Benchmark Statement on Intercultural Competence: AEA

AEA statement coverDo you want to promote intercultural competence in your organization or industry? Are you looking for some guidance? A blueprint? A success story? If so, do I have a “Cultural Effective” for you!

Just over a year ago, friend and colleague Stella Ting Toomey and I had the distinct pleasure of attending the American Evaluation Association‘s annual conference as invited speakers. There I was pleased to witness a commitment to responsible inclusiveness that was truly state of the art.

Six years of diligent work by a task force and other concerned individuals had resulted in a theoretically sound and practical Public Statement on Cultural Competence in Evaluation (AEA 2011, Fairhaven, MA USA).

There is so much about this public statement that stands out for me, not least of which is a definition of culture that is at least on a par with the best of what I’ve seen come out of the intercultural communication field!

Culture can be defined as the shared experiences of people, including their languages, values, customs, beliefs, and mores. It also includes worldviews, ways of knowing, and ways of communicating. Culturally significant factors encompass, but are not limited to, race/ethnicity, religion, social class, language, disability, sexual orientation, age, and gender. Contextual dimensions such as geographic region and socioeconomic circumstances are also essential to shaping culture.

Culture is dynamic, fluid, and reciprocal. That is, culture shapes the behaviors and worldviews of its members and, in turn, culture is shaped by the behavior, attitudes, and worldview of its members. Elements of culture are passed on from generation to generation, but culture also changes from one generation to the next.

Culture not only influences members of groups, it also delineates boundaries and influences patterns of interaction among them. Evaluators frequently work across these boundaries.

I remember my excitement the last couple of times a book has been published with “intercultural competence” in the title. If I am truly honest, I will admit to you that I’ve been disappointed. Amidst good work and steps forward, the books I’ve reviewed rehash a lot of what I feel is old and tired or, even, counter-productive to good practice. But this AEA statement! How do they define intercultural competence? For me it’s spot on — both theoretically sound and skillfully applied!

Cultural competence is not a state at which one arrives; rather, it is a process of learning, unlearning, and relearning. It is a sensibility cultivated throughout a lifetime. Cultural competence requires awareness of self, reflection on one’s own cultural position, awareness of others’ positions, and the ability to interact genuinely and respectfully with others. Culturally competent evaluators refrain from assuming they fully understand the perspectives of stakeholders whose backgrounds differ from their own.

Cultural competence is defined in relation to a specific context or location, such as geography, nationality, and history. Competence in one context is no assurance of competence in another. The culturally competent evaluator (or evaluation team) must have specific knowledge of the people and place in which the evaluation is being conducted—including local history and culturally determined mores, values, and ways of knowing.

The culturally competent evaluator draws upon a wide range of evaluation theories and methods to design and carry out an evaluation that is optimally matched to the context. In constructing a model or theory of how the evaluand operates, the evaluator reflects the diverse values and perspectives of key stakeholder groups.

It is tailor-made for a Cultural Detective: process-based lifelong learning (CD Worksheet); knowledge of self and others and the ability to bridge (3 fundamental CD capacities); situation-specific, contextually grounded effectiveness (CD Critical Incidents); grounding practice in theory (pulling salient theoretical teaching from practical experience); and acknowledging people as complex amalgams of the influences of multiple cultural influences (layering Lenses).

The AEA statement includes the following content:

The Role of Culture and Cultural Competence in Quality Evaluation

  1. What is culture?
  2. Evaluations reflect culture.
  3. What is cultural competence?

Why Cultural Competence in Evaluation Is Important

  1. It is an ethical imperative.
  2. Validity demands it.
  3. Theories are inherently cultural.

Essential Practices for Cultural Competence

  1. Acknowledge the complexity of cultural identity.
  2. Recognize the dynamics of power.
  3. Recognize and eliminate bias in language.
  4. Employ culturally appropriate methods.

The AEA’s blog and their annual conference include lots of project examples and discussions about how to conduct culturally responsible evaluation, through which I’ve witnessed honest dialogue about successes and difficulties. Intercultural competence in evaluation has definitely become an organization-wide effort and an ongoing process for the AEA membership.

The work of the task force continues through today, as they do their best to develop cultural competence in evaluation via education and training, within and outside the AEA, as well as by sharing the public statement and what they have learned via the process they’ve engaged. I am proud to have had a very small role in their extensive process, and pleased to be able to help share it so that others can leverage their work.

