his own in a private meeting with senior management. Those more familiar with US English will be astounded that the Brit was so upset – he had been told quite clearly that his proposal had been set aside.

I will freely admit that even the most detailed cultural training programme will not give you a list of every single nuance in vocabulary (in UK English, "to table" means to put something on the agenda; in the US it means to leave off the agenda), however every decent cultural awareness session will help you to question and to look for reasons behind unexpected reactions. The session will show you the essential values of the host culture (i.e whether relationships are more important, what level of detail you are expected to provide in a proposal, fluidity of time etc) and will help you to create a personal and business strategy to cope with the major points of difference.

In any workplace your family life will have an effect on your productivity, and yet when someone is relocated to a foreign country we move the whole family (including partner and children) away from their social support networks, possibly from work and schools and insert them into a completely new environment. Add to that a possible new language as well and you're leaving a partner with no friends, no job and huge difficulty talking to neighbours or even going shopping for essentials. Boredom can become a huge factor and that leads to niggling about all the differences, a constant unfavourable comparison with "back home". More importantly is the availability of a wonderful scapegoat for all the normal problems of life – "this wouldn't have happened if you hadn't taken this job!"

Cultural training not only prepares the family for some of the issues, it can provide you with introductions to expat networks, give you advice on where to find essential items, and much more. However one of the main benefits is that the sponsoring company is showing its willingness to involve the family in the relocation. Possibly for the first time, "trailing spouses" are involved in their partners' careers – the training includes (or should include) elements for the whole family. It also raises some of the issues that will be faced, suggests options for fighting off boredom and can help finding ways of making friends outside the expat community.


Any organisation that offers pre-departure training will give you the benefits of it, but in my view you should be asking several evaluating questions:

Do the trainers have personal experience of the country?

Have they recently lived in the country as expats? (Although locals have insider information, living as an expat is VERY different from living as a native)

Does the training cover the practical as well as cultural aspects?


One final tip for expats in conclusion:

Even before you arrive in your new country you will probably be planning a return trip home quite quickly, to visit friends and relatives. My advice is to make the trip back to your "home" country the second trip you make. I would always advise going on a short holiday to a third country, preferably one you have never visited before. The reason is fairly simple: when you come back from holiday, you go "home". In order to settle properly in your host country it must feel like home, but if you only visit relatives in your "home" country, going back will in fact will be just "going away" again.


Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Business Culture in the Central Asian States

The former Soviet republics of Central Asia - namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tadjikistan - have come a long way in liberalising their economies since becoming independent countries at the start of the 1990s. While for much of the twentieth century, these countries were largely closed-off to trade and commerce with the outside world during their time under central authority directed from Moscow, in the 1990s they have become increasingly open to foreign businessmen.

The massive task of re-constructing their planned Soviet economies to ones based on market institutions, has called for voluminous capital injection into these states and resulted in their governments actively seeking to co-operate with the international business community. Many vital sectors of their economies, including oil and gas, mining, agriculture, telecommunications, power, steel works, and tobacco, have been officially open to foreign businessmen for much of the past decade, resulting in an increasingly cosmopolitan business environment emerging in a number of these countries. While their economies were previously monopolised by government enterprise, they have become highly diversified in recent years, still consisting of many state-owned companies, but also catering to a thriving private sector, numerous foreign investors and representatives of foreign companies, as well as joint-ventures between the foreigners and locals.

However, despite this new-found economic cosmopolitism, doing business in Central Asia's former Soviet republics remains a substantially more challenging experience than one may expect in the mature market economies of Europe, North America and other parts of Asia. In particular, from the perspective of business culture, one should appreciate that these are culturally very different societies to those in which we have developed our business acumen. Much of the population of the Central Asian countries hails from a Muslim civilisation that, while containing many of the personality traits from the Middle Eastern and South Asian Islamic societies, has been absorbed by the social values and the business practices which prevailed under the Soviet Union. The resulting business culture in Central Asia is therefore an interesting hybrid of Soviet formalities and protocol (very similar to that encountered in Russia or Ukraine for example), and Central-Asian Islamic cultural practices - conservative social values, respect for seniority, strong clans and family networks in business, as well as genuine hospitality and often a highly social attitude towards the conduct of business (i.e. relentless wining and dining as a means of developing the business relationship). Or, to put it in other words, a strong blend of the post-Soviet secular modernism mixed with the deeply entrenched cultural traditions of the Central Asian states. The business experience awaiting the foreigner in these countries can therefore be just as rewarding socially, as it can be challenging from the cross-cultural aspects of doing business itself.

