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In our short news piece, ‘Balancing Recovery,’ we touched on UK Export week and its implications for business. But it is far too important a subject to leave with a passing comment, not the least because exporting is as much about engagement and culture as it is about the transfer of goods or services.
The deep challenge for all those who seek to conduct business outside their own country is to overcome the idea that a global marketplace means that everyone operates and thinks in the same way. Go back fifty years or so and the general perception was that other countries were different, not just in terms of language or currency but in behaviour, thoughts and actions. I remember someone telling me about a visit to France in the early 1960s in which they were surprised to find that trees and fields looked the same as in England. Perhaps a little extreme but this perception of difference meant that we took the time and care to allow for cultural differences in our business transactions.
Now, thanks to the advent of the computer and universal travel, our world perception has changed. We travel abroad more frequently, we readily share sporting and other events on TV and via the internet, we Skype and we surf the web. We now live in a time in which a video of a cute dog doing tricks can go viral across the globe. In short, we live in a global age in which the far corners of the world are no more distant than the end of our street.
But if we assume that just because our world perceptions have shrunk we all now think and act alike then we are in for a fall. In some cultures yes means yes; in others it means I can’t do what you are asking but I’ll say yes because I don’t want to disappoint you or to lose face; in others it means yes I’ll go away and think about the problem. Businesses which fail to understand this are just leaving themselves open to expensive mistakes.
Whether we export, whether we import, or whether we run offices in different parts of the world, if we try to impose the same set of rules it just isn’t going to work. Yes you can embark on an organisation-wide drive to improve employee engagement but the methods you use may have to be different in different countries. Yes you may decide to take steps to improve customer experiences but what matters to a customer in one country may be far down the list of priorities for customers elsewhere. Even something as simple as how you greet a customer is not a universal act.
HSBC touched the edges of this in 2002 when they launched a series of adverts under the theme of “the world’s local bank.” Instigated following consumer research, at the launch the bank said that “Consumers want to be treated as individuals, and to feel that companies care about them, recognise their needs and understand what makes their community unique.”
Going further, global awareness is not just about consumers, nor simply about suppliers or multi-national departments. At heart global awareness is about taking steps to engage everyone in the aims and values of the organisation. It is about recognising the differing priorities and attitudes which multi-cultural, multi-national and multi-age group individuals bring to the organisation. It’s about celebrating everyone’s unique talents and using them to enrich the experience.
The secret of success is to stop assuming and start treating people as individuals. But in so many organisations this just doesn’t happen. When employee absence rises, when there is conflict in the office, when customers stop buying your product, when suppliers deliver unsuitable products or deliver late, when regulatory bodies censure you; at the heart of the problem sits the arrogant assumption that people are incidental to the business and furthermore that people are all the same.
UK Export week is all about promoting success on the global stage. How many of our businesses will fail on that stage thanks to a lack of awareness about the need to individually engage within the global marketplace?