Kudos to Dr. Melvin Hall, Cindy Crusto, the American Evaluation Association, and all of those involved in this terrific effort! I know they join me in hoping that their efforts might help you further yours. I will close with an excerpt from their closing:

Evaluators have the power to make a difference, not only directly to program stakeholders but also indirectly to the general public. This is consistent with the Guiding Principle that obliges evaluators to consider the public interest and good in the work they do. In a diverse and complex society, cultural competence is central to making a difference.

Cultural competence connects with and complements existing knowledge and skills in the field. It offers both opportunities and challenges for evaluators. Cultural competence presents evaluators with new horizons for learning, opportunities for renewal, and the potential to deepen understanding of one’s own work in all contexts. Cultural competence challenges evaluators to deepen their self awareness and sensitivity in terms of their own cultures and those of others.

Many evaluators are actively exploring the terrain of cultural competence. They are expanding the boundaries of what it means to respond to cultural diversity in authentic and respectful ways. This statement invites new conversations and connections to advance this sensitive and exciting work.

Get in Intercultural Shape for the New Year!

New Year Collage

Welcome to the New Year — at least for those of you following the Gregorian calendar! Are you ready? Is your organization poised and equipped to make significant positive contributions to this planet of ours? Do you have organizational traditions to kick-off the new year and encourage employees to strive towards new goals?

Most cultures of the world have very special traditions for sending out the old year and bringing in the new one. In Mexico where I live women wear special undergarments on New Year’s Eve — either red for love or yellow for gold or money — symbolizing what they most want to receive in the year ahead. Those who would like to travel carry a suitcase out into the street and around the block.

In Japan where I lived previously, the end of the year is a time to clean the house, purging it of things from the past that are no longer needed. We cook osechi foods, the beautiful make-ahead kinds of delicacies that will feed family and visitors through the first few days of the new year, and allow everyone — including the cook — to enjoy a respite.

What are your traditions for saying goodbye to the past year and greeting the future? Do you make resolutions, set goals, or make plans to learn something new?

My absolute favorite New Year’s was spent with good friends nearly two decades ago. On New Year’s Eve, we wrote down the hurts we’d experienced, the negative habits or memories we continued to carry and wanted to get rid of, the qualities about ourselves that no longer served us, the visions of ourselves, others or our businesses that were not constructive. We made a big bonfire, and we had a field day burning these no-longer-wanted items. Oh how liberating it was! We all felt so light, so energized!

On New Year’s morning we woke before sunrise. We had written, on paper we’d folded into origami boats, the qualities we wanted to receive and nurture in the new year. The positive habits and qualities we wanted to cultivate, relationships and moments we wanted to consciously treasure, and healthy visions of ourselves, others and our businesses that we wanted to hold close. We launched these items into the ocean, setting them into motion.

The beginning of a year is a good time to reflect on our cross-cultural successes (Cultural Effectives) as well as to learn from our mistakes and misunderstandings (Cultural Defectives) and decide what kind of year we want in 2013. Back in October we published a post about intercultural fitness. In November we reiterated why such fitness is so important, why organizations need intercultural fitness.

Maybe reading these posts has helped you to decide what to throw in the fire and what to set out into the water? If your fire is full of cultural missteps and your boat contains a desire to expand your intercultural competence, maybe it’s time you took action!

Cultural Detective wants to encourage you to get fit, too — interculturally fit! Much like committing to an exercise plan or a sensible nutrition plan, committing to prioritizing intercultural competence in the coming year will serve us well personally, in our families, as well as in our work lives. Also, just like a gym, it can be fun. We can spend as much time as we like and we might meet some really interesting people.

The new year is full of special offers for gym memberships, exercise classes, and diet programs — ways to encourage you to get fit in 2013. Just as gyms and diet programs offer incentives this time of year, the Cultural Detective Online intercultural competence gym is offering complimentary three-day subscriptions to help get you focused and motivated!

Here is how to get yours:

  1. Log on to before January 31, 2013.
  2. Enter your name, email address and the promotional code: NewYearFitness
  3. You will receive a verification email from Be sure to clear it in your spam filter! Click the link in the email, follow the instructions, and explore a new way to improve your intercultural fitness 24/7!

We hope you will take advantage of this special offer to learn how Cultural Detective Online can assist you at home and abroad, with colleagues and friends, in your community and in your organization! Feel free to share this offer with those you care about — we think the world could benefit from a little more intercultural competence on everyone’s part!

