ViewPoint: Cultural agility critical to business, understanding
As the global economy flattens, stretching to even greater lengths across foreign borders and cultures, American managers see an increasing need for workers to gain cultural agility — meaning the knowledge, skills and savvy to operate effectively in different countries and with people from different cultures.
In response, a growing number of companies are turning to international corporate volunteer programs which connect companies with nonprofits in the developing world for short-term, project-based stints.IBM launched its corporate service program in 2008;GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company, began its program in 2009. PepsiCo started its program in 2011.
Corporate volunteers provide nonprofits with technical expertise in areas from strategic planning to supply-chain logistics to IT. Along the way, the volunteers develop a nuanced understanding of local markets, a greater awareness of cultural differences, and an appreciation for how those differences can drive innovation.
Selected work environments overseas need to push individuals’ functional strengths and competencies so that they feel the limits of their expertise. A volunteer may be a marketing whiz in New York or a technical genius in San Francisco, but when he’s on the ground in Bangkok or East Bali, what can he do? What does she know? How will he execute? The environment must provide a powerful lesson in humility. People learn when they see, firsthand, that their professional skills, no matter how great, are inadequate without local know-how.
The experience also needs to offer peer-level interaction with locals. Ideally, participants should not be the highest-ranking employees on-site, nor should they be installed on a project with a group of other expatriates.
There is a myth that merely breathing the air of another country — for whatever length of time — fosters cultural agility. It doesn’t. When expatriates associate mainly with people just like them, they miss out on the deep cultural learning experience that comes from spending time with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. People develop cultural agility when they work side-by-side with peers from the host country, collaborating on projects, getting feedback on their ideas, forging partnerships, and learning how business is conducted there.
It’s well-known that stepping outside your comfort zone increases creativity and has long-term positive effects on an individual’s adaptability and resilience. These traits are essential for operating in new cultural contexts. Participants should feel free to explore and take risks without fear of failure.
When designed thoughtfully, international corporate volunteer programs are a triple win: Nonprofits gain capacity; employees’ engagement improves, and the companies’ productivity and profitability increase.
Paula Caligiuri is a professor of international business and strategy at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business and founder and director of the school’s Cultural Agility Leadership Lab.