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How technology quietly undermines cultural agility

Managers today traverse countries, continents and cultures in a few clicks. Video-calling a US client with a European account team, then a regional boss in Hong Kong and placing orders for suppliers somewhere in Asia may involve a dozen time-zones and as many nations. But while the world seems smaller and easier than ever to digitalised managers, huge differences remain between work styles in the world, and ignoring them is risky. The fact remains that business is based on trust, trust comes from information, which in turn comes from meaningful interaction. Tech tools promise short-term efficiency by avoiding cultural nuances, but they can also undermine the ability of leaders, teams and organisations to work across diverse rules, habits and values. The trend is harmful but reversible.

How technology quietly undermines cultural agility

Too many places, too few minutes Twenty years ago, conferencing pioneers like Webex or Skype promised global business without dodgy drives, frustrating flights, heat shock, cold shock, food shock or culture shock. Firms were happy to let their managers work globally without expense receipts in weird languages. Over time, consecutive financial crises undermined travel budgets, and COVID19 supercharged tech tools that replaced physical movement. But firms also discovered what else vanished with the hassle: experience. A century ago, business travellers had weeks at sea to prepare for negotiations. Pre-pandemic globetrotters learned lessons about getting results under cultural pressure while chasing taxis at foreign airports and deciphering strange food options. Today’s global managers try to switch between worldwide meetings in minutes, as if wearing digital blindfolds on the way to the meeting room. As a coach I help leaders to prepare for global business calls fast. They seldom have time to research the national and corporate cultures involved, but the sheer awareness that cultural differences exist online results in more constructive attitudes. Those who want to go further can cross-reference the bios or LinkedIn profiles of distant counterparts with a world map and Erin Meyer’s Culture Map to prevent painful cultural errors. Where is the university, employer and association proudly listed by the client, supplier or investor you meet online? How confrontational, flexible or orderly is their usual work environment? Have they studied or worked across national and professional cultures before?

Global procedures that fit nowhere Another promise of global tech is uniform behaviours across global locations. In person, two o’clock sales meetings in Boston, Brussels, Beijing and Bangkok vary in start time, length and how much business is discussed. Digital tools promise standard lengths, structures and outcome everywhere. Corporate background images hide actual surroundings. But efficiency comes at the expense of collaboration, because apps unknowingly include the cultural biases of their makers. Western ERPs lack the price flexibility needed in Asia, Africa and—well, most of the world. The agility of Asian messaging apps overwhelms many Western users. Short and focused online meetings kill teamwork in sociable Middle East and Asia, while small-talk irritates result-driven Americans, Germans and Japanese. Conference apps that focus on the loudest speaker insult cultures where seniors seldom speak. Recorded meetings make many Chinese managers fall silent. My advice to intercultural management teams is to create pairs or small groups of colleagues from different backgrounds and jointly customise digital interactions. Engineers from different cultures can compromise on how long meetings last and how much small talk they involve, or create smaller, regional virtual teams. When processes from HQ restrict effectiveness in a given place, cross-cultural teams can brainstorm solutions and check compliance instead of one side endlessly improvising. Members with relevant cross-cultural experience can be especially helpful in such efforts.

Tripping between comfort zones Preparations and collaboration can improve digital cocoons, but organisations must eventually send someone abroad. When they do, today’s business travellers are culturally less exposed than their predecessors. Most arrive in uniform airports, hotels and office towers where coffee machines and air-conditioning ensure a hot-and-cool balance acceptable to most people but not ideal to anyone. They are expected to plug in and get to work. Business is in English or another major language. Translation tools discourage learning local idioms. Apps like Grammarly even enforce uniform written styles across worldwide users, professions and personalities. Managers who eat in a company canteen, sleep and exercise at a Hilton and relax with other foreigners at a nearby bar have little idea of the country they list on their resume under ‘international experience’. Intercultural learning is hard, so people try to avoid it on the path of least resistance. But the illusion of culture-free business quietly undermines the ability of leaders, teams and organisations to successfully operate across diverse locations and cultures. Younger successors to well-travelled senior managers expect no cultural hurdles in virtual spaces: why would they? They got socialised to high-volume interactions where personal engagement must have a well-defined reason and time is monetised. Meanwhile, manages quietly accumulate a chronic lack of trust. As they ask me at coaching and training sessions, how can they trust someone they don’t know? That, of course, has been the question for intercultural business for millennia. The answer is: they cannot. Effective transactions need fast channels, but those channels are built through patient personal contacts across puzzling cultural boundaries. Leaders and management teams can only minimise cultural interference after they have put in the effort to build trust across geographic, professional and social boundaries. The sooner they turn that into a daily work habit, the better. Take the next step and join Gabor Holch’s East-West Leadership Coaching or Dragon Suit Coaching in a variety of formats, starting from 2 hours and up to 20-hour executive coaching programmes. Click here to find out more, ask questions and register:

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