Best wishes for a peaceful year ahead from the Cultural Detective team!

Developing Intercultural Competence — Online?

“While other cultural databases do an effective job of providing country overviews, Cultural Detective Online offers unique and complementary capabilities.”
—Joseph K. Lunn, Project Portfolio Manager and Cross-Cultural Trainer, Zurich North America

What makes for a truly useful online learning tool? When I asked intercultural trainers this question they seemed to want to be able to emulate the face-to-face environment as much as possible. Keep the learners’ attention, make it experiential, real and applicable — and make them think! They don’t need “the answers,” they need to know how to come up with real solutions when they find themselves in the midst of cross-cultural conflict. Oh, and you know the old adage, keep it simple!

So, when developing the Cultural Detective Online tool, some key fundamental concepts were kept in mind:

  1. Personal/professional goal setting should be at the entrance to working with the tool — what are the learners’ objectives in using the tool? They should be able to adapt and change these but also keep them in mind in order to stay on track and achieve them.
  2. Culture-general and culture-specific content and process — this is fundamental to working with the Cultural Detective Method (read more by Janet Bennett on this topic if you are up on it), so no challenge here!
  3. Contextually based learning — also core to the Cultural Detective Methodology is working with real-world critical incidents and pushing the learner to develop an understanding of the underlying role and subtle nuances cultural values can play in everyone’s lives.
  4. Links between deep culture and surface culture, between values and behaviors — again innately a part of working with the Cultural Detective tools and richly impactful (where we get the big aha moments) once the learner discovers, develops and really hones this skill.
  5. Prompting for the learners to summarize and apply their learning to their real situations — this is where the work they’ve put in pays the learner back; in other words what’s the bottom line? How can I really use what I just learned to make a value added difference in my work, in my global team, with my international vendors/clients/offices, etc.?
So we’ve heard from some of our early adapters — Cultural Detective Online will take you further in your intercultural competence journey. Joseph Lunn of Zurich NA says,

“In addition to crisp, clear detailed summaries of each country’s cultural values, the nearly 400 cross-cultural incidents provided show users exactly what can go wrong when cultural understanding gaps exist. The tool follows-up by sharing the differences in cultural values that underlie each incident and offers concrete suggestions to build cultural bridges and avoid similar incidents. CD Online is a great hands-on teaching tool that adds value to:

    • Employees beginning overseas assignments
    • Global project team members
    • Mergers and acquisition partners
    • Outsourcing engagements

Thanks for making this tool available to those who need it at a reasonable cost!”

Developing intercultural competence online? Of course! Take a test drive and see for yourself: Cultural Detective Online!

Every Organization Needs Intercultural Competence

Nearly every organization these days, even the smallest and most local, works with diverse customers, team members, vendors, and service providers. A corner grocery store serves people from different age groups, ethnicities, and spiritual traditions. So, which holiday greetings should the grocery store use, if any, so as not to offend or exclude? Why do some of the regular customers talk only to male employees? Could the store increase profits or attract new customers if it started offering halal meats or Latino grocery items?

What about the graphic designer who puts up a website or Facebook page designed to attract local clients, only to find that the first inquiries come in from overseas? The mere fact that you have an online presence can mean you offer your products and services worldwide. And what about the free clinic that finds itself dealing with patient care issues of recent immigrants from places halfway across the planet? Or disaster relief agencies attempting to coordinate aid from around the world, getting it to the places it needs to be, quickly?

Cross-cultural competence, the ability to communicate effectively across cultures, is a mandatory skill in today’s interconnected world. It will help you:
  • Service diverse customers in the ways they expect.
  • Attract, retain and make the most of the talented professionals your organization needs to succeed.
  • Sell more products or services, to the people who need them.
  • Achieve success in your negotiations.
  • Discern the “right” mergers and acquisitions for your purposes.
  • Get more productivity and satisfaction out of your local and virtual teams, projects, and vendors.
  • Jump start the outcomes of study abroad and international education, as well as expatriate assignments.
  • Ensure you get the most out of the time and money you invest in international, cross-country and regional business travel.
  • Develop mutually respectful relationships with clients, employees and other stakeholders.

Cross-cultural competence is a needed skill for all of us, and it helps improve our family and social lives as well as our work lives. But amidst all the competing priorities for our time and attention, how can we develop such competence? To most of us, going back to school or even taking a few days off work for a class isn’t doable. And besides, like physical fitness, cultural fitness requires ongoing, structured practice, not just one trip to a training room.

