13 Aug 2014

Translating Corporate Culture on the World Stage

Increased globalization and rapid advancements in technology have allowed brands to reach consumers at the furthest ends of the globe.

A number of companies have consequently expanded into previously uncharted territory in a bid to attract new business.

Integrating a global company into a single corporate structure is far from simple. Some businesses bold enough to take the plunge have come up against huge challenges maintaining a uniform corporate culture on the world stage.

Gerard Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist and former IBM employee, describes culture as the “software of the mind” – providing an endless array of opportunities for companies to capitalize on and make money.

With this in mind, is it possible to reprogram people to adopt new cultural norms and is it ethical to do so?

What is corporate culture?

Put simply, corporate culture refers to the values, attitudes, standards and beliefs that are shared by members of an organization or brand. It is rooted deep in the goals, strategies and approaches of such groups, making it an essential component that heavily influences success or failure in the world of business.

The concept of corporate culture grew in tandem with the rapid expansion of business overseas as companies from all four corners of the globe began to compete in international markets outside their homeland.

This brought with it increased self-awareness, prompting bosses to actively monitor and evaluate actions both at home and abroad. Corporate culture therefore became another aspect of the business to keep an eye on – and it is something that has increasingly grown in importance ever since.

It now flows from management downward and outward, affecting a firm’s operation in more ways than one.

Culture is not clearly defined

One of the problems facing companies expanding overseas is the fact that culture is not clearly defined. All cultures are different in one way or another, meaning the task of expanding a business into a new market can be particularly tricky.

Brands need to do their homework when considering where to invest in order to establish whether or not a move abroad is actually viable. The financial aspect is also an important aspect to take into account.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines culture as the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society – yet in reality it is actually much, much more than this, and companies should be well aware of this.

Efforts to adapt to a local culture can easily end in failure if businesses fail to recognize the bigger picture.

Habit is hard to break

Companies are also often reluctant to break from their corporate culture. After all, it would take several years to reshape values, attitudes, standards and beliefs from the top to the bottom, so there is a tendency to impose an existing culture on the target market.

The process of doing so, however, is littered with sinkholes that can open up and swallow businesses whole.

Culture is created by consensus. It is a slow-burn phenomenon that can take many years of trial and error. For the cultural values of a business to be successfully adopted there needs to be constant reminders of them in the public eye.

People will only make the effort to adopt new cultural norms if they regard them as easy, rewarding and normal – three things that brands must seriously consider in order to be a success story on the world stage.

Remember to tread carefully

There is an extremely fine line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in different cultures.

Misunderstandings, hurt feelings and communication errors can occur if companies are not aware of the impact of their behaviours on cross-cultural relations. This, in turn, can be extremely detrimental when setting up shop overseas.

Differences in communication can be problematic. People can be loud, direct or blunt in some cultures, for instance, while in others they can be typically soft-spoken, use flowery or indirect language.

Body language and gestures can also be an issue. A ‘thumbs up’ gesture, for example, is seen as a sign of satisfaction in Western countries, but is regarded as highly offensive in some Middle Eastern countries.

In India, Africa and the Middle East, meanwhile, the left hand is considered unclean, so staff should never use it for anything publicly, plus in Japan it is thought of as rude to cross your legs in the presence of someone older or more respected than you.

A corporate culture will therefore only be a success if the company adheres to local customs and makes a noticeable effort to conform.

Is it ethical?

It is important to consider the ethics of a corporate culture, particularly when heading into uncharted territory.

Three key elements must exist in order to avoid unethical activity.

  1. The existence of a set of core ethical values instilled throughout the company in its policies, processes and practices.
  2. The establishment of a formal ethics program, including a code of ethics, ethics training and an ethics officer.
  3. The continuous presence of ethical leadership from the top to the bottom of the organization.

Following all three to the letter can go some way to ensuring companies remain ethical on foreign soil. However, it is important to allow corporate culture to be adapted to the region in which an organization conducts business.


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