During a merger between a German and a US firm, both sides underwent preparation for creating good working relationships with their colleagues from the other culture. As a way of cultivating contacts in his own division, a German department head invited his new US colleague and her family to an afternoon barbecue.
The idea was to promote cooperation in the project by strengthening social ties. The German host arranged his garden just so - he wanted his American guests to see that even a German is capable of putting on a decent barbecue and that there is little truth in the commonly held notion that Germans are stiff and awkward. So our German host chose to dress casually: a T-shirt and shorts, he thought, would be eminently suitable for a barbecue. The guests arrived - and confusion abounded. His American colleague and her husband appeared in suits and their children in their Sunday best.
What had happened? Clearly the laboured efforts on both sides to "get it right" had backfired.
It may be that the individuals involved in this clash of cultures can look back on it and smile. A situation like this may prompt general amusement and laughter in the context of a barbecue, but in other contexts it can have harmful consequences.
It is hard to find a company these days that is not part of an international network. In fact, hardly any company can afford not to be part of such a network. Customers, suppliers and production facilities are spread out across the globe. The exchange of information, goods and workers across country borders has reached an unprecedented level. In Germany, we hold phone conversations with our colleagues and partners in the UK, the US, India and China just as often as we do with those in Cologne, Stuttgart, Leipzig or Braunschweig.
The globalised labour market is transforming the way we work and is a key factor in determining which competencies and skills are important for the jobs we do. There is a need to bridge the ever-increasing geographical, social and cultural distance between locations and employees. Many projects have to be coordinated and managed across different time zones. The complex nature of international business increases the amount of time and effort required for coordination and communication.
The ratio of time spent coordinating and communicating with colleagues to the time invested in the actual work itself is shifting more and more towards the task of communication. Adequate communication geared towards specific objectives is absolutely crucial for making efficient use of new company architectures, the benefits of decentralised production and a presence in different markets.
Company employees are spending more and more time clarifying roles, tasks and responsibilities - often without having met with their full project team even once. Whereas roles used to be clearly defined within a solid and stable corporate structure, now the norm is loosely defined work roles in projects with changing responsibilities, targets and architectures.
These changes have also meant that we are increasingly stepping beyond the borders of our own countries, organisations and traditional departments: cross-border and cross-cultural contacts often turn out to be more awkward than we are used to within our own country, organisation or department. Misunderstandings and communication difficulties are the order of the day, and a lot of time needs to be spent agreeing on a joint plan of action with our colleagues and developing a shared picture of the tasks to be tackled.
At the same time, many companies are experiencing the benefits of having a corporate make-up that reflects the heterogeneity of its varied markets and activities. Diversity and interaction with foreign cultures can be a gain, an expansion of horizons. We are often amazed to realise that it is possible to see, judge and handle things completely differentl