Understanding cultural assimilation

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We look at why understanding and facilitating cultural assimilation within a variety of contexts is essential for globalising companies to succeed today.

Many dimensions

Cultural assimilation can mean several different things. When used one way, as in cultural fit, it refers to an employee's ability to mesh with an organisation's culture. It can also mean whether they fit with customers, outside vendors, and other company associates.

Cultural assimilation refers to the geographic aspects of culture as well. Even within a given country there may be cultural challenges. For example, a born-and-bred New Yorker who is assigned to manage a plant in the Deep South may have difficulty adapting.

And of course cultural assimilation, when viewed in the context of country or region, takes on greater meaning, particularly in today's global economy.

Fit is essential

The ability to 'fit' within an organisation has come to be recognised as an essential component contributing to employee success. It's also a major factor in the hiring process.

In fact, a recent global survey of recruiters, conducted by executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, finds cultural fit can be the deciding factor in whether an executive is chosen for a job over competitors.

Recruiters participating in the firm's most recent Executive Recruiter Index, a quarterly survey, were asked, "When comparing finalists for an executive position, what gives one candidate the biggest 'edge'?" The number one answer was cultural fit, with 42 percent of 198 respondents citing it as the deciding factor. Character/personality was second, at 32 percent. Work experience wasn't even close at only 17 percent. And what about educational background? A mere 1 percent said it is what matters most.

But it's not only recruiters who are noticing more interest in cultural assimilation. Those who train are also seeing more awareness of the various aspects of fit and integration, and the different ways culture affects employees and organisations.

Increased global awareness

Cathy Wellings, culture and communication manager for Communicaid, a company that provides language, culture, and communication training to the world's largest corporate and public organisations, says more organisations are looking at their own cultural make-up.

"People are working now with such a diverse range of contacts. One needs to be a lot more aware and a lot more able to adapt," Wellings says.

Globalisation is often the driver behind cultural training, and it goes beyond basic understanding. "Our clients are realising there is a real business case for cultural awareness training to avoid situations where business is lost or relationships are damaged," Wellings explains.

She says that organisations used to come to Communicaid on an ad-hoc basis. Now, at many organisations, every assignee or person with international responsibility gets training as a matter of course.

In addition, she says a lot of companies have open programmes where people can sign up on a regular basis. Such practices are common in all industries: at defense organisations, financial organisations, law firms, manufacturing firms, and others.

Attention to country-specific assimilation is often prevalent, particularly with regard to relocation. These days, training is most frequently focused on India and China.

Secrecy and silence can create difficulties.

Closer to home

However, as companies are looking toward resolving issues in distant lands, there may be significant issues closer to home.

Wellings says that Communicaid is currently working with a UK defense organisation that has merged with an organisation in Italy. A location in the United States is also being folded into the new entity. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the people in the UK are not just British; they're very much part of a local community.

In this instance, the local culture issues are as significant as the national and international concerns, Wellings says.

With attention often on cultural assimilation from a global or regional vantage point, the aspect of corporate culture sometimes gets overlooked. But corporate culture, particularly when companies merge, is often where training is required.

"People tend to come to us primarily for global training and then corporate culture comes into play," Wellings says.

Individuals and assimilation

Determining what factors will affect cultural assimilation, both from organisational and individual standpoints, isn't easy.

Wellings has seen individuals who have relocated and adjusted several times with no problem and then suddenly have difficulty. She says it may have something to do with assumptions.

For example, people often assume there will be no problem transitioning from the UK to the US or vice versa. Nevertheless, Wellings indicates there are frequently cultural issues related to such moves.

Similarly, she finds that some people have problems with virtual elements of intercultural contacts, citing how these are cultural assimilation issues as well. Wellings gives the example of a pharmaceutical company with project teams in Japan that isn't struggling with linguistic issues; instead, there's a cultural issue related to when a yes means a yes. Another problem is getting people to participate in virtual conference calls. Meanwhile, she cites how a company managing teams in India finds the perception of hierarchical differences to be an issue.

When assimilation is related to a merger between seemingly similar cultures it can be more problematic, partly because differences may be overlooked. Wellings refers to a chemical company that merged two geographic business units within Europe. Suddenly the people in the UK who were used to talking to their manager on a regular basis found themselves reporting to a manager in Denmark who was only available once each week.

Facilitating interaction

How does an organisation address the various components of cultural assimilation, an issue that has become increasingly important to success?

When dealing with cultural assimilation in a global context, awareness of the challenges is essential. Developing the appropriate skills is also critical. In best practice organisations, international workers are acknowledged as having an additional skill set, Wellings says.

Internal culture obstacles, on the other hand, can often be alleviated by communication. "Perhaps be more transparent about what the changes are," says Wellings, indicating that secrecy and silence tend to create difficulties.

She also advises managers to think about their individual styles, particularly if they're used to only managing people from their own culture. To illustrate her point, Wellings gives the example of how communication in the UK is implicit, with a lot of information in subtext; many other cultures, however, are accustomed to explicit communication.

In a competitive marketplace where globalisation, mergers and acquisitions, outsourcing, and virtual teams are all commonplace, culture plays a primary role. For those charged with human resource management, understanding cultural assimilation within each context is essential. Facilitating assimilation, it seems, can mean the difference between success and failure.

May 2006

Paula Santonocito is a freelance writer specialising in workforce management issues. She is the author of more than 500 articles on a wide range of topics.

© 2006 Thomson/West

This article is reprinted with permission from HRWire.

Subject: Intercultural skills development, HR and training

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