Working abroad-What have I learned about business in other countries?

I am about to hop onto a plane and head back to the USA this weekend.  This trip to England,   the second in 5 weeks, has gotten me thinking more than ever about the value of working abroad, both from an employment perspective as well as from a consulting viewpoint.  I was fortunate to work with a Japanese-American  firm earlier in my career and that experience has only continued to whet my appetite to learn more about business and business in other countries.  There are just so many things to say and discuss that I will divide this over a series of posts and also hope to have input from some you reading this about your agreement or disagreement with what I  have to share.

My most recent experience in England has given me these new thoughts I would like to share:

  • Americans doing business in England and other English-speaking countries make assumptions they should not about how business is done
  • Every company is affected by commerce outside their borders-there are no exceptions I can think of
  • Employees and/or consultants with experience outside of their home-country bring added value that cannot be “taught” inside a classroom

Let’s dive into each of these and see what we come up with.

I have heard many times that America and the United Kingdom, especially England, are two countries divided by a common language.  While there is some validity to that statement,   the word usage and nuances in the language between these countries is greater than you might think upon first glance and whilst I don’t want to seem like an alarmist (I just had to use a whilst Smile) this language commonality also causes many companies to make other non-language assumptions they should not.  America and England are similar, but they are very, very different.  The same goes for the US and Canada.  Americans may think that they can easily move their business to either of these English-speaking countries with minimal change in procedure, but to do so would be a grave error.  I have found that employees I work with who have work-time experience in these multi-national companies are much more effective if they have spent substantial time on “both sides” of the fence, meaning that Americans need to spend substantial time in England and vice versa.  This may seem like a hardship, and it can be for some, but this immersion time will only benefit the individual and the company in the long run.

I am sure that many of you believe that your company is not affected by international commerce.  I would beg to differ and in fact, I believe we are All affected by business outside our borders regardless of what we do or where we do it.  You may not be aware of it at first glance, but our economy is a world economy and no amount of protectionism will prevent the progressive creep of international influence.  I am not against controls on immigration, but I also believe we should open our borders wider to many types of individuals who can add value to our economy, especially engineers and scientists.  The effects of international business are as basic as the gasoline you put into your car and as subtle as the customer service contact you may have when you call a company.  The next person you talk to can be across the street, across the state or across the world; you just will never know in most cases.

Workers with cross-cultural and out-of-home-country experience bring a great deal of knowledge and wisdom to the workplace.  Most of us may have never had the chance to work outside the country, but I am a huge proponent of this practice and I am afraid it is losing ground due to technology versus gaining ground.  This is a shame and it should be examined.  The assumptions we each make about work are shaded by our own personal experience and they can aid us or even hinder us when situations arise.  Let me share one example.  In the western world we typically have a work week ranging from Monday to Friday.  In the Middle East the work week starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday.  I learned this first-hand when I worked with clients in Kuwait a few years ago.  It seemed unusual for me, but it was the standard fare for those I worked with.  It made me wonder what other assumptions I make daily based on my own personal experience.

Take the time to learn something about     how business is done outside of your own world.  No matter how small the effort I am sure you will find that you will grow in knowledge and wisdom by doing this.  The world continues to get smaller and as this occurs you should remember that you next “neighbor” might do things a little different than you do.  It may pay handsome rewards if you know what to expect and how to react when you meet this new neighbor.

What cultural business knowledge have you gained?  What painful or embarrassing experience has helped to influence your further study of other business cultures?

Let me hear your thoughts.