February 23, 2021

How can intercultural management be useful tomorrow?

Intercultural Management

Interculturality is not a thought of the permanent but of a possible always in movement. Is it possible to imagine the future of such a thought in the making?

How can intercultural management be useful tomorrow?

« Culture is what can be defined as the learned element of human behavior. »

says Philippe Pierre, sociologist, intercultural expert and teacher at Paris-Dauphine and Sciences Po. As humans are "learners", intercultural thinking is not static. Interculturality is established as a possible that is always in motion, but can we imagine it as a thought in the making? A group of intercultural experts has tried to do this. Together, they evoke the contours of what could be the "intercultural training" of tomorrow.

Interculturality: a growing need

Intercultural training has largely been maintained during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some companies even "going the extra mile". This subject remains essential and needs to be addressed. However, the audiences within companies are changing. Training courses that were once reserved for expatriates are becoming more and more democratic, as international and intercultural issues are becoming everyone's concern.

In the long term, Western cultures will inevitably become closer. However, they will keep their roots. The "submerged part" of the iceberg will be better hidden, but still present. The West of the XXIst century is no longer in a logic of assimilation but rather of recognition, even promotion of otherness. This means preserving it from a tendency towards homogenization. And thus to continue to learn to recognize it.

The emergence of new transversal cultures

Interculturality is less and less linked to a simple topography. Already, nearly half of all intercultural training is said to be "transversal". They do not concern any specific country, but more and more organizations. Companies are becoming increasingly aware of the decisive role of their own culture in the pursuit of their missions. New topics are emerging, depending on the current business climate: "how to work on organizational culture to become more innovative and creative", "how to develop a culture of agility", "which culture to face changes", etc.

In a changing world, the culture of change is a form of interculturality. Each company has its own cultural challenge. And training plays a major role in the adoption of this new culture or in the cultural changes to be implemented. The difference in perspective here is the ability of the organization to define its own culture and values, and to actively promote them internally. This is no longer a matter of simply recognizing an existing otherness, but rather of creating a new value system that is deemed to be better able to enable the organization to achieve its objectives.

Tomorrow's intercultural issues will therefore be more "transversal" than "country". We are less concerned with local cultural differences and more with agility, change and team management, with the understanding and recognition of associated values. New corporate cultures sometimes take on unexpected aspects. Goldman Sachs, an American investment bank, has created its own font. A company's own culture must be original, differentiating and serve the company's mission.

As another example, the new desire for flexible work arrangements in the wake of the pandemic is naturally disrupting the strategies for deploying these cultures. Business leaders need to reimagine their culture in a world where office-based rituals and ceremonies are unavailable. This starts with understanding that the old office-centric ways will no longer work. Second, it means working to establish more points of contact with remote employees, reimagining onboarding processes and fostering inclusive modes of communication. Companies that invest time and resources in these new processes will better adapt to a new hybrid environment. For example, Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce company, has moved some of its "cultural construction" activities online. In place of Aliday, a company party, Alibaba North America hosted a remote embroidery-making event. Employees came together to create "an embroidery for each office to commemorate this special moment," reinforcing their values of community and collective activity.

Diversity and inclusion, the new wealth of the company

This may seem paradoxical. How to promote a new, specific, original corporate culture and, at the same time, a diversity that respects the originality of each person? Many companies are already organizing training sessions on the culture of their organization. They talk about interculturality, but not only. More and more often, the topic of diversity is addressed. The organization no longer only works with countries with specific cultures. It also has to be attentive to everything else: religion, disability, LGBTQ+, intergenerational, etc., with each time the need to work on unconscious bias and to value inclusion in recruitment, daily feedback, annual reviews and promotions.

There is a lot of association between corporate culture and the issue of diversity and inclusion. This is understandable, because it is a sociological discourse that is gaining ground and is becoming more and more audible. It is an intercultural discourse, in the American sense of multiculturalism. In the same way that Americans consider interculturality to be natural given the diversity of their population, in France we could assert a more inclusive particularity that remains to be constructed. It is undoubtedly neither relevant to defend a French cultural imaginary "at all costs", nor desirable to "copy" an American approach.

The discourse around culture and roots is not necessarily outdated. It should be expanded to include diversity, disability, implicit bias, etc. The goal remains to help the manager with teams that are as diverse as teams can be today. New groups are being formed: how can I make my team "work" with all these different identities?

Extending the intercultural language

Intercultural communication means working on the validity of a message. This message must be understandable by all, whatever the nationality. The "global" extension of the message consists of learning a language that intercultural training courses strive to teach. This intercultural language is the most likely to promote both a common "corporate" culture and, at the same time, the development of the various identities that make up the organization. Fifteen years ago, interculturalists were already offering "Global Diversity" training. The phenomenon is therefore not new. But it is bound to spread, with corporate cultures playing a driving role, taking over from country cultures that are considered ethnocentric. The proliferation of "mission-driven" companies is strengthening their legitimacy on this issue.

Neuroscience and effective decision making

Artificial intelligence is now at the service of borderless communication. Machine translators match our voice, our tone, our inflections, etc. to invariably deliver our message in Japanese, German or Arabic. However, technology does not address "the tip of the iceberg". This remains the proper field of intercultural investigation, even if "Deep Learning" (or neural networks) will perhaps one day allow electronic neurons to access the creativity, sensitivity or unpredictability of a human brain. We can link cross-culturality to neuroscience and unconscious biases, as the brain rejects anything that is foreign to it. Neural selection is a natural phenomenon. If we understand how our brain works, we will be less manipulable and make better decisions. The term "unconscious bias" could then be replaced by "more efficient decision making".

Artificial intelligence technology platforms and tools have just gained five years of growth. Intercultural experts will continue to be torn between the specific and the universal, with differences to be preserved according to the context or the business. A happy medium is needed: the universal to reach "everyone", respecting specificities to better understand "everyone". For the sake of simplicity, some companies may risk homogenizing everything by favoring the universal. Philippe d'Iribarne's debate between universality and identity is therefore far from over, with the company becoming "the place for all the problems, all the questions, that mark the encounter between the modern project and the diversity of the world. It is a place of compromise between this project and this diversity."

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