New Ways of Working Together: Technology, Innovation and Intercultural Collaboration for Africa

ngoFrThis is a guest blog post by Jolanda Tromp, co-author of Cultural Detective Global Teamwork.

In February 2014, n’GO magazine published a review of the Cultural Detective Method. For readers of n’GO not familiar with Cultural Detective, the article provided a way for them to learn about this unique intercultural-competence tool, grounded in developmental theory, yet simple to use and very practical.

n’GO magazine is free, published online in French and Dutch, and offers insights, reflections, examples, and tools around behavioral and relational aspects of intercultural contact. Its goal is to search for the truth behind prejudices and blockages, and provide positive alternatives by interviewing experts and academics. n’GO is produced by the Belgium NGO Echos Communications, which runs a variety of projects aimed at helping to redefine the Euro-African dialogue by showing that Africa participating in the world community is value-added. They work to demonstrate their belief that the Internet is a communication tool that can help strengthen the relationships between the actors in the North and South. They believe the Internet may change the course of action in the field of international cooperation.

This vision and effort is clearly part of many African progressives’ point-of-view, as witnessed by the young social innovator and blogger, Mac-Jordan Degadjan, blogging about African and Ghanaian technology and innovation:

“The world’s impression of Africa is hopelessly outdated. Africa’s technology and innovation boom is rapidly expanding. The penetration of the internet and mobile technology is radical and unprecedented. Across African cities, technology innovation hubs are mushrooming and playing a central role in the fledgling technological and entrepreneurial innovation scenes, all over the African continent.”

For the computer-savvy, Generation-Y Africans, Cultural Detective Online (CDO) can be a great resource, because it is accessible from anywhere as long as you can get onto the Internet. CDO combines 60 of the series’ culture-specific and topic-specific packages into one integrated and easy-to-use system, including access to over 400 critical incidents involving people from 90 cultures and spanning multiple industries and professional functions. Subscribers receive a personal virtual intercultural coach that is available anytime, anywhere, online.

Currently, the Cultural Detective series includes culture-specific packages on Cameroon (by Emmanuel Ngomsi), West Africa (by Emmanuel Ngomsi and Seidu Sofo), and South Africa (by Kathi Lyn Tarantal and Denise Hill).

Cultural Detective: West Africa looks at core values of the 14 countries and 250 million people of the region, ethnically heterogeneous and mixed with two other non-indigenous cultures, the French and the British. The critical incidents describe individuals from several different backgrounds including a Nigerian, a Senegalese, and a Ghanaian.

Cultural Detective: South Africa provides insight into this country that is both first world and third world. There are eleven official languages and a multi-coloured landscape of people. The values of these different groups are contrasting, and CD: South Africa explores both black and white cultural values. It contains critical incidents with individuals from several different cultural backgrounds, including an Afrikaner, a Northern Sotho, a Zulu South African, an Ndebele South African, and a Tsonga South African.

Clearly, the work of describing African cultural values has only just begun with the writing of these brave African pioneers. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda at the World Economic Forum, in Davos said: “The major problem I see is that Africa’s story is written from somewhere else and not by Africans themselves. That is why the rest of the world looks at Africa and Africans and wants to define us. They want to shape the perception about Africa. The best thing we can do for ourselves is own our problems, own our solutions and write our own story.”

The n’GO editor and journalist who authored the article about Cultural Detective, Sylvie Walraevens, is based in Waterloo, about 20 km south of Brussels, Belgium. She put out a call on the Internet for people to interview about the Cultural Detective Method in a LinkedIn forum. I replied, explaining that I am not an expert on African culture, but work as an online sparring partner and coach for Global Teamworkers and managers; I am in the Dutch section of the ISO Norm Committee for assessing the usefulness of an International Norm for International Business Collaborations; and a certified Cultural Detective facilitator.

We discussed the options via email and arranged to meet in Amsterdam for the interview. The interview went very smoothly in my favorite flex-workplace—the lobby of a 5-star hotel with WiFi, directly opposite Amsterdam central station. After the interview, we talked about the African economy and the fact that it is actually growing fast despite the global economic downturn.

We agreed to end the article with a call for African authors to chart their culture’s values and write about them in order to facilitate successful intercultural collaborations. Emmanuel Ngomsi, Sylvie Walreavens, myself, and—we are sure—many others, offer our assistance. We are curious to find out which African experts will take on the challenge of writing Cultural Detective packages on all the African cultures that have not been charted yet!

You can register for the n’Go newsletter here: [FR ] – [NL ] and read the article about Cultural Detective (French and Dutch only) here: [FR ] – [NL ]. For additional information about Cultural Detective Online, register for a free webinar and receive a complimentary 3-day trail subscription. For information about authoring a package, contact Cultural Detective.

