Archive for January, 2008

Mind the culture-gap – by Peter Lorange, IMD, Lausanne

January 10, 2008

Peter Lorange, Professor – and the Grand Old Man of the Business School Community – is leaving IMD, Lausanne after 15 efficient years as president. 

On this occasion Peter is stating below points on the theme: “When setting off for foreign coastlands, the Vikings left their Gods behind”… 

We hereby applause this contribution to the member periodical of Danish Business Economists, wishing Peter all the best for the future. 

Povl Tiedemann   

Mind the culture-gap 

Cross-cultural intelligence and mindfulness are both becoming increasingly important for international managers to succeed in a global world, which is ever so interconnected. 

Managers who come to IMD often ask what skills are most important for the future? The answer lies in the interplay of what can be taught in a classroom and what each manager experiences. These experiences on their own have no value if the individual is not mindful enough to learn from them. Success or failure should be connected to concepts learnt and should lead to further insight.  

Cross-cultural intelligence provides a good example. To succeed in other cultures, managers need a set of meta-capabilities combined with a mindfulness for paying careful attention to each situation and acting accordingly. It is fine to read about do’s and don’ts in other cultures, but what matters more is a fundamental understanding of cultural assumptions and values as well as a willingness to engage in continuous and deep learning. We call this lifelong learning. 

In my opinion, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) best exemplifies this. Astute and culturally aware, Amundsen defied the odds when his small team of experts became the first to set foot on the South Pole, beating out a better funded English group led by Robert Scott.  

Non-stop learning 

Amundsen had an amazing thirst for learning. He took detailed notes of everything, constantly questioned strategies and used mistakes to his advantage. He also maximized cultural learning opportunities, as evidenced by his immersion in the lives of Eskimos to better understand the local ways of living. At the time, Eskimos were viewed as primitive people in need of influence from civilized society. To counter-balance any cultural barrier and earn the their trust, Amundsen first learned the local language. Afterwards, he was able to gain insights about their technology, habits and culture. These lessons proved to be critical to Amundsen’s success during his epic jaunt to the South Pole. 

Only the best team

Amundsen formed a strong team consisting of five highly skilled individuals: an expert dog driver, two highly experienced sailors, a cook and a top skier. Each had a special role to play and Amundsen engaged his men and relied on their expertise in making decisions. Rules and bureaucracy were minimized in order to make the most of talent. Amundsen was a big believer in the team concept.

Upon arriving in the South Pole, he insisted that the entire group plant the Norwegian flag together so that each team member could equally share in the historical moment.

Cultural learning at its best 

These examples may seem straightforward at first glance, but they represent a deeplevel of cultural understanding and mindfulness. When we teach culture, one of the fundamental orientations is called “relationships among people”, which covers collectivism, hierarchy and individualism. Cultures and people may differ on these dimensions. But subconsciously these dimensions are all used for organization and problemsolving.

Amundsen applied these perspectives in ways that were appropriate for the situation and the environment. Having the best individuals is worthless if there is no collective goal and sense of group belonging. But it needs to be organized so that each member is using his or her expertise so that synergy is created throughout the team.  

When the fundamental dimensions are understood, applying them as a leader in cross-cultural situations is worth significantly more than knowing simplistic behavioural rules. Why? Because, people forgive and forget simple mistakes from “foreigners”, but they appreciate and remember the willingness to engage in deep, non-judgemental learning. 

For more information on Peter Lorange, the author of above, please check: 

IMD is a leading global Business School, based in Switzerland, please check:   

Povl Tiedemann

January 2008