If only there were an online cross-cultural coach available to us anytime, anywhere, at low cost. One that didn’t make us memorize lists of dos and don’ts, that didn’t promote stereotypes but rather encouraged dialogue and critical thinking. An online coach that would provide a process for recognizing cultural differences, helping us to understand and leverage them as assets rather than as roadblocks. Better yet, an online coach that could help us make sense of our everyday experiences, learning how to transform obstacles into opportunities, and frustration into innovation. A tool we could navigate freely, according to our needs and interests, not some online talking heads or narrated slide show. A tool that would be available on our time — when and where we want it…

I am very excited to be able to share with you just such a solution, yours free for three days, no strings attached. It is a brand new online system based on the proven Cultural Detective Method used by governments, NGOs and for-profit organizations around the world.

Free 3-day trial to Cultural Detective Online!

Cultural Detective is directly responsible for a 30% increase in our customer satisfaction ratings.”

Cultural Detective sped up my learning curve; it allowed me to become a part of the team and have an impact on the business more quickly.”

“I have received kudos from my managers and the Vice President for having chosen the Cultural Detective. But the kudos should really go to you. Cultural Detective is a rock solid methodology.”

Pass this offer around; the 3-day-free trial offer is good from now through December 31, 2012.
To redeem:

  1. Log on to
  2. Enter your name, email address and the code: Promo3
  3. You will receive a verification email from Click the link in the email, follow the instructions and you will be ready to go!

Enter your learning goals, explore 50+ fully integrated packages including full Values Lenses and 400 Critical Incidents, or upload and debrief your own real-life situations. Your customers, partners and employees, even your family members, will notice the difference!

Improve your ability to understand and collaborate across cultures, and help your friends, family members and colleagues to do the same! Let’s create a more inclusive, creative, collaborative and productive world out there! Get a clue!

What Do You Mean?! I’ve Worked Abroad 20 Years and Score Low?!

Image from The Vegetarian Athlete

So many of you seemed to resonate with my blog post about intercultural fitness, Tweeting it, Scooping it and passing it around the social media networks, that I thought you might be interested in a short article I originally drafted back in 2005 that uses the metaphor of an athlete to explain intercultural competence.

Developmental Intercultural Competence and the Analogy of an Athlete

Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), first published in 1986, provides a well-regarded theory about the process people go through as they learn to make sense of the complexity of cross-cultural communication. In the late 1990s after much research, an assessment for measuring intercultural sensitivity based on the DMIS was developed. Version 3 of the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) is currently in use by qualified practitioners. Owners and users of the IDI have in turn used their results to revamp the DMIS into the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC).

While such tools can be useful for measuring program effectiveness when used for pre- and post-testing, and can be hugely beneficial for individuals who want to improve their cross-cultural communication and collaboration, there are downsides. I’ve worked with career expatriates and global nomads, for example, who score quite low on the IDI. What this means is that the low-scorer may have a lot of experience, but has not yet engaged in systematic, structured sense-making of those decades of complex intercultural experience. I’ve also worked with quite a few individuals who value harmony as fitting in, and thus, on a scale that measures celebrating differences, they score comparatively low. Predictably, low scores can cause people to become focused on discrediting the instrument or rationalizing the assessment process, rather than on gaining benefit from what the results have to say.

To help learners focus on the guidance these tools can provide, I often use the analogy of an athlete. Just as athletes need multiple abilities to perform well, so do intercultural communicators. Both athletes and intercultural collaborators can use assessments to guide their performance improvement training.

Let’s say that the data on my athletic performance shows that I need increased flexibility. I dedicate several months to becoming more flexible, and then my coach tells me that I now need to shift my focus to building strength — of course while maintaining my flexibility. Months later, I may find that I need to refine my technique in order to make the most of my superior strength and flexibility. Or, I get injured, and I decide to add to my training a focus on my mental game: overcoming adversity, learning from mistakes, being fully present in the moment. Athletes thus focus on multiple abilities at different points throughout their careers in order to perform at their best.

In a similar way, the DMIS, IDI and IDC can be used to show us which issues we should focus on at a given point in time in order to maximally improve our intercultural performance. While developmental models and assessments are designed as measuring sticks or standards of comparison, their value for personal competence development is to highlight to us what competencies we should focus on building at each point in our careers in order to improve our overall performance.

