Organizational silos often inhibit employees from easily accessing global intelligence, and the larger the organization, the more likely it is that critical information is not being shared. For instance, someone working in the office of regulatory affairs in Japan may be a local subject matter expert, but a colleague in another office who needs such information doesn’t know that expertise exists.
This is problematic because CLOs are now responsible for helping to drive globalization in their organizations. There are multiple facets to consider: expansion into developing markets; an increasingly diverse and multicultural workforce; new joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions; headquartering functional groups in different geographies; and manufacturing in multiple countries, to name a few. The CLO has to manage all of the global knowledge coming in and make it available to those who need the information to succeed. Building a knowledge management process to promote global intelligence sharing can help.
Where Is the Info?
There is plenty of financial, political and economic knowledge available in the marketplace and the workplace, but many organizations’ global initiatives fail because they lack cultural competence. They assume that what works at home will work elsewhere. Success in one context is no assurance of success in another. The key to success lies in using collective cultural intelligence, developing cultural competence in those working in a global context and in sharing this knowledge across the organization.
Those who should be trained and used as cultural intelligence resources include expatriates, global team members, global business travelers and global leaders. Employees waste a considerable amount of time and effort replicating work or capturing knowledge that already exists in the organization. In international business operations, physical distance and cultural differences exacerbate silos.
Further, in many countries business success is based on relationships. If the organization has a repository of who has a relationship with whom, business opportunities can be expedited. Let’s say a pharmaceutical company has to replace a successful leader in charge of obtaining government approvals for new drug entry into China. The person’s replacement arrives one month after the former leader left. The former leader was able to get approvals within six months due to his well-developed network within the Chinese government. It takes the new person an average of 14 months to get similar approvals. Had the organization allowed the former employee to remain in China during the first three months of the new person’s assignment, transferring knowledge and making the proper introductions, the organization could have saved millions of dollars.
However, it’s up to the learning leader to make the case for knowledge management investments. The economy is slowly recovering, but many organizations still hesitate to make upfront investments in technology or systems. Learning leaders often have to build a business case to prove the ROI exists, thus justifying the initial expense. Consider the following scenario, which illustrates what happens when companies do not invest in knowledge management.
Business Brand A decides it wants to enter the Brazilian market. It does its due diligence and purchases a successful family-owned Brazilian organization. To improve efficiency the company introduces leadership and time management processes that were successful at headquarters in the United States. After nine months there is no improvement in efficiency, and many employees are leaving the organization.
Business Brand A did not know to contact Business Brand B in its own company, which had purchased a similar operation in Brazil and had key lessons to share regarding the Brazilian approach to leadership and time management. For example, Brand B brought in a U.S.-based group of consultants who taught a leadership and time management style that encouraged a hands-off empowerment approach with rigid adherence to deadlines. This did not sit well with the Brazilian leaders, who preferred a more hands-on approach. When the consultants left, and Brazilian leaders started using the U.S. approach, their employees felt they were being abandoned by their leaders.
Implementing a time management system was equally ineffective as the Brazilians work on a polychromic system of time where people work on several things at once and can focus on critical issues as needed, while Americans have a more monochromic approach to time where one thing is done at a time in a structured manner. When Brazilians started to use the U.S. style, there was great confusion. They were working on many things with their colleagues, and focusing on only one made them feel constrained and ineffective.
Had Brand B shared its knowledge, Brand A would have saved time, resources and kept many of its best employees by not sending an American consulting company to Brazil to deliver U.S.-style training to 200 Brazilian leaders. Had there been a repository of information about Brazil, the team from Brand A could have shared its experiences for others to learn from. Had Business A know of Brand B’s experiences, leaders would have known to ask the Brazilians what they needed and what approach would be most effective to improve leadership and time management.
The area of international assignees provides another example of lost knowledge. Multinational companies may invest up to $2 million per expatriate sent on an overseas assignment. On average, 40 percent of expatriates leave their companies two years after returning from assignments. The remaining expats often forget at least half of what they learned during their assignments. Had the expatriates’ knowledge been captured via a knowledge management process, millions of dollars in intellectual capital could be saved.
