Penetrating Barriers: Communicating Clearly in the International Organization

By Collins, Keith S. | Communication World, June-July 2003 | Go to article overview

Penetrating Barriers: Communicating Clearly in the International Organization


Collins, Keith S., Communication World


Nathan Schweitzer smiled and gestured for the visitor to come into his office. "You won't believe what happened this morning," he said, and slapped the document sitting in front of him on the desk. "This report is from Yuri. And I didn't even ask him for it." Indeed, it was a milestone. Yuri had never taken initiative of any kind.

The victory was small, but its significance was immense: An American corporation in Russia had finally begun to break through the cultural barriers that had split the company, hurt communication and depleted productivity. Through encouragement gained from training sessions on how to work in an American organization, Yuri Strelnikov, one of the most talented Russian engineers had dropped old defensive habits. He had finally concluded that what he had heard was true: In the American culture it was acceptable to take the initiative.

Nathan, the company's general manager, had worked with a coach to understand the Russian approach to work and life. He began to see what it would take to gain the confidence of Yuri and his fellow engineers. And with the spontaneous report on his desk, Nathan had begun to witness the power of an organization that could work as one, communicating easily across national boundaries.

Although the names have been changed, the story is true. And it illustrates a growing challenge that companies face as they spread around the world: How does an international organization think, act and communicate as a unit when people with varied languages and backgrounds and diverse values and goals have to work together?

Schweitzer and Strelnikov found part of the solution: Understand the cultures you work with. But there is more. To improve communication within their international operations, organizations can turn to a proven approach that involves two basic elements: individual development and group development, or what can be done at the individual and group levels to cultivate good international communication. Both elements need to be addressed to create a truly unified operation. Providing individual education without developing a group consciousness will produce enlightened employees who are blocked in every direction by organizational barriers. An effort to develop group unity alone will eventually crash on the rocks of individual ignorance and bias.

Leadership is the other important element that brings everything together: United organizations require a particular kind of visionary leadership.

INDIVIDUAL DEVELOPMENT

Organizations can improve cohesiveness in their international operations by first taking two important steps on the individual level: open thought to other cultures and learn languages.

Open Thought to Other Cultures: Courses in cross-cultural communication have proliferated, but they often don't go far enough in illuminating a nation's culture. Not only how people eat and greet, but also their approach to the arts, history, religion and psychology, as well as beliefs about risk and reward, emotions and relationships, dealing with stress, and business itself determine how individuals see the world and interact with others.

Heiki Miki, senior marketing manager for the Japanese steel company NKK America, operates by what he calls the CRA Theory of international communication. He believes one first has to be curious about why people behave as they do, respect the differences and then approach people and interact with them. "Intercultural communication is ultimately the art of mutual cooperation among cultures," he says.

Marcos Peralta, manager of the strategic technology practice for A.T. Kearney in Buenos Aires, Argentina, finds that one has to adapt to local ways of communicating. "Americans tend to communicate very straight and to the point, something like this: [right arrow]," he says. "Latin Americans try to read between the lines and communicate like this: [right arrow]".

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