Each of us has to balance the dynamic between comfort and stretch, challenge and support, growth and rest, in our own ways. Knowing what we are good at, as well as where we can improve, can help ensure we continue to develop. Using an assessment tool to gauge and target our intercultural development, in combination with a competence development tool such as Cultural Detective Online for ongoing, structured learning, is a powerful combination.

Want to Get Interculturally “Fit”?

The image above is part of the “Got Milk?” ad campaign; the copyrights belong to their owners. We reproduce the image here to equate the ideas “Got milk?” and “Got intercultural competence?”

Got intercultural competence? Want to get interculturally “fit”?

Do you want to improve the success of your international negotiations? Mergers and acquisitions? Want to get more productivity and even joy out of your virtual teams and projects? How about jump starting the outcomes of study abroad and international education?

Intercultural competence is not something you attend a workshop about and then check it off your list. Just as physical fitness requires ongoing activity, practice, commitment and discipline, so does the development of intercultural competence. You do not become physically fit by exercising and eating right one week out of 52. Nor do you become interculturally competent merely by having lived abroad or having earned road warrior status or flight rewards. Intercultural competence requires that we take the time and focused reflection to make meaning of our experience, to apply it, and then to keep refining and upgrading it.

Physical and intercultural fitness both require ongoing, structured practice. Discipline. We can’t be physically fit if we don’t exercise and move our bodies regularly. We can’t be interculturally fit if we don’t regularly reflect on our own values and behavior, that of others, and on our skills and strategies for bridging similarities and differences and making the most of diversity by creating inclusive spaces.

Terrific. So you’re committed to the journey. You want to get started. How? Well, to become physically fit you might start monitoring what you eat. You might join a gym, or commit to an exercise program. Similarly, to develop intercultural competence you could subscribe to Cultural Detective Online. You start a structured exercise program or join a gym of intercultural competence. At less than $100/year, a subscription is definitely cheaper than most gyms!

But, as we all know, joining the gym does not give us physical fitness. We have to actually GO TO the gym! We have to actually get out of the lounge chair and move our bodies, regularly and repeatedly!  So, we promise ourselves to spend an hour or two a week for the next three to six months, going into Cultural Detective Online to reflect on our experiences, dialogue with our teammates, learn about ourselves and others, upload and debrief stories from our daily lives. Perhaps we form a group of like-minded friends and colleagues, to support and encourage one another. And, as we practice, we find we enjoy it! We come to crave it! We start to look forward to the learning and insight! The cycle feeds itself, propels itself forward; each step towards intercultural fitness encourages us on to the next.

Finally, just as on our journey to improved physical fitness we might consult a nutritionist, dietician, personal trainer or coach, once we are committed to developing intercultural competence we may find it helpful to hire a personal trainer or coach. You have access to many talented professionals via the Cultural Detective authoring team, the list of certified facilitators, and the SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research) chapters worldwide (list of chapters with links is at lower left of the linked page), as well as various coaching associations. There are more and more classes taught worldwide that incorporate the Cultural Detective Method and CD Online. We very much encourage you to take advantage of these resources.

We would love to hear from you about your intercultural fitness regime! Please share with us so that we might learn from and be encouraged by your progress!

Book Review: Communication Highwire

by Dianne Hofner Saphiere, Barbara Kappler Mikk, and Basma Ibrahim DeVries
Intercultural Press, ©2005

Communication Highwire: Leveraging the Power of Diverse Communication Styles

Review written by Piper McNulty
Originally published in the The CATESOL Journal vol. 20.1

Communication Highwire, as the circus metaphor implies, explores the balancing act inherent in any intercultural interaction: how to remain true to oneself while exploring aspects of other styles, with a goal of achieving more effective communication.

After decades of teaching and training across, and about, cultural differences, these three authors have found that labels such as “direct,” “low context,” or “polychronic,” while providing initial insights, are not sufficient for their purposes, and that a more “robust, and dynamic” (p. xi) analysis framework is needed. In addition, unlike most books on intercultural interactions, Communication Highwire moves beyond appreciation of cultural difference to suggest ways to leverage diverse styles for improved communication across cultures.

Their model is additive, with a goal of expanding each individual’s communication-style repertoire. The book is divided into four sections: an introduction, five factors affecting communication style, a detailed breakdown of 16 specific styles, and an extensive collection of activities. The authors return throughout the book to the ongoing, often contentious relationship between two businessmen, Mike and Tanaka-san, who struggle to understand each other’s behaviors, articulate their own goals and preferences, try each other’s styles, and ultimately work together productively. Examples from many other cultures and contexts are also used to illustrate the concepts and strategies throughout the book, drawing on the authors’ extensive intercultural experience, both professional and personal.