We Grow Up Thinking This Way

ImageHere is the massive gap in perception that requires one to completely shrug off any existing assumptions in order to comprehend. I took this picture in Malawi where a 3 year old child was captured working from dusk till dawn. The child was so small he was still sucking on his thumb. Some call it “child labour”, his family simply said to me: “family responsibility”

Another example. This time about I myself. Thirty something academic, not married, childless, not having a house, not even a car, and spending all my saving on “useless” journeys, some Asian newspapers who wrote about me described my life style as “extreme” and “rebellious”. I was, as a matter of fact, surprised and replied: “I thought wanting to live my own life was called “human right” !!!

What else? Endless examples. Terrorist or Freedom fighter? Rebel or Revolutionist? Gender (in)equality or respective social essence? Corruption or responsive favour system? …In short, where is the border line between universal right or cultural relativism?

Dealing with Postcolonialism

In our last blog post, The Case of Who’s in Charge: Who’s language will we speak, we got a small taste of how African colonialism and slavery have created realities that affect power dynamics and attitudes in our organizations and communities that persist to this day. From the mid-15th century to 1880, roughly twelve million Africans were torn from their homes and families from Senegal to Angola, reaching the Americas as slaves. Other millions died either during the course of enslavement in Africa or en route to the Americas. These are not facts that can or should be forgotten or set aside.

Does post-colonialism exert a negative toll on your organization and people? Is there a way to transform these potentially negative forces into tools for dialogue, understanding and organizational (and societal) transformation?

Our Cultural Detective West Africa (covering Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria) authors, Doctors Emmanuel Ngomsi and Seidu Sofo, have very ably written materials that address these questions.

A short quote from their participant materials makes the main point:

“While it is true that current expatriate employees are not responsible for slavery and colonialism, or for problems linked to colonialism in this region of the world, they may nevertheless sometimes be perceived by local workers as part of the system responsible for repeated abuses. It is important to be aware of this fact, and how individual actions are likely to be understood in this historical context.

We encourage you to seize the opportunity presented by Cultural Detective: West Africa to explore the issues of colonialism and modern-day power dynamics with your West African colleagues. While there is a clear attempt on the part of many scholars (African and non-African) to blame past and current African problems on European colonization, the dynamics of colonialism and neocolonialism are complex issues, and it is crucial that business and non-business people be aware of and sensitive to the history that strongly remains in the minds of professional Africans, and often profoundly affects business relationships.

Today, there are limited forums available to openly address these issues. The workplace constitutes one of the few places in which people may discuss how they feel about historical European intervention on the continent, and perceptions of power dynamics and race relations today. Being prepared to handle these issues constructively is smart business.”

Their facilitator manual contains a section entitled “Facilitating a Discussion of Slavery and Postcolonialism,” which adds encouragement as well as how-to:

“Within the Participant Materials we have included a supplement addressing the issues of slavery and colonialism as they relate to West Africa. People are curious and want to talk about these issues, and while they can be difficult and sensitive issues to discuss, they create an important dynamic in relationships and should not be ignored. The Cultural Detective Model provides a way to explore these issues in a non-evaluative manner that can promote mutual understanding. Remember that no one point of view is ‘the truth,’ and it is rare that a discussion will result in consensus or agreement.

West Africans, Europeans, African Americans, Caucasian Americans, Latin Americans and people in the Caribbean, among others, all have different and sometimes opposing points of view on the causes and outcomes of slavery.

Contrary to a common belief among foreigners, West Africans generally are not uncomfortable talking about slavery and are willing to engage in conversations with people who sincerely and genuinely want to explore and learn about slavery and its effects.

Today throughout Africa, Europeans, Americans and other ‘White People’ may still be perceived as exploiters and neo-colonizers. Resentment remains because some believe that the best minds and bodies of the African continent were transported to the Americas. And while many agree that slavery is wrong, many West Africans also feel that if ‘Whites’ could have their way politically and socially, slavery would still be practiced.

Given the sensitivity toward these issues, foreign business owners need to be particularly mindful of their words and actions. Derogatory acts or sayings by expatriate employers directed toward West African employees are not only unkind but unwise. While private individuals react strongly to such acts, governments may also take swift and decisive action, and some have deported expatriate employers for such misconduct.

Regardless of the economic benefit that a foreign investment might bring to a West African nation, dehumanizing conduct, utterances, or work conditions are not tolerated.”

We eagerly urge you to look through these materials, and put them to good use. We would love to have those of you who work in spaces where you deal with post- and neocolonialism issues to share with us some of your experiences and learnings, so that we might all transform our practices and do our bit to heal this world of ours.