Stakeholder engagement – How to make it work!

The challenge to find out what’s really going on and what people really think

incense1.jpgEnabling stakeholder feedback and two-way information flows can be challenging. However, intercultural communication skills and appropriate process are vital when engaging in stakeholder consultations with culturally diverse groups.

People in different organisational and cultural contexts have vastly different ways of interacting and engaging, and if you want to get feedback and know what people really think, there are some key strategies to ensure greater success:

1. Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve

Don’t underestimate the power of thoroughly working through this with your team. Before embarking on stakeholder dialogue, ensure your team have a shared understanding of why  this is necessary and the process which will occur.  It can be immensely confusing to stakeholders and minimise trust if different reasons are mentioned by different representatives from the organiser.

2.  Engage with a representational group

Knowing who to engage with is critical. In many cultural contexts, the most accessible people may not be the most representational. They may be the most available, be the gender who are traditionally ‘spokespeople’ or the best English speakers.

Sometimes it’s better to use various engagement strategies for people at different levels. For example, a Country representative may meet for a formal lunch with senior Ministers or bureaucrats, while country staff meet with mid-level managers over a more formal casual lunch or small meetings.

3. Know how your intent might be perceived

In non-democratic political contexts, sharing information without permission can be risky.  What may be perceived as ‘sharing opinions’ in a Western context may be seen as criticism of the government in other cultures with potentially damaging personal consequences.

Don’t assume trust is a given or transparency and disclosure are easy.  In communist or socialist governments and in very hierarchical cultures, information is power and rarely shared openly. Instead it travels through trusted networks as a tradeable commodity and source of favour.

4.  Negotiate a process which meets everyone’s needs

When asking stakeholders what their needs are, sometimes it’s best to consult those with experience and knowledge of what works best.

For instance in most Asian cultures, putting people from different levels an organisation in a room and asking ‘what they think’ is highly ineffective. In many cases, the boss will speak on behalf of their team who will remain silent and share only positive information.

Often it’s more effective to have multiple smaller consultations rather than one large gathering. Wherever possible, ensure your stakeholders are in their comfort zone. Go to their world and where they feel comfortable.

5.  Ensure language is inclusive and relevant

Wherever possible, ensure stakeholders are speaking their first and most fluent language.  There are significant risks in conducting stakeholder engagement in English in non-English speaking countries.

Effectively engaging with local stakeholders can provide information to significantly influence project success and minimise the potential for violation of safeguards. Knowing in advance how your actions may be perceived, likely challenges and pitfalls and strategies to avoid them can minimise cost overruns, poor management choices and reduce risk.

The people ‘on the ground’ are the usually the most valuable resource in terms of insight and knowledge. Development of staff and employing specialist facilitators with the intercultural essentials of awareness, perspective, knowledge and capability, is critical.

Balancing the Global and the Local – the ‘What’ and the ‘How’

Balancing the need for consistency of process globally with the need to adapt to and respect local culture is a common challenge in global workplaces. However, this is not as simple as an either/or proposition. Sometimes there is the expectation that ‘When in Rome’ you should do as the Romans do.

mining safety-534517_ORIGINALWhen we are managing global workforces, the ‘what’ is often non-negotiable and universal. For example, in the mining industry, safety is a non-negotiable ‘what’ or practice. Yet, ‘how’ we achieve safety needs to be adjusted to fit into the local cultural context. In some cultures, there is a belief that nothing is ‘real’ or mandated until it is put in writing from management, and key safety processes need to be documented and distributed. In other more oral cultures, nothing is considered ‘real’ or significant unless it is heard from the mouth of a trusted friend or colleague. In such cultures, safety processes need to be discussed on a regular basis among teams.

What motivates is also a highly culturally specific thing. For example, avoidance of bringing shame onto ones’ own group will motivate appropriate behavior in some cultural contexts, whereas in other cultures such as that in Australia individual responsibility is emphasized. Particularly when it comes to performance incentives and motivation, cultural differences can have a huge impact on what works and what doesn’t. To try to introduce 360 degree feedback into a hierarchical culture can be disastrous and be a disincentive rather than engendering positive feedback.

So to ensure your global workforce is achieving, don’t forget – the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. And if you’re not sure ‘how’ and to adapt to local cultural norms, ensure you get specialist advice.

