What is Global Business Culture?
There is a common belief that throughout the world there is a common Global Business Culture. In one sense this is correct in that even in states ruled by a communist government, as in China, the business model is predominantly capitalist. However after allowing for this common denominator it is important to consider other important cultural factors that can vary from one part of the world to another. Even in countries that share a common language, such as the English-speaking world, there are important differences in the business culture. One other point to consider in any discussion of Global Business Culture is that there can be significant differences within a country or region.
Although this list is not exhaustive it is useful to show some areas:
Business Management Style
This often involves the question of management and leadership style. In the USA the person in authority is responsible and accountable for success or failure. With success come rewards, promotion and bonuses. Failure can mean a rapid exit. So a manager may consider advice from subordinates but the decision is his. In other cultures, such as Japan, management decisions made on consensus and often lengthy deliberation.
In Japan decisions are made by groups to form a consensus (source)
Alternatively in some countries such as Saudi Arabia there is traditionally a more ‘master servant’ relationship, the subordinate is not even supposed to interrupt or even take part but must do as they are told. Even in international companies that claim to have a global business culture these variations often exist.
Protocol of Business Meetings
Most meetings in the USA tend can structured and involve extensive debate. This can even be confrontational but is not considered personal. In England and Northern Europe meetings are more formally structured. However in many countries due to cultural differences there may seem to be an atmosphere of diplomacy and politeness which is interpreted as a sign of lack of clarity.
European Meetings are sometimes more formal than in America (source)
In many Asian countries it is not uncommon to have a series of meetings and then only later to receive a detailed note of what is not acceptable. This is because it is not considered polite to openly dispute with a guest, especially during first meetings. Another aspect of global business culture in the Middle East is that the time-keeping and lack of structure means you can spend a significant amount of time waiting around or even sitting in an office while a series of other people are present discussing other matters at the same time.
Decision Making Processes
In global business culture this can vary considerably. Some cultures believe in consensus, others are structured with clear lines of authority and in some cases it is authoritarian. In some organisations it may not even be possible to figure out who the key decision maker is let alone meet them. As an example many large businesses in the Middle East are family owned. However, often the person running the company, although a member of the family, is not actually the main decision maker, this ambiguity in the structure may not be apparent to an outsider.
The position of women in business
This is an area of global business culture that is an absolute minefield for the unprepared business traveller. There is always the assumption that the American or European way is the only way and that gender discrimination is not even on the agenda. However attitudes that would be absolutely illegal in the USA may actually be common and even legally enforced elsewhere. One extreme example is Saudi Arabia where in almost all areas gender segregation is absolute and compulsory. Mixing of the sexes in the workplace is only tolerated in medical facilities and to a limited extent in education. Otherwise women are limited to areas such as women’s banking. There are few opportunities for women to work and even if they do they need the formal consent of their husband or father. To further complicate matters women are not allowed to drive.
To confuse matters further some large Saudi and Gulf businesses are owned and actually managed by women as is mentioned in Women At Work In The Gulf. Some advance research can save a lot of potential confusion and embarrassment.
There are too many aspects of global business culture to cover at length in this article but the aim is to highlight that some background research on the country and company concerned can make all the difference between success and failure. Other general areas that can cause problems and misunderstandings include: entertaining etiquette and ‘gifts’, definitions of an acceptable business dress code, the concept of team working, as well as communications and public relations.
In some businesses casual can mean different things (source)
One last point relates to foreign languages. As mentioned in Arabic for Business even a little knowledge of a foreign language can be extremely helpful. However one world of warning, if you are considering producing any publicity or printed material in a foreign language please have it checked by someone who is fluent in the language and is also resident in that country. Several major international companies have failed to do this with embarrassing and expensive consequences.
With any discussion of global business culture it is important to have an open mind, not jump to conclusions and be ready to research as much information as possible. Globalisation of business does not mean that culture throughout the world has become homogenized, there are plenty of pitfalls for the unwary.