In Growing Global Economy, Boost Cultural Literacy

FRAMINGHAM (04/24/2000) - During the past several years, I met with the CEOs of many of the world's top corporations to discuss what it will take to succeed in the global economy. I kept hearing the same message, and a critical lesson emerged: Culture will matter more, not less.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, technology isn't eliminating cultural barriers. While the ability to communicate with people far and wide at increasingly rapid speeds and in innovative ways may be breaking down geographic and economic barriers, cultural boundaries are holding fast.

This means that for the foreseeable future, cultural issues will complicate the global marketplace. American companies, blinded by their technological success, will be particularly susceptible to cultural difficulties. My recent research shows that valuing multicultural experience and developing leadership at all levels of an organization are the two best predictors of success in the global marketplace. Yet, in a survey of 1,200 senior business executives around the world that I conducted with Watson Wyatt Worldwide, U.S. executives were less likely than their foreign counterparts to say that multicultural experience matters.

Unless this changes, U.S. companies will be vulnerable. Businesses that fail to understand the importance of cultural differences and refuse to learn to speak the new global language will be blindsided by the rivals they underestimate.

The solution to this problem is to develop what I call "global literacies."

Globally literate individuals and companies see the world's challenges and opportunities; think with an international mind-set; act with fresh, global-centered leadership behaviors; and mobilize people across national cultures.

Globally literate individuals possess four distinct competencies: personal literacy (understanding and valuing yourself), social literacy (engaging and challenging others), business literacy (focusing and mobilizing your organization) and cultural literacy (leveraging culture for competitive advantage).

These are the competencies every leader must practice. However, they will be expressed differently around the world, depending on where you live, work or conduct business.

Given the importance of global literacy in a technology-driven world, I recommend the following:

-- Use technology in globally literate ways. In a global marketplace, technology is the medium through which people conduct business. While technology accelerates and expands the pace and range of communication, it also increases the chances for miscommunication. Especially with technology through which you can't pick up on physical or emotional cues, you must read between the lines and listen deeply for the emotion, tone, context and cultural nuances in every communication.

-- Learn from the best around the world. Each part of the world excels in a different literacy area. Some Asian cultures, for example, teach us about personal literacy through their ability to understand paradox and ambiguity.

Latin American cultures teach us about social literacy by modeling how to build relationships in less-organized, constantly changing environments. From European cultures, we learn cultural literacy based on centuries of working and living cross-culturally. In North America, we learn business literacy by building change-ready, technology-savvy, high-performance organizations in a results-oriented culture.

-- Use culture as a tool for business success. It's vital to understand how your culture influences how you relate to technology. Americans love new technology; they like quick action and excel at creating new things. They tend to abandon ideas that don't show a rapid return on investment. Other cultures react differently. The Japanese, for example, have been more comfortable with incremental improvements.

Adopting these strategies will start you on a path to global literacy. It's a long-term process, and the choice is yours: You can choose to get started, or you can choose to be left behind.

Robert H. Rosen, CEO of Healthy Companies International in Washington, is the author of Global Literacies: Lessons on Business Leadership and National Cultures (Simon & Schuster, February 2000).

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