Global Intelligence Sharing Today
When companies do not utilize knowledge management processes they may experience sub-par performance, aborted assignments, low retention of the most experienced employees, process redundancy, marketing mistakes and inconsistencies, loss of market share and customer defections.
Managing international knowledge means finding ways to create, identify, capture and distribute international organizational knowledge to those who need it, including:
• Who in each country is there on an expatriate assignment.
• Who recently returned from an international assignment.
• Who speaks which languages in an organization.
• Who the key client contacts in each country are and who knows them.
• What the organization’s biggest successes and failures are in a country and why.
• What the styles of leadership, communication, decision-making and negotiation are.
• What the best and safest mode of travel is, and much more.
A learning leader can create a database of such information that is readily available to all employees, and develop and promote informal social networks for employees working with the same countries. It also may help to meet with international operations leaders to identify what information is needed, where it exists and how to best capture and share it.
For instance, send out a survey to all employees asking about their international business activities and cultural backgrounds, and ask people to volunteer to serve as key contacts in their areas of expertise. Or, hold focus groups to identify where international knowledge resides in the organization.
In a Web-based knowledge management system employees can post questions and answers about a subject such as China. The system then enables ongoing discussions on specific topics and the opportunity to link to others in the organization.
One Cross-Cultural Knowledge Management Model
Global Dynamics Inc. (GDI) developed a model that demonstrates how a knowledge management system establishes cross-cultural competence in a global organization.
The system enables deployment of information across all groups, crossing silos and functional areas through a database and internal social networking. GDI captures all of the names, emails and key lessons, case studies, best practices and contacts from all managers taking a required course offered through a company’s corporate university.
The system collects similar data from all of the company’s expatriates trained around the globe as well as international knowledge from other learning and development interventions such as global team building, global leadership development, virtual workforce effectiveness and country-specific training. Business travelers going abroad receive an email reminding them to use the system and asking them to report any new cross-cultural information they learn on their trip.
For example, all information about a specific country, including all the people working with or in that country, is in the database. Consider a multinational organization with multiple units working in and with China. This organization taps into a system to ensure that knowledge management and international knowledge sharing are an integral part of global knowledge acquisition. As a result, all employees from around the globe working with the Chinese have access to a Web-based multimedia platform that provides cultural intelligence and company-specific knowledge about operations in China, including cultural factors such as the need to consider hierarchy, face saving, indirect communication styles, Chinese holidays and other factors that can facilitate successful business relationships.
Because there may be more than one group working in a particular country, employees are encouraged to use the database to connect through appropriate groups in internal social networks. Through these groups, employees can discuss their experiences, challenges and successes and tap into — and potentially add to — the company’s collective intelligence about a country. The model allows an organization to:
1. Deliver a core cross-cultural competency course for all employees which captures and categorizes each participant’s global challenges, issues, personal goals, case studies, lessons learned and email addresses to form an electronic community.
2. Establish curriculum paths based on specific core competencies. For example, create a path focused on building cross-cultural teaming excellence while other paths focus on developing future global leaders, negotiators and project managers.
3. Provide ways for each associate to create a personal electronic competency roadmap and skills component. Systematically track individual progress toward competency goals.
4. Establish an international assignment series of interventions in support of expatriates and repatriates.
5. Record lessons learned throughout each international assignment.
6. Capture international issues and trigger personal coaching based on individual circumstances.
7. Analyze information to identify and interpret trends and identify process improvement opportunities.
8. Establish a cross-cultural library of blended learning courseware consisting of in-house developed programs. It could be available through third-party partnerships that support the roadmap concept.
9. Query the collective knowledge derived from case studies, lessons learned and personal or business experiences maintained in the database.
The value of this approach lies in its ability to limit the repetition of tasks and improve efficiency and coordination across the organization. It also connects relevant people across departments and builds networks of thought leaders who share their global intelligence.
Neal Goodman is the president of Global Dynamics, a cross-cultural training, expatriate services and global leadership coaching company. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.