As globalisation has become the business norm (and frankly, our personal norms too), it’s become more important than ever to understand that almost nothing is local anymore. Or at least, not local in the way that it was thirty or even twenty years ago. It’s key to get the global understanding vital for corporate success today. And truly appreciating how local culture and politics and instincts are different from one place to another requires more than the occasional business trip.
How do you get truly get more global understanding for business?
How it all ads up. At the simplest level, companies have known for years that advertising and marketing campaigns have to reflect the local demographic. Who makes the purchasing decisions, what are priorities in the home or work, and simply what are trends in a specific market influence the success of a message to would-be consumers. But now promotion of products and services is as much a social media campaign as a print ad one. And of course, the Internet is not limited to geographical boundaries. That doesn’t mean that sending a universal message will work. But it does mean that it’s impossible to prevent universal access to each message you send.
Workers united. But of course relationships with consumers are only one stage of the total operational process, and really each step requires global understanding of business. Internally, corporate life is defined by worldwide transactions. It’s pro forma to hold videoconference calls that span six time zones. Organisation charts arrange teams that are as likely organised by region of the world as they are by service line. Not to mention HQ communications that go to literally thousands of employees around the globe. Understanding how to connect and motivate across cultural lines, national boundaries and regional influences requires a next level global understanding.
Exposure < experience < empathy. Be careful not to overestimate how much you understand a city, let alone an entire country. It takes on the ground presence, for an extended period, and frequently. Even if you’ve been an international business traveller for two decades, times changes so rapidly, and with them regional markers. If you paid in deutsche marks the last time you stayed at the Hilton in Munich you should officially consider yourself out of the loop. But the truth is, even if you went to Glasgow before Brexit, you may no longer understand how Scottish ideas about national and local politics have changed.
More importantly, it’s simply not possible to have more than a superficial appreciation of a country one hotel room – or windowless conference room – at a time. Visiting Buffalo tells you little about daily Miami life, a trip to Cardiff gives little insight into Brixton. It can take a year or more to have a day-to-day understanding how local people act and think. And it can take another five to ten years to have true empathy for the internal challenges and opportunities. And yet, how do you strategize when you can’t predict? Sure, you’ve got local people on the ground for that, but someone’s got to be able to ask the right questions to get the useful answers.
So is there a way to acquire a global understanding for business?
Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps the best answer is to appreciate that what we once called international relations is better described as global operations. A relationship is between two different entities. An operation is the internal machinations of one organisation. Top to bottom, leadership has to be as diverse as rank and file. Being continually aware of blind spots can be a good reminder to listen as much as speak. It’s key to create an environment where everyone learns to be approachable and teachable. The good news is that isn’t nearly as difficult as it once. There’s more to learn as operations expand, but in the digital age we’re closer than ever. It’s a small world after all.
Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.