I have just finished five weeks on the road in Asia Pacific, Australia and Western Europe. In the five weeks I spend one night in the U.S. to change my suitcase and each at Chipotle. My trip included both working with CIOs as well as two separate holidays so I was able to experience both the work and social environments.
So after more than 20,000 air miles, hotels in more than 11 cities and more restaurant meals than my waistline can handle, what was the big lesson from this trip?
The rest of the world (ROW) is more like each other than they are like the U.S. That seems obvious, but often Americans assume that other parts of the world are like the U.S. In fact it’s the other way around – the rest of the world has more in common with each other than they do with the U.S.
This is an observation. It is neither good, nor bad, as pitting one group against another serves no purpose and is rather silly. Its important to keep in mind as business activity, products and services continue to go global. Without this observation it is too easy to develop solutions in one market and then ‘force fit’ them into the others wasting time, resources and energy.
It is easy for Americans to think that the rest of the world is like them. Outside the US there are all sorts of US centric visual cues from consumer products like Coca-Cola and Apple, to the names of U.S. corporate companies atop buildings. Americans see many of these familiar signs and build on the perceived similarity. However, the similarity is only superficial.
Commercially, size is a factor that separates the rest of the world from the U.S.
Corporations in the US tend to be larger with larger executive teams. Each individual executive generally has a very focused scope of responsibility. U.S. executive’s work largely on the premise of debate, discussion and compromise which makes conflicts more visible, more energetic and executives more animated than their counterparts in the rest of the world.
Executives in the rest of the world work in smaller executive teams often with a broader scope of responsibility. Often the CIO will either have responsibilities outside of traditional IT, or have previously run a part of the company outside of IT. This often gives ROW executives a broad range of experience and perspective.
Executives in the rest of the world almost always know each other, know their peers in other companies and often know their peers across the region. For example, in Canada or Australia every Tier 1 CIO knows every other Tier 1 CIO, many personally, what they are doing and the success that they are having. That is different from the U.S. where the executive club is much larger and individual executives are better able to be a ‘face in the crowd.”
ROW executives tout the fact that they work based on consensus. They point out the fact that consensus takes time to develop. From my experience consensus is important, but that does not mean that ROW executives all agree with each other, line up in mutual support, and present a common face to the outside world.
In my observation, ROW executives engage in the same type of debate, discussion and dialect as their US counterparts. It is just that in an environment of smaller teams, where everyone knows each other, the discussions are more civil, muted and disagreements are not as readily shared with others. When you hear silence from ROW executives it means that they are thinking, discussing, learning and all of that is a good thing.
Discussions in the ROW more often include an element of ‘theory’ or the logic behind the idea or decision being made. ROW executives want to understand the principles behind the proposal, the rational for why it should work, as well as where has it worked and why. Americans can see these questions as academic or theoretical and therefore less valuable. However, in my experience when ROW executives are asking about the theory, they are looking to understand more deeply than their US counterparts before the commit to a course of action, product/service or decision.
Socially, the rest of the world works hard at keeping local custom in contrast to the great melting pot of the U.S. This is partially a factor of size as well as factor of culture and history. US executives are generally not aware of how similar we look to an outsider. The US is a large country and there are regional differences, but in business and society these differences are small as US executives are more mobile, grew up in the same education system, follow the same legal structure, share the same political history, etc. Few if any of these are true for ROW executives who identify themselves with their culture, a home town, a sports team, a language, any number of other things that set themselves apart. Local custom brings flavor to social interactions with people from outside the US while the common culture in the US brings comfort and stability for Americans.
Well, taking a one-size fits most approach is a recipe for cost, risk and friction. You cannot assume that the way you see things is the same as the way others see it.
That sounds obvious, but it is particularly important in IT where the industry shares a common language (English) and many of the leading companies were founded in the U.S. That history, plus the continued development of common process standards such as ITIL and SEI-CMM give CIOs and IT leaders the idea that in IT things are more similar than they are different.
But, IT lives in a local rather than global context, making cultural awareness even more important. You see that within global companies as well as between global partners in outsourcing and other types of collaborative agreements. While many of these companies are trying to build a corporate culture – creating that culture to the exclusion of one culture (ROW or US) often leads to an uphill battle.
Technology companies need to revisit their product development, marketing and customer service approaches. If it plays in Peoria it will not play the same way in Portugal. There probably needs to be at least two tracks for these groups – one for U.S./Large company track and a ROW/Midsized enterprise track. Simply scaling down the large solution may work, but it is a poor fit with the way the ROW works.
What do you think? How are you managing and leading across cultures? Do you find that an executive in Singapore has more in common with one in Spain than either does in the U.S.?
Or, is this all hogwash as we are all melting together into a common global culture that presses down on individual countries in favor of building up global industries?
Alternatively, are we really in a multi-polar world with three cultural poles: The U.S., China (including the overseas Chinese) and the Rest of the World?