Cisco. IBM. Bloomberg. GE. Ernst & Young. JPMorgan Chase & Co. What does this diverse group of companies share in common? A few things….
Whether in the realm of financial, news, consulting, tax, or retail services, each organization relies heavily on large-scale technology in managing day-to-day operations. Supply chain logistics, financial transaction management, and executive decision-making- each is driven by powerful information systems collecting unprecedented amounts of data.
Each firm has an expansive global presence, with offices and employees located in countries around the world. Four of the six appear on the Forbes Global 500 ranking of the world’s largest companies. To illustrate this point:
As demonstrated by the statistics above, this isn’t our parents’ workplace. In technical and engineering fields, for example, globalization and the growth of off-shoring have altered the professional landscape in fundamental ways.
First, virtual teams are now commonplace, with employees distributed across time zones and connected through collaborative technologies. Virtual meeting technology (including those with 3D and holographic capabilities) merits a blog post of its own. To get an idea of products on the market, consult this list of emerging tools.
Second, strong technical skills alone no longer suffice in the new “global workplace”. Organizations are demanding talent with the communication skills and multicultural intelligence necessary for building relationships and managing projects across cultures. A recent study even highlights the importance of “global competencies”, along with innovation and entrepreneurial skills, as a key determinant of an employee’s ability to add value to his/her company.
But what does it mean to be “globally competent”? The results of a 2008 study by the National Science Foundation (NSF) identified five attributes of a globally competent individual, including:
(1) Appreciation for other cultures
(2) Proficiency in working in or directing a team of ethnic or cultural diversity
(3) Ability to communicate across cultures
(4) Opportunity to practice in a global context through international internship, as service learning opportunity, a virtual global project, or some other form of experience
(5) Ability to effectively deal with ethical issues arising from cultural or national differences
These attributes are widely known. Due to the recession of 2007 and the demands on corporations for greater efficiency, however, they are in greater demand than ever before.
Since the NSF study was conducted, a global competency model has emerged in the academic literature. The model is composed of three components: cultural, communication, and ethical competencies.
Cultural competency refers to the ability of an individual to effectively work within the cultural context of their particular environment. It requires an understanding of and appreciation for cultural similarities and differences in the following areas: business practices, time orientation, power, individualism, competitiveness, thinking styles, status, formality, saving face, directness and non-verbal cues.
If you’ve heard about the blunder United Airlines made in launching a new flight to Hong Kong, then you understand the importance of cultural competency. Airline employees handed out white carnations to passengers in order to commemorate the occasion, only to learn too late that white flowers symbolize bad luck in Chinese culture. Damage done.
In simple terms, communication competency requires (1) the ability to understand meanings behind cues (both verbal and non-verbal) and adjust to differences and (2) willingness to accept and respond to differing methods of communication.
A key component of gaining communication competency is learning a new language. Foreign language fluency remains the most powerful way to achieve a deep understanding of another culture. As the language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
Ethical code, copyright, patents, and privacy standards are considered differently across cultures. In certain countries, for example, bribes and kick-backs are accepted means for conducting business. But here in the U.S., such activity is prohibited by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977. Administered by the Department of Justice, this act makes punishable any attempt by enterprises or individuals to bribe foreign officials on U.S. soil or abroad.
Ethical competency is challenging. It demands proper observance of and/or respect for local practices, while requiring individuals to maintain personal ethics and values.
The challenges and opportunities facing companies are changing. The more “traditional” challenges, from managing teams to coordinating decision-making, have become more complex as companies diversify their workforces and expand their operations worldwide.
Developing global competency is an ongoing process, but it is worth the investment. It is important to take advantages of opportunities to be introduced to new cultural settings, through both academic work and internship experience. Whether you enter the technical profession as a systems analyst, DBA, project lead, or business analyst, these skills will serve you (and your employer) well.
Have you encountered situations in your professional or academic life demanding ethical, communication, and/or cultural competencies? What experiences have allowed you to bolster your multicultural intelligence?
Jane Zamarripa is a first year Masters student in the Information Management program at Syracuse University. As a result of her experience working as a constituent services representative, she is passionate about exploring the ways in which technology can be leveraged to improve citizen interaction with government. She holds a B.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.