A data-driven approach to bridging invisible cultural divides

Early in my career at IBM Sydney I was trained in the cultural considerations of working in a global team. A theory I still regularly use to this day are those underpinning the Hofstede Insights. Particularly being based in Europe, it is critical to be conscious of country comparisons. Understanding cultural gaps can help bring clarity to mysterious cross-cultural group dynamics that are otherwise extremely difficult to diagnose. This is most useful to me in a few situations:

  1. Inside a team, by running through a comparative analysis during a kickoff meeting. It helps set expectations and establish common working practices.
  2. When working with international clients. We can customise solutions and communications based on the expectations and needs.
  3. In marketing strategy (e.g. webinars, presentations, or blogs). Using geographical analytics of an audience can really increase the effectiveness of an investment.

The most time-effective way to use the Hofstede insights is to identify and address areas with a high risk of disconnect. It really works: using this approach I was able to build a positive working relationship with clients from the Benelux region. Although only a 2 hour train from London, there is a 59 point difference between UK & Belgium’s Uncertainty Tolerance (see diagram). With this knowledge, our team was able to design working practices to bridge this divide. For example, we lead with concrete communication, focused on detailed risk analysis, and were focused on reducing the unknown.

A Quick Way to Uncover Cultural Danger Zones

Based on some available 2010 Hofstede data I graphed indexes. For example, the chart below shows countries sorted by Power Distance Index (PDI) with the top and bottom 10% countries (high risk) highlighted. PDI is a powerful indicator of working practices as is defined as:

[T]he extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.

The best way to use this graph is to:

  1. List all primary countries involved in a situation. Countries include the organisational headquarters locations, place of execution. Also look at the team members of all of the parties involved: look at both where their origin as well as where they have built the majority of their experiences.
  2. Identify high impact items. Scan each index and look for high or low % indexes and note this down as primary concerns.
  3. Identify moderate impact items. Compare combinations of countries involved and scan the middle 80%. Note down any differences that are 20% or higher.
  4. Identify risks and opportunities. For each item, prioritise what could go wrong or areas where there may be an unmet need. I usually do a rough Probability (0-1) x Impact (0-1) analysis and then sort.
  5. Devise and prioritise actions. I usually keep this simple with and assign a Simplicity score of 1, 2 or 3. Calculate a final score based on (Risk/Opportunity score) x (Simplicity Score).
  6. Sense & Respond. Share the results as widely as appropriate and ensure the team can measure results or prioritise any actions based on any other risk or opportunity areas that come into play.