Saphiere, Mikk, and DeVries explore communication across cultures from different client needs and perspectives, and they argue persuasively that successful communication requires a combination of styles. The best coauthored books present a mixture of ideas, experiences, and analysis and we are the richer for these authors’ extensive collaboration. Each chapter, and the themes that carry throughout the text, appear to be the result of extensive discussion, reflection, and collaboration. The book is full of engaging, highly readable examples, discussion prompts, and skills activities, which take the reader well beyond the obvious and the “common sense” of communication theory. Occasionally the sentences get a bit wordy, but the writing is clear and cogent throughout, and the authors do an excellent job of selectively substituting everyday terms where field-specific jargon could simply distract and frustrate the reader.

The book also stands out for its gentle reminders to consider multiple perspectives, to “hold…individual goals loosely enough to hear, accept and more fully understand each other’s goals” (p. 79). In addition, the analysis checklists are exceptionally thorough. For example, most intercultural communication (IC) texts simply state that in some cultures one should avoid eye contact with authority figures, yet we all know that eye-contact rules are not that simple.

These authors list four different descriptors of eye contact, and while such detailed analyses might seem more than the average ESL/EFL student needs, or can handle, adults in a second-culture context often struggle to adjust their communication behaviors to be more effective with their new interlocutors, and they are often very aware of fine nuances of style. Such students are usually more than ready to embrace this depth of analysis, because they want to understand why their interactions across cultures do not always go as intended.

Of particular interest to TESOL members will be the detailed analyses of functional language. Students trained to analyze miscommunication as these authors suggest will be at a significant advantage when discussing, negotiating, persuading, critiquing, or receiving feedback, skills that can come into play in academic contexts, the workplace, when renting an apartment, or opening a bank account. Also addressed are idea presentation, turn taking, expectations of communication process, use of emotion, permeability of new ideas, apologies, requests, praise and disagreement, feedback, and humor, among others. Language for describing details of both vocal characteristics and nonverbal behaviors are also provided. Making this global range of styles explicit is of great benefit to instructors and students alike.

The authors also emphasize that no individual will be predictably direct, or emotionally expressive, or quick to touch others in all contexts (to name just a few), but that communication styles are a situational tendency, providing a link between behavior and underlying intentions. To leverage our understanding of others’ styles, they present a four-step method: (a) reflecting, (b) analyzing, (c) discussing, and (d) deciding. While these steps might seem easy to carry out, discussing and deciding are not found in most IC literature, and the authors’ engaging analysis of the ongoing relationship between Mike and Tanaka-san helps instructors and clients develop their own version of the suggested analysis strategies.

The book is such a rich source of information and analysis tools to seem, at times, overwhelming, but the outline format and use of charts allow the reader to skim the chapters’ subtopics, selecting the specific communication styles or functions that are most applicable to their client/student population.

As for the activities, we have all read step-by-step instructions of skill-building activities and wondered whether we could achieve the outcomes promised by the author. Intercultural and diversity training can be particularly idiosyncratic and context specific, making it difficult for others to duplicate their success. However, the activities presented here are easy to envision, and the tips and suggested adaptations allay concerns that the exercises are too dependent on the original facilitator’s approach. In addition, the relatively large font, line spacing, and the wide margins leave plenty of room for underlining and notes.

Communication Highwire is an excellent resource for ESL/EFL instructors whether or not they use the activities in their own classrooms, as the tools provided may help them recognize where, and why, their own interactions with their clients, of any age or level, have gone awry, and what may be causing disconnects in their classrooms. The authors explore culturally different communication styles with depth, clarity, and insight.

Communication Highwire would be a useful supplement for teacher-training programs and a valuable addition to any ESL/EFL instructor or trainer’s library, no matter what the level or context of instruction.

Communication Highwire: Leveraging the Power of Diverse Communication Styles is a gem!

Going Global: International Expansion Strategies

I recently had the opportunity to co-facilitate a Kansas City International Trade Council workshop focused on global expansion with Dianne Hofner Saphiere (via Skype from Mexico) and Janet Graham, who is currently a Baker University adjunct professor of International Business, Marketing, and Economics. We had a diverse group of business professionals, university professors, independent consultants and college students who actively participated in the workshop held at the beautiful Kauffman Foundation facilities.

