Your home market is mature and saturated. Too many competitors, not enough bandwidth to diversify, a solid customer base but growth rates are not exactly keeping the exchanges buzzing. You decide to branch out overseas. Everyone else is in the BRICs, the Gulf, APAC, Africa, why shouldn’t you be? But your business model, your organisational structure, your way of getting things done and, most importantly, the values you have carefully built up over the years – how will these transfer onto the international stage?
Go into any organisation and you will see the symbols of that company’s culture – how people dress, the layout of the workfloor, who has a private office, the jargon they use. Talk to the staff and you will learn the stories of their company heroes and folklore. Spend some more time and you will note the rituals – dress-down Fridays, overtime work, who sits next to who at lunch, who speaks in meetings, and so on. Much harder to discern are values.
The base of the iceberg
To use two common culture models, values are the hidden base of the iceberg, or the implicit core of the onion. Privately, these are formed early, typically in childhood through our experiences and learning from our families as well as our schooling. In organisations, values are established by the initial leaders, perpetuated by the employees, and reinforced by new leaders and joiners. When there is a disconnect between the espoused values on the company website and the true ones, then all manner of workplace issues arise – disengagement, breakdown in the employee psychological contract, attrition, loss of brand and more.
Taking these values overseas complicates the situation further. The Dutch management consultant Fons Trompenaars writes that: “However objective and uniform we try to make organisations, they do not have the same meaning for individuals from different cultures.”
A common corporate value such as ownership will have a very different meaning if you are from an individualistic culture or a community-oriented background. Respect for the individual will have a certain slant to someone who believes in seniority and status, something else to someone who believes you are only as good as your performance.
How you go about internationalising will determine how successful the transfer of your values is and, ultimately, the success of your business. The most practical first step is to conduct a comparative analysis of your organisational culture and that of the target country or market you are looking to open up in. See where the matches are versus the gaps.
Thinking green field
Ideally, you will be setting up as a green field project, with a home manager sent out to build a team with local colleagues. This way, a blend of home office and local values will be built into the growing organisation. Joint ventures and acquisitions are more complex, with two sets of established values coming face to face. The clash can be insurmountable, as evidenced by the high failure rates, not only of mergers, but also of global work assignments.
Trompenaars would advocate a transnational approach to tackle this clash and to drive organisational success. Rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach or a confusing sum of unique values for each setting, a transnational strategy would build on the merits of each to create a truly international value structure.
This is the essence of cultural intelligence. Not rejecting your own culture and values while blankly adopting the other’s, but reconciling the two to leverage the best from both. As with all else in organisational performance, the crux lies in crafting and communicating a true marriage of vision and authentic values. Anything else will seem like a ‘green card’ marriage of convenience to employees and clients alike.
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