In the first encounter with Central Asian business counterparts, one is likely to experience a relatively formal welcome, from either Slav or Asiatic men or women donning Western style business attire, eagerly handing out their business cards (and expecting you to do the same) and generally trying to present themselves as modern corporate citizens. The opening moments of the first encounter are likely to be filled with long-winded comments of welcome from the senior Central Asian business official, giving some background about their enterprise, before coming to the main issues of the their potential business cooperation with the foreign company. They are generally likely to conduct their dialogue in Russian, speaking through a capable English language interpreter. They will then expect you to reciprocate, telling them about your enterprise abroad and about how you can potentially work with them to develop a mutual joint venture, symbiotic for both parties. The officials are just as likely to be women as they may be men, since, despite the region's conservative heritage, urban women are an emancipated (and vital) member of the region's workforce and have been omnipresent in economic life for much of the past century.

It is rather important for the foreign businessman to develop a good relationship with their potential Central Asian partners during this first meeting, as it will set the standard for much of the subsequent meetings to come and will make the locals feel more comfortable in dealing with the visitors. Important points to note for the first encounter are to make the locals feel that they have your respect, particularly by maintaining good eye contact, being open-minded and courteous in the manner you construct business related comments, responding to their humour when necessary and (despite the fact that you are most likely coming from a more advanced country economically) avoiding pompous, or "imperialist", behavior. You will find that the local business population does not like to be talked at, as opposed to engaged in a dialogue between business partners perceived as equals, and promoting such a course of action will quickly lead to a rather burdensome business experience for the foreigner in Central Asia.

There are two further points of business culture to consider in this brief introduction to the topic. The first is that the foreigner should learn to exercise a good degree of patience with the locals. When travelling to countries like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan for example, one will quickly see that the local workforce and business community has little experience with modern business practices equivalent to those long taken for granted in the advanced market economies. This means that the locals are likely to have far less experience in effectively managing a foreign investor's business that one would generally like. However, given their eagerness to learn, and all round good work ethic, its will be far more effective for the long run to persevere with local employees and show patience, rather than getting frustrated when things don't always go as planned. The other point is that much of the local Muslim population in these countries, is quite emotional in character and, as a workforce, can demand a lot of attention both in and out of the workplace. They may expect you to spend time with them on weekends, meet their families, and take up other offers of their - generally very sincere - hospitality. While this can at times seem exhaustive, it is generally recommended to accept such invitations where possible (despite one's desire to maximise their business input time), particularly if they come from the elderly or from people of seniority in business or society. Such gestures on the part of the foreigner will be taken as a sign of "paying your respect", and are often a vital ingredient in developing a harmonious business relationship in Central Asia.

Marat Terterov was born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1968 and is an Australian citizen resident in the United Kingdom since 1995. He has published a book entitled Doing Business in Kazakhstan and is presently completing similar business titles on Russia, Egypt and the Republic of Georgia. He has substantial experience relevant to business practice in the former Soviet Union, particularly in the Central Asian Republics, having lived and worked in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as in Georgia and the Russian Federation.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Home visits

Great article at http://www.batgung.com/expats-trips-home-from-Hong-Kong#comment-5298

Well worth looking at

"‘We care locally.’
That three-word profundity comes from a weblog written by Joe Posnanski, a sports writer whose work I enjoy.
Joe has just returned to the USA from Japan after covering Japanese baseball’s version of the World Series. He made the comment in reference to the deeply uninterested reactions he received when he tried to convey to his associates the wonders he’d witnessed in Japan. He actually was there to see the unprecedented phenomenon of two pitchers combining to throw a perfect game, and it --
Let’s stop right there: thanks for reading this far, but you don’t really care about Joe, or the Japanese World Series, or what I think about either of them, do you? You didn't follow those links. You’re wishing already that I move on to some more interesting and relevant topic.
Well, that’s just the point: for most of us, our range of interests is relatively narrow, and we’re far more interested in the places we live, or at least have visited, than we are in even the most exotic place we’ve never seen.
This can be an unpleasant lesson for expatriates to learn......"

Full article at http://www.batgung.com/expats-trips-home-from-Hong-Kong#comment-5298

Raise your virtual hand if you know the answer...

This is the brave new world of the integrated global e-economy. Widespread access to the web will solve all our business and learning needs. The fact of the matter is that key decision-makers including, of course, the readers of this article, were educated in a traditional manner and their interpersonal and management skills have come from human experience, not from any virtual world.