Janet Graham brought a wealth of knowledge, discussing the various entry strategies when considering expanding globally. Some key decisions organizations must make in order to form a clear market entry strategy that she referenced include: which market to enter, when to enter the market and on what scale, and which entry mode to use? Great questions to which she provided some resources (such as, globalEDGE, and WorldoMeters) to help direct the decision-making process. She quoted a local business leader from Hill’s Pet Foods who said the countries in which they have been most successful they’ve had a dedicated local distributor who markets and sells their products – and the relationship is key!

We then got to have fun bringing culture into the picture! Dianne pointed out that culture touches all parts of the strategy – communication, negotiation, competitiveness – and will ultimately affect how successful your business can be at expanding globally. I had the opportunity to showcase the Cultural Detective Method with the group by working through a global expansion incident involving a local specialty beer manufacturer exporting to Canada. We ended with an activity that tied the learning together by incorporating Values Lenses into developing strategies for expansion. The workshop was quick and to the point but brought together some true experts in the field and real world application of the Cultural Detective tools to meet local business needs.

The International Trade Council of Greater Kansas City was a gracious host and sponsor for the global expansion workshop – have you checked within your local community to partner with such organizations? It’s a great way to link the cross-cultural skill development to relevant community and business needs!

Oldie but Goodie: Map of Key Cultural Differences

Intercultural communication is about how we can communicate effectively with one another. A frequent approach to improving intercultural communication is to develop our understanding of ourselves and of others. And probably the most common way of doing that is to teach about cultural differences, often referred to as the “dimensions of culture.”

There are many different versions of the dimensions of culture. I generally find them valuable as tools to help us compare cultures, or to cognitively learn about ourselves and others. And I also find they really limit us. While not intended this way, their use has a tendency to reify culture, to cause us to think about culture as a “thing” rather than a process. It’s why I’m such a fan of the Cultural Detective Worksheet: it’s a process for understanding self and others, for leveraging similarities and differences in order to collaborate in more innovative, rewarding, and satisfying ways.

Enough about that. This post is about cultural differences. In my training one of the ways I talk about cultural differences is to ask people to think of them as a map of the terrain, and to use them as a scanning tool. In a given interaction, which difference(s) got in the way? For example, was status important for her and not for me, and I just missed it? Was it a different sense of responsibility that really upset me? Maybe he likes to do several things at once, and I’m more one-thing-at-a-time? Was it the fact that I don’t think religion belongs in the workplace that caused him to think I’m not trustworthy?

That is how the map above came to be. It is a graphic summary of some of the cultural differences or dimensions, at least as I saw them back in 2008. It is available for you to use freely under a Creative Commons license. You can introduce the various cultural differences to your team and then, when you get mired in cross-cultural miscommunication, you can take out your map of differences and decipher just which dimension might be causing the problem. Or, maybe it’s something not even on the map.

Just click on the link above for a larger image, and to download the accompanying 11-page article entitled, “Detecting the Culprits of Miscommunication: Values, Actions and Beliefs.” Please feel free to copy and distribute, as long as you retain the copyright and source url.

I’m really interested to hear from you about how you use the dimensions of culture to promote effective interaction. What are your tools and techniques? Your dos and don’ts? And what do you think about this “map of the culprits of miscommunication” idea?

Why is Intercultural Competence Helpful? The Case of the Ion Exchange Resins

Is there a bottom-line business benefit to intercultural competence? As someone who has lived and breathed cross-cultural and intercultural business competency for well over thirty years, that question tends to elicit a chuckle in me. And today, the person on the phone who asked me that question reminded me of a story.

You see, just yesterday I received an invitation to an “OB-OL-kai” in Japan, a “get together of Old Boys and Old Ladies,” a reunion of a group of colleagues that I miss terribly and would love to party with, again, face to face. We went through a lot together. They are some of the most talented professionals I’ve had the pleasure of working with in my career. And a few members of that group were involved in the story I’m about to tell you:

Cultural Detective and the Case of the Ion Exchange Resins

We worked for a multinational business that globally sourced ion exchange resins. IERs are small beads used to separate, purify or decontaminate; they are used to make ultra-pure water, for example. Don’t worry about the technicalities; this story focuses on how the people worked together.

In this case, the IERs were produced in southern France, at a facility that was one of the absolute best in the world. My client imported the IERs to Japan, selling them primarily to the semiconductor manufacturing industry.

