Wednesday 16 October 2019

Cross-cultural workforce gives firms an edge in global market

Dorota Anna Piaskowska-Lewandowska

IT'S a sunny Saturday afternoon. The Malahide Demesne playground is packed. I watched children climbing, swinging, negotiating and role-playing even though they may not speak the same language.

Born in Ireland, born abroad or to foreign parents, their playground experiences are some of their early cross-cultural encounters.

In a decade or two they will be populating our workplaces en masse. Are we ready to embrace what this freshly gained multiculturalism brings?

Recent Irish census data indicates there are 143pc more foreigners in Ireland now than in 2002: 12pc of the total population.

This puts Ireland on par with the UK and US, without adding Irish migrants returning home with the wealth of their international experience.

Irish businesses need to be able to deal with this diversity: the increasingly multinational workforce and customer base, the foreign business partners.

And Irish businesses have the opportunity to tap into this diversity in their search for cross-culturally competent personnel able to face the challenge.


Our recent research indicates that cross-culturally competent individuals can be critical contributors to firms' competitive advantage.

Managers exposed to more than one culture during their formative years (up to 23) are likely to be more confident when it comes to making difficult or risky decisions.

They may have an intuitive understanding, if not knowledge, of how cultural and institutional environments differ around the world.

They may be able to tell the difference between too risky a venture and a business opportunity others wouldn't be able to capitalise on.

Strikingly, in our study formative cross-cultural experiences appeared to matter more than international experiences acquired later in one's professional life.

One reason for this difference is that formative cross-cultural encounters may lead to biculturalism. Bicultural individuals build their identities by integrating different sets of cultural values.

They may develop an ability to bridge cultural divides. They can see and integrate multiple perspectives on different issues and may be particularly creative. An important skill to consider when looking for employees with such a profile is foreign language ability. Language is a mirror of culture. Beyond the obvious, a good level of foreign language ability reflects one's international orientation. Bilinguals in particular may have the valuable ability to bridge cultural divides.

Take the example of Arun Sarin, Vodafone's CEO between 2003 and 2008. An American born and brought up in India and married to an Indian whom he met while studying at Berkeley, Mr Sarin was the driving force behind the company's success in emerging markets.


Having first taken control of operators in Central Europe and Turkey's Telsim, Mr Sarin led Vodafone to acquire India's Hutchison Essar.

This seemingly bold strategy enabled the company to bridge mature and emerging markets. In hindsight, having Mr Sarin at the helm was the right choice for Vodafone at the time.

Even if your business ambitions are modest, it is worthwhile considering the desired level of cross-cultural ability, creativity and confidence when assembling your work and management teams. However, with ability and confidence may come underestimation of challenges and excessive risk-taking.

Biculturals may also struggle to enact conflicting cultural values which influenced their identities. Building a company's 'global mindset', or simply composing multinational teams that work, is a matter of not only finding and growing the right talent, but also achieving the right balance.

Aristotle said that "educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all".

Cross-cultural ability does not only take language proficiency and knowledge of foreign cultures.

It takes emotional intelligence and an intuitive ability to interpret a foreigner's behaviour the way it would be interpreted by their compatriots.

We can develop such ability from childhood, through cross-cultural interactions at home, in school, and even on a playground.

Dr Dorota Anna Piaskowska-Lewandowska, is a lecturer in management at UCD Michael Smurfit School of Business.

Irish Independent

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