What’s wrong with the world? Can you see it in this clip?

Watch the clip and see if you can work out what’s wrong with the world…

Recently, while searching for video for our new website, this clip was the best we could find.  I thought I’d found what we’d needed in finally locating a globe that didn’t start and end on the USA or Europe, only to discover some fairly significant issues.  Did you notice them? Tasmania is missing, as is half of Indonesia, and some rather strange things have happened to the Malaysian peninsula.

compass_imageIt is all too easy to overlook the local, or to define the world in the eyes of the beholder with scant regard to the ‘detail’ on the ground.  What did you do when you looked at the map?  Typically we first locate our home.  Once we have oriented ourselves, only then do we scan the periphery and ‘other’ spaces.  If our home space isn’t accurately defined, recognised, acknowledged and respected we turn off, log off, or react with anger.  Our respect for those who have ignored or misrepresented us is greatly diminished.  We can feel ‘unseen’ and invisible in the eyes of the other.

When operating globally it is critical we recognise, engage with and respect the local.  This does not only require defining the ‘boundaries’ accurately and seeing what is local, but engaging with local perspectives, opinions and ensuring collaborative and two-way engagement.  Such engagement enables honest feedback and the challenging of (mis) perceptions and an essential education on what’s really going on at the local level.

As was discovered by the US forces in Afghanistan, and as is so often discovered by multinational companies attempting to sell standard products in local markets,  the local matters.  The capacity to ensure local participation, engagement, collaboration and partnership can make or break a mission, project or business.  Skills in intercultural collaboration, cross-cultural engagement and partnership are critical and must be front and centre of any effective global/local engagement.

Good reading and listening on diversity, globalisation and Asia

It’s so important that we are constantly challenging ourselves in this space that we work.  The BI team are voracious readers and listeners and we frequently share favourites.  The conversations that ensue are always vibrant and we often disagree, and that’s the more interesting part!  So here’s what we’ve been into lately:

Monocle Magazine

We find Monocle Magazine fun and ridiculous in equal measure.  We love the focus on international affairs, politics and travel.  The articles about the best interior design of private fleet aircraft are a little out of our league in terms of potential benefit.  That said, magazines are escapism, right?  So, onto the private jet and off to have a chat to Kim Jong-Un about his basketball fetish and lavish collection of Nike trainers…One edition and series of articles worth a look is the March 2012 special on Australia.

The Social Animal, David Brooks

This book was our BI Christmas gift.  A controversial one as some of us loved it, and some of us hated it.  I liked the book for the perspective it provides regarding how people from diverse backgrounds often have insights others don’t have access to, and how important it is that we can tap into their perspectives.  It also explores power and how easy it is to surround yourself with people ‘like me’ and how dangerous this insulation is in terms of understanding the complex and diverse realities of the societies we live in.  That said, the method the book uses to explore these themes has a few drawbacks.  Here’s where we get to the hatred part – Brooks uses two fictitious characters as the narrative thread throughout the book.  These characters in the book are titled ‘Julia’ and ‘Rob’.  Among our BI team members,  Emma, Tom, (and Tom’s wife for that matter) found Brook’s characters immensely irritating.  Emma said she preferred watching Brooks on TED.  I saw him on TED and preferred his book!  Ramona on the other hand loved the storytelling style, saying she enjoyed how Brooks’ focused on the impact of early lessons and experiences influencing the people we become was fascinating.  We’d love to know what you thought if you read it?!

The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar

Ramona gave me this book for Christmas and it is great.  I prefer Iyengar when she delves into the depths of intercultural perception and attitudes toward choice, but much of her market share in the ‘business space’ I am sure is due to the value of her insights on consumer behaviour.  Iyengar is the source of the famous jam study – you remember the one where they tested purchasing behaviour when people had the option to taste and buy more than 30 flavours or just six?  Her results were so powerful, we see groupings of six or less in most consumer contexts to enable us to get our heads around the cognitive challenges of choice leading to action.  Iyengar has a compelling personal story.  She is the child of Indian Sikh migrants to the USA, and blind – a lifestory which causes her to reflect deeply on the cultural attitudes of her family and the navigation of choice in life. Well worth reading.