The message is that we need to remember the human amongst the glare of technology in this increasingly virtual world. We need to find the right balance between the silicon chip and human behaviour.

At the start and end of every communication and transaction - from a handshake or smile to an email or contract - is a person. That person is a unique creation of their culture and environment and far more sophisticated than any machine or software. That person is our client or partner or manager and we need to make at least as much effort to understand that human being as any technology with which we communicate.

Like it or not, we are in an increasingly borderless world and new cultures and new ways of thinking are coming our way. Today you might work for a national company and tomorrow find yourself part of a multinational group. Your clients and colleagues might be next door today and half way round the world tomorrow. To effectively work with these people from different backgrounds we all need to learn about the cultural psyche that drives these people. What are you going to do to survive?

The answer is to learn, and learn well.

The next logical questions therefore concern where and how to learn? Will new electronic learning replace traditional methods? Does the Internet really offer a better solution than plain old-fashioned hands-on experience? Is the internet some kind of new magic solution that means we can forget that human relations are both essential and hard work?

Let's look at a few answers to these questions.

With its vast content of electronic data, the web seems set to replace face-to-face education and training, we are told. Time will tell, but in the meantime the demand for old-fashioned non-virtual education services, offered by specialist training centres and universities the world over, continues to grow rapidly.

Also, it is hard to deny that using technology to learn is exciting compared with the idea of squeaking chalk on a blackboard and the repetitive chanting of simple mathematical formulae or simply doing some hard work in personal learning and development.

The idea of video conferencing with the latest high speed connection and digital imaging seems much more modern than travelling and sitting down with your business partners.

The internet has allowed humans to get access to data and to enter into discussions and interact without the need to actually meet anyone or make friendships and relationships. I would again draw a cautionary note from the past about such attempts to ignore the hard work needed to build and understand human relations.

What history, wisdom and common sense tell us is that we need a blended learning solution and the potentially vast data from the internet must be supplemented with human interaction. Success with applying factual data about a foreign market comes from a deep understanding of local culture and providing for its needs and wants.

Just the data alone will not make any of us successful. Without interpretation and guidance the mere words alone are not enough. We can all download a recipe from the internet but does that make us master chefs? The human input into the interpretation of some written words and an assembly of ingredients is the difference between haute cuisine and a dog's dinner.

When we think back to earlier years we can all remember an individual such as a teacher, relative, colleague or friend who changed our understanding and shaped our lives as a result. Anyone had this experience from a web page or a CD ROM recently? I doubt it.

We are all the product of a blend of experiences and ideas. The person who has an imbalance in the blend is easy to see. Knowing these basic human realities, who can doubt the need for a human in the key input of education?

Can we risk relying on just a virtual education? Do we want a virtual hug or a virtual family or a virtual customer? No, we all want a real one and that comes from real experience and real learning in a real world with real people.

Real people? Maybe even real foreign people? That sounds like real hard work and expensive to learn. After all, other people are so unlike us. I am sure many of us find the habits of those people in the next street different enough from us and goodness only knows about those from another town or even another country.

Maybe we can all try to save money and effort and hide behind our screens and text messages like sulky teenagers with no social and intercultural skills. Well, there is only one thing more expensive than being trained and prepared, and that is being untrained and unprepared.
Most individuals' experience of business is that people want to do the best they can and have the best they can get.

We know that in the foundation of any success in business there are three key things we need to work at and these are 1) relationships, 2) relationships and 3) relationships. I wonder how we will manage these by the internet?

So should we give up on IT as just a gimmick or fashion accessory? By no means.
We need to find a blend of the new and old and take the best of these to succeed in a global marketplace.

If you can understand all the ideas in this article you owe thanks to many human beings. If you can adopt and implement the suggestions in the article then you can understand and teach and lead other human beings.

That's a real skill and nothing on the web comes close.

Master the technology alone and ignore the person and their culture and you will fail.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

The Role of Culture in Effective Global Management

'One of the most important rules to remember when working within a multi-national organisation is that there is not necessarily one right way of doing things,'says Professor Geert Hofstede

With developing globalisation of business, the ability of employees to work effectively together across borders has become increasingly critical to business success. Cross-cultural understanding by individuals and the organisation as a whole serves to eliminate misunderstandings that could harm the business and maximise the best attributes each nationality has to offer.
Effective international operators are those with the wisdom to seek competitive edge through intercultural training, thus gaining insightful understanding of their global markets and mobilising the motivation triggers of their staff.

"One of the most important rules to remember when working within a multi-national organisation is that there is not necessarily one right way of doing things," says Professor Geert Hofstede.

