I lived and worked in the Republic of Korea in 1986 and 1987 and spoke half-way decent Korean. I also spent 3 months in Thailand and learned enough Thai to go down to the market and bargain with vendors. I have spent time in other Asian countries as well.
One of the big lessons I learned was that even if you speak the language, cultural concepts and even body language often can’t easily be interpreted or translated using verbal communications. Even talking about basics like the color of an object can be difficult.
Does yes really mean no?
At one point in Korea, I was acting as an interpreter for a meeting between American and Korean General Staff. The two sides couldn’t come to agreement on an issue and the American General blamed the lack of agreement and acquiescence of the Koreans on my abilities as an interpreter. The real problem was cultural rather than a lack of communication or understanding. What I clearly understood was that the Korean General was giving off all the cultural cues that said NO without actually stating it verbally – something he would have considered to be rude. The American General couldn’t comprehend this because American officers are trained to say NO most of the time. Saying NO isn’t necessarily considered rude in our culture. Also, the American General was changing the pre-defined plan at the last minute. Maybe things have changed now, but at the time, that kind of entrepreneurial change of plans at the last minute wasn’t something that would be rewarded in Korean culture, least of all in the military.
Xenophobia vs. Business Decisions
I frequently recommend strategic contracting and outsourcing to my clients, but contracting to people whose native language is not English from half way around the world is not what I am proposing to them. When I recommend outsourcing, I am suggesting that they contract with a local or regional professional services firm with people who have a shared cultural perspective.
Language isn’t the only problem. Culture can be a huge problem too. This isn’t xenophobia; it’s a business calculation. I have lived and worked all over the United States and the cultural differences between South, North, West, and East are vast. From a cultural point of view, California, New York and Texas are in many ways different countries, but we do share language and to some extent, culture. Conducting business when all the players don’t share language, culture, and common goals can present insurmountable obstacles.
The high price and hidden costs of cultural collision
I worked on a disastrous project in the late 1990’s that resulted in an 8-figure loss to taxpayers and several wasted and frustrating years for hundreds of people. The project was a top-down initiative from the highest levels of state government to implement a state-wide social services case management application. The software development was contracted to a firm from half-way around the world. The entire concept of the project was flawed from inception and the project, stakeholder, and communication management were poor.
The workflow was cumbersome and illogical and I always suspected that the workflow probably made sense if your brain had been wired differently based on language. It was clear that no one had bothered to consult case workers in the field about how they collected, managed, and entered data in the field. Everything was wrong with this project and there was plenty of blame to go around – especially blame for the executive management at the state level. However, communication with the foreign programmers and support personnel was a significant problem. The communication problems were both cultural and linguistic. Even the concept of what constitutes “customer service” has significant cultural ramifications and the idea of “social services” is not something universally understood around the planet.
There are cultural differences between companies as well, even if all the players are native English speakers from your region or your local community. If you are considering strategically outsourcing some aspect of your IT operations, cost shouldn’t be the only consideration. There is a value to cultural compatibility. The company culture of a potential vendor may or may not be a good fit with your organization, even if their office is right down the street. Cultural fit is an essential component of a successful business relationship and determining that fit should be part of your procurement process.
Copyright © Jeffrey Morgan 2016, 2017