Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Thinking through alignment and disagreement 5: adding cultural diversity into this mix 1

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on November 28, 2013

This is my fifth posting to a series in which I discuss the roles that disagreement and coming together in alignment can play in a business and how both can offer significant and even essential value – when expressed and considered in the right contexts and ways (see Business Strategy and Operations – 3, postings 450 and loosely following for Parts 1-4.)

I have been discussing these processes and how they fit together in an actively functioning business, from the perspective of the individual organization. I continue that approach here in this installment, adding in the potential for culturally based misunderstandings and assumptions as become more and more common in a globally interconnected marketplace and workforce. And I also expand this out to consider larger business to business and marketplace contexts. But I begin with language.

Language differences and language-level disagreements and misunderstandings happen, but they are not the focus of this posting. When people speak different primary languages and have much more limited understanding of each other’s native tongues, or of some third language if one is more commonly used in their business as a communications standard, they expect misunderstandings and approach any conversation with the possibility of language barrier issues in mind. When people meet over a commonly held language that they are both fluent in, but from different cultural starting points and with different basic and unexamined assumptions in place from that, that creates opportunity for unexpected collisions into disagreement and misunderstanding – or worse, seeming agreements but where the parties agreeing are in fact agreeing to different things.

The Irish playwright and I add cofounder of the London School of Economics, George Bernard Shaw is known among for other things, observing that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”

British and Americans do speak essentially the same language and with what could be considered only relatively minor dialect differences where for example the trunk of a car in American English is the boot of that same car in British English, and an elevator (American) might be called a lift (British.) But I know from direct hands-on experience that even when word choice differences are not an issue, cultural assumptions and differences in them can lead to real misunderstandings between Americans and their British counterparts. I find myself with a very specific working example in mind as I write this, where a colleague and I were speaking the same language and using the same words in the same way but making very different assumptions as to how to share some sensitive information and an accompanying opinion, and with whom.

• Continuing consideration of English as an increasingly globally shared and understood language, we are approaching a situation where it will be possible to find people in essentially any business in any country who speaks at least some English,
• But just because two people who enter into a conversation via that shared resource use the same words and grammar, does not preclude even basic and fundamental misunderstandings,
• And particularly where divergent understandings are simply assumed and culturally based.

I write this as a cautionary note of warning, that holding a shared language in common can and does increase and broaden opportunity for mutual understanding – but with the caveat that when disagreements come up there, they are going to be that much less expected and that much more fundamental and profound in impact.

• This can and does play out in international businesses and in working with supply chain and other business partners in a global context.
• This can and does play out when working in an international and global marketplace and with a rich diversity of customers with their varying experiences and assumptions.
• This can and does play out in single office settings and particularly where hiring policy is multiculturally inclusive and diversity is a goal.
• I am not, of course, trying to argue a case against diversity or connectivity of any sort here, but rather writing to note that diversity and breadth of connectivity require a more considered intercultural awareness, and in both understanding alignment and disagreement and in bringing people together in a shared accurate understanding of when they are taking place and what they include.
• I am not, I add, writing about the strengths or limitations of English or any other single language here either. And I note in that context that the same basic type of argument that I have been making here from an English language perspective could also be made when for example, Mandarin Chinese (Guānhuà) is used across cultural boundaries, and differences of understanding and misunderstandings arise between, for example, urban-dwelling planners and rural peasants even just within China. And as China seeks to expand its influence in Southeast Asia and beyond and with its Guānhuà as a shared language of diplomacy and business discourse, the same types of issues can be expected to arise there too. Such differences can and do arise societally, and they arise within the tighter confines of individual businesses and business to business, and business to consumer relationships.

I am going to continue this discussion with a next series installment where I will look into at least some of the issues that arise when identifying and bridging gaps in understanding, and before problems develop if possible and as part of a remediation effort where that is not possible. Meanwhile, you can find this posting at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and related material at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory.

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