Characteristics of National Cultures
Professor Hofstede has undertaken in-depth research on the characteristics of national cultures, providing a wealth of information and insight into how people in different societies function and suggestions as to what benefits those differences can bring to a multi-national organisation.
Each nationality has its own characteristics, which combine to contribute to the strength of the organisation. For example, in countries such as Britain and the US with a culture of small power distance between top management and general staff, organisations benefit from an environment of empowerment and acceptance of responsibility. In countries where management maintains a large power distance, staff will follow a much tighter regime of discipline.

Likewise, in countries in which there is a culture of strong avoidance of uncertainty, such as Japan, people will be more inclined towards detail and precision. Britain and the US are countries which demonstrate the opposite characteristics, with their culture of weak uncertainty avoidance providing more freedom to innovate.

An understanding of what drives and motivates people of different cultures within an organisation can contribute to the development of an organisation's own country- specific internal culture. If a British or American company with a culture of individualistic achievement and empowerment imposes the same values on its staff in an office in the Far East where collectivism and unquestioning respect for authority are valued, it will certainly experience difficulties.

In the same way expatriate managers moving to work in a developing office abroad, need to understand and accept the culture and values of the people with whom they are working. Management practices used in the home country will not necessarily be effective in international business both internally and externally.

An attempt to impose home country values and beliefs will often lead to frustration and an inability to achieve target goals. For example, strict timekeeping is likely to be impossible to implement in Latin countries. Direct criticism of staff in front of others in Asian countries will cause the recipient embarrassing loss of face. And the use of indirect language to soften the impact of what is being said will be met with annoyance by Germanic people who prefer to be direct.

On the surface, an overseas office with an expatriate manager may run smoothly until such time as things go wrong and suppressed local staff discontent begins to simmer.

Similarly, for external business dealings, the importance of understanding the local culture cannot be stressed enough. Examples abound of US and Northern European companies that have not fully appreciated the necessity of forming personal relationships in the Middle East and Asia before entering a business relationship. In these countries a strong network of contacts is indispensable and trust can only be established over time.

What's right - what's wrong?
Other problems can arise through a cultural gulf between the perceptions of what is right and what is wrong. What may be seen through the eyes of a Western European business as bribery and corruption, may be seen by counterparts in the Middle East as a genuine giving of gifts which is a normal part of establishing the personal business relationship.

As important is an understanding of the temperament and the values which local people hold highly. In the Far East, for example, great weight is placed on the maintenance of harmony and humility. The opposite extreme is the assertive, energetic individualism favoured in the United States.

These general differences between personalities of people shaped by their culture are very important in terms of recruiting the right person for an overseas appointment.

Professor Hofstede proposes five personality traits which should be used to create a profile of the type of people who would be successful working in a particular culture.

The three basic characteristics which should be the criteria for selection of expatriate personnel regardless of where they are going are emotional stability, openness and agreeableness. The weight given to the two remaining dimensions of conscientiousness and extraversion depends entirely on the position, country and culture for which the person is being selected.

Organisations - their support & training role
While the matching of the correct personalities to the country and culture contributes significantly to business success abroad, the support and training given by the organisation also plays an important role in the effectiveness of an expatriate assignment.
According to Diane van Ruitenbeek, who presented her initial research findings into expatriate expectations, lack of organisational support, language problems and a poor understanding of the local culture were major factors influencing poor performance.

One quarter of the expatriates who took part in Diane van Ruitenbeek's study indicated that they had been let down by their organisation. Their pre-departure expectations of the job, working and living conditions had not been met and they indicated that their job satisfaction, commitment and performance had correspondingly suffered. These people reported that they were more likely to quit the assignment early.

With the significant expense to a company of sending a person abroad and the cost of a failed assignment, simple investments can be made to avoid such situations. The respondents in the survey indicated that a company should not make any promises it cannot meet and provide a realistic picture of the job and living conditions.

High demand for cross-cultural & language training
Cross-cultural and language training prior to departure featured high on the respondents' list of actions a company could take to assist their adjustment on arrival in the new environment and their on-the-job effectiveness.

The confusion that can arise from being unprepared to deal with the attitudes and behaviour of people of another country can be summed up in the words of one respondent to Diane van Ruitenbeek's research:
"There seems to be a completely different logic to doing things here."

This feeling of utter confusion and helplessness experienced by the expatriate illustrates how a simple investment in improving an understanding of the culture through specialist country-specific training could make the difference between a successful, profitable overseas assignment and an ineffective, long term struggle.