The Japanese customers had extremely high quality standards, and the French-produced IERs consistently met all the customer’s requirements. The product was well within spec. But, the Japanese customers were worried: occasionally the IERs they received from France would vary slightly in color. One shipment might arrive quite clear, the next shipment more yellow or orange. Always the specifications were met. The IERs functioned to their purpose. But the color varied.

“The color doesn’t matter,” the French vendor explained. “The color has absolutely no impact on the performance of the IER.”

“Yes, that is true. We understand that color does not affect performance,” came the reply from the Japanese customer. “But we are concerned about why there is a color variation? We feel it must indicate a variance in the production process itself. There must be some variable in production that is not consistent and could be improved.”

A classic cultural gap: a focus on result vs. a focus on process. Does the product perform as required? Or do we look at continuous improvement of the production process itself?

In this case, the argument could quickly produce a stalemate, with both supplier and customer insisting their view is “correct.” The French could insist that their IERs are the best the customer will find. As long as the customer doesn’t find an equivalent product, that could be ok. But, it’s not a very good answer on a global stage, where there always seems to be another supplier waiting in the wings, with cheaper cost, easier shipping, or more commitment to listening to the customer.

Possible results of the vendor insisting that color doesn’t matter?
  • Lost customer (and this was a lengthy and very lucrative relationship),
  • Lost business/profit/cash flow,
  • Lost investment in developing this customer,
  • Huge reinvestment to develop a new customer of the same caliber,
  • Loss of opportunity to improve their product and their production process,
  • Not to mention the human aggravation.

The Japanese, in turn, could blame the supplier. “They are not committed to being the best they can be. They are resting on their laurels, on their prior success. We need suppliers who strive to maintain their leading edge. We need a supplier who listens to us and respects us.”

Possible results of the customer insisting color variation matters?
  • Diminishing trust of, communication and collaboration with the vendor, leading to
  • Loss of a strategic vendor,
  • Loss of the investment in selecting and developing the vendor,
  • Huge reinvestment to source and develop a new vendor,
  • Major time and financial commitment to establishing a relationship and educating a new vendor regarding customer needs, in hopes that the new relationship might become a strategic partnership.

I have seen this push-pull occur so often in my career. It frustrates those involved, it causes aggravation, it wastes time, and it wastes money. Take a moment to put some money to the points above, to calculate the “bottom-line impact” of such a simple cross-communication. In this industry, it is easily in the millions of dollars. And why? Due to pride, to arrogance, but mostly due to ignorance: not really understanding cultural differences and how to navigate them effectively.

And what might an interculturally competent solution look like? We know it involves multi-directional bridging, and systemic as well as interpersonal solutions. And, usually, such interculturally competent solutions are win-wins for both customer and supplier.

How so? Well, the vendor could listen to the customer, learn from the customer, even though the customer’s points don’t pertain directly to the product performance. In this way, the vendor would:
  • Strengthen trust and teamwork with the Japanese customer,
  • Could very well improve the quality of its manufacturing process, which in turn
  • Could help ensure it remains best-in class.
  • The customer will refer more customers to the vendor, due to the strong relationship with and excellent quality of the vendor, and the vendor’s global markets will grow.
In turn, the customer could voice its praise for the vendor’s quality, and explain that it’s intentions are collaborative and collegial; to help both vendor and customer be the best they can be. The customer could apologize for the hassle, and offer its process expertise to the vendor. In this way, the customer would:
  • Strengthen a very lengthy and very strategic vendor relationship,
  • Improve the cross-cultural skills of its staff, enabling them to partner more effectively with other vendors,
  • Improve the customer’s reputation in the global marketplace, as one of collaboration and loyalty.

Thus, the French and Japanese could work together to manufacture more color-consistent IERs, grow their global markets, strengthen their partnership, improve their employees’  skills, and polish their reputations in the marketplace. Win-win-win.

In real life, what actually happened was somewhere in between. These people were smart enough to hire a full-time intercultural consultant, after all, which I believe is one demonstration of their commitment to success. They got advice, and they did their best to put it to good use. They realized that intercultural competence is a lifelong process, contextually based, and strived to always do a bit better. It’s one of the reasons I want to travel halfway around the world to go to that OB-OL-kai!

What do you think? I would love you to share with us why you believe intercultural competence is helpful? Do you have a Cultural Defective or Cultural Effective case to share?