The Lady and the Peacock: The life of Aung San Suu Kyi, by Peter Popham

I loved this book.  What’s not to love?  A gripping story of an amazing woman, a very current and topical issue, and a focus on something we are all looking to learn more about.  These types of biographies have the potential to be a bit dry with endless historical recitations, but Peter Popham manages to tell the story of the person and her journey and keeps us interested at every turn.  Myanmar is rapidly changing and the removal of sanctions and ‘opening’ is creating a gold rush mentality in the business space.  At the Australia Thailand Business Council we’ve now appointed a ‘Regional Collaboration: Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia’ Committee Chair to keep us focused on this and the implications.  Christa Avery presented on the changes last week at our strategic business dialogue.  Christa lived in Myanmar in the 1990’s during the last ‘opening’ – we hope this round will be more long lasting.


Radio/Podcasting – Start the Week on BBC

Emma Kettle recommended this programme and what a discovery.  Start the week is hosted by Andrew Marr and features an extraordinary diversity of guests.  The episode last week on the science of creativity with neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer; author Joanna Kavenna; musician and sound artist Scanner; and chemist Rachel O’Reilly was one of Emma’s favourites.  I really liked the episodes on National Identity and China.  The Australian culture’ episode with Thomas Kenneally, Deborah Cheetham and Kate Grenville was a highlight for me.  It’s always refreshing and suprising to learn about your own culture as perceived by others.

Watch  this space – Our Business Book

I attended a Sydney Writers Centre workshop last week on ‘How to write a business book’.  Hopefully a BI book will eventuate.  Valerie Khoo, the presenter was very honest and I am back to the drawing board!  Watch this space…

Parents Understanding Asia Literacy

Tom Parker and I are gearing up to deliver a series of 15 training workshops to networks of over 220 parents from around Australia in 2012 focusing on the why and how of Asia literacy.  The project will establish a network of parents who can work collaboratively with school leaders to build student demand for knowledge, skills and understanding of Asia and increase opportunities for them to be exposed to high quality and sustainable teaching programs.

Click here to listen to project leader Ian Dalton, and BI Consultant Tom Parker discuss the project on ABC Life Matters.

As parents of school age children, Tom and I, are deeply committed to Asia literacy in our schools, and concerned about the lack of momentum on this issue.  In Australia, Asia focused curriculum content and language competencies are both really important.  It’s vital our children understand the geographic region they live in; are well rounded individuals who thrive in the diverse cultures of Australia; and have the requisite skills and knowledge to be global citizens.

Parents play an important role in the subject choices of their children, and have the capacity to influence important choices in their local communities and schools regarding Asia literacy.  In recognition of the role of parents, this exciting new program is funded by the Department of Education and Workplace Relations to build parent understanding and advocacy for Asia literacy.  A consortium of providers consisting of Beasley Intercultural, the Asia Education Foundation,  the Australian Parents Council, The Australian Council of State School Organisations, the Family School & Community Partnerships Bureau,  and Erebus are working together to design and deliver the program.

To find out more or register your interest at the project website click here.

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd on China 2.0

An update – Rudd’s presentation was aimed at promoting his forthcoming trade delegation and mission to China.  Mr Rudd has since withdrawn from the mission from medical reasons, however it will be proceeding with Minister Emerson at the helm.  Here’s a video of Mr Rudd’s presentation given in Melbourne which goes alongside the slides posted below…

Last week I attended the briefing by Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Minister for Small Business Dr Craig Emerson.  The presentation was compelling in it’s case for engagement with China.  I asked Mr Rudd what he thought the challenges were for Australian businesses are in engaging with China and he said “re-imagining the future”.  Take a look at the presentation – I think you will get a sense of what he meant.

Tamerlaine

What does it take to be successful in Asia?

Watch Justin Breheny, CEO Asia of IAG Insurance discuss what it takes to be successful in Asia in this brief PwC interview Positioning – investing in the future by getting in now and taking a long term view is emphasised.   I agree – perserverance, patience and building relationships the key.  The process of dedicating time to doing due diligence and ensuring your model is locally customised and appropriate to the specific dynamics of the local context is so important too.  One size does not fit all.  Getting the right partner, and having realistic expectations matters.  The board needs to also understand this is a long-term play.  If you are after short term returns go elsewhere!

 

What we’re reading and listening to: podcasts and book reviews

The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, Richard McGregor

This book should be compulsory reading for anyone engaging in business or government relations with China.  The Communist Party matters, it has influence and it is not going away.  Contrary to the expectations of many, the rise of capitalism in China has not led to the demise of the  Party.  The book provides great insights into how the Party, due to its command and control structures was able to act far more decisively than Western powers during the GFC and drive the reforms necessary to ensure economic stability.  To listen to a podcast of Richard McGregor presenting at the Lowy Institute on his book, click here.

Michael Wesley, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute is currently completing a book on the rise of the Chinese multinational Huawei.  The story of Huawei is an interesting one to explore in conjunction with Macgregor’s book.  Huawei is ranked the fifth most innovative company in the world by Fast Company, now Ranks No.2 in global market share of radio access equipment, and is recognized by BusinessWeek as one of the world’ s most influential companies.  I visited Huawei when I was in Shanghai last year and was awed by the scale of its growth and the speed at which it was becoming the lead provider of wireless and telco network infrastructure in the world.  One to watch…

Global Citizens by Mark Gerzon

Mark Gerzon, the author of this book has significant practical intercultural experience: as a Mediator at the World Economic Forum; Distinguished Fellow at the East West Institute; leading the Global Partners team at the Rockefeller Foundation; and working with the UN Leadership Academy.  His book provides a simple summary of what he believes it takes to become a truly ‘Global Citizen’.    I  liked the book, particularly Gerzon’s four step process required to develop Global Citizens: 1. Witnessing: opening our eyes, 2. Learning: opening our minds, 3. Connecting: creating relationships and 4. Geo-partnering:  working together.  His justification of the need for Global skills is compelling, stating “Our so-called leaders, especially, often view global issues through the lens of their national education and make decisions today based on yesterday’s realities.  In an unstable, dynamic, globalising world, this can be disastrous”.

Gerzon does however neglect to address some of the realities of power imbalances, and their implications for the dynamics of change and relationships among minority and majority groups.  Acknowledging the nature of who has power, access to capital and the capacity to leverage influence, is an important element of the conversation surrounding globalisation.

Gerzon’s list of “20 Ways to raise our Global Intelligence” at the end of his book is a great summary of simple actions we can all commit to, both personally and within our organisations.

Talking to the Enemy: Faith, brotherhood and the (un)making of Terrorists by Scott Atran

This book, and Atran’s work is of great interest for anyone working in international negotiations, counter-terrorism, and multicultural policy.  Atran, an anthropologist by training has spent a significant amount of time in Palestine and Israel, and interviewing the families of the Bali bombers and 9/11 terrorists. His key point in this book is “People don’t kill and die for a cause.  They kill and die for each other” .  Atran explores the importance of ‘sacred values’ and attempts to define why terrorists commit their lives.  Atran challenges some of the focus of current counter-terrorism and provides a valuable historical perspective.  Interestingly, the ‘logic’ of the market place does not work in these spaces, and is counter-intuitive – the provision of financial incentives being a disincentive in contexts where sacred values are at risk.  Here’s a vodcast of Scott Atran presenting at the RSA in London on his book and ideas.


Shanghai podcast

It is great to be back in China again. Emily D’Ath at Beasley Intercultural is based in Shanghai and recently met with Geraldine Doogue and her team from ABC radio when they were here recording a special series on China. On the plane over, listening to the podcast was a good warm up to being back in China again – it focuses on the evolving nature of Shanghai and Chinese engagement with Australia. It is a good summary of some of the complexities of doing business in China, and of the particular nuances and challenges Australians need to be aware of. Seamus Cornelius, a Senior Partner at Allen Arthur Robinson who has worked in Shanghai since 1994 makes the point that understanding how ‘the system is different’ is a key element of success in China, and that if you can develop this understanding you hopefully won’t make it to the courts. You need to know how to develop and negotiate the ‘guanxi’ and relationships with government and key local stakeholders to minimize risk to operations.

Another interesting interview is with Dr Dan Sun, Vice-President of Honeywell Asia-Pacific. Dