The explosive economic growth of the BRIC countries has led to a growing number of Chinese companies doing business overseas, while multinationals at the same time have made inroads into the Chinese market. This has inevitably led to cultural conflict at times, forcing both sides to look for ways of improving communication.
With this in mind, Berlitz has developed tailor-made programmes in cross-cultural and global leadership. One company to commission such a programme was Volvo Cars, when it was acquired by China’s Geely.
“When we were first taken over by Geely, we arranged for large numbers of staff to have language training,” says Volvo Cars’ Helena Jindell.
“The courses were flexible, thorough and a big success, thanks largely to the way Berlitz structured the programmes and the flexibility they offered. We felt they were very customer-oriented and perfectly suited to our needs.”
However, it soon became apparent that there was a need and desire on all sides to extend this cooperation beyond language training.
“There was this feeling of needing to face reality – we were owned by a Chinese company now, we needed to have cultural training, because this is not Europe. Many asked for the rules of conduct, how to act to not be seen as impolite, etc. We’re not like them, they’re not like us,” says Jindell.
Crucially, she realised that such training would be necessary at all levels, not just on the management rung.
“At one time or another, whatever part of the company you work in, whether it is R&D,Purchasing, Marketing, Sales & Customer Service or HR, everyone will come into contact with our Chinese colleagues,” she says.
”The more we looked into it, the more we discovered a need for better understanding of each other. Co-operating internally on a cross border level requires more than just the ability to understand each other’s language and I found that more and more people, not just at management level, came to me asking for cultural training,” she adds.
Recognizing the benefits a specialized cross-culture programme would provide, Berlitz customized a course to suit the needs of the car corporation.
”Volvo Car employees had already been taking Mandarin lessons with us, but we also saw that they needed to know how to work in a more efficient way with their new owners. There are different needs for different departments, but there is a general need for Volvo employees to better understand and communicate with their Chinese co-workers, beyond just thinking about the language barrier,” says Maria Casás Arribas, Language Center Director at Berlitz International Sweden AB in Gothenburg.
Part of the customised programme for Volvo includes a series of seminars, led by Stéphane Roche, a lecturer well versed in the subject, having worked for toolmaker Bosch in China for six years.
”It was a really inspiring event, and clear immediately afterwards just how useful everyone who was there found it. The fact that the seminar was led by someone who had ”been there and done it” was key to its success and also that he had worked for Bosch, a company we all know and recognise. Stéphane talks about his feelings, his reactions and reflections, which brought it all closer to home,” says Jindell.
The seminars form part of Berlitz’s Cross-cultural and Global Leadership Courses, which include workshops, classes and training at individual and group levels.
In a bid to avoid the most familiar culture shocks, the programmes analyse six levels: individual, team, functional, organizational, identity groups and national.
Online learning resources are combined with workshop-based tutoring, while all Berlitz cross-cultural trainers hold an MBA/Master’s or equivalent degree, as well as many years’ international business experience in a multinational corporation environment.
In an area that is complicated to evaluate, Berlitz have developed the ”Cultural Orientations Indicator”. This index provides an in-depth look into the cultural orientations of each student and their work partners. For effective communication and coordination, solutions are offered to cultural conflicts among employees according to cultural differences at different levels.
”Sometimes, it is not the most obvious things that make the difference. It can be things like understanding how we set goals, and what we mean by them, for example,” says Jindell.
”It can be simply about attitudes. If we set an exact deadline we mean it! These are internal issues, but externally too, a greater awareness should lead to increased business opportunities”, says Jindell, who is convinced that this will benefit the entire company in both China and Sweden.
”Generally in Europe, we are proud of our clean, Scandinavian design, for example. But what about our customers in China? Do they think Scandinavian clean design is something they necessarily want to have? You need to understand both your customers and your colleagues in different countries.”
Now that over 1,400 employees have attended a seminar, the next stage for Berlitz and Volvo is to work out how to use this knowledge in practice. Jindell realises there is still a long way to go:
”I hope more companies realise the value of this type of education. Managing different languages, cultures and traditions under one umbrella is a huge challenge, but the more we understand them and they understand us, the better it is. You have to build relationships and you can’t do that if you can’t communicate.”
The next step during 2012 will be to offer courses in intercultural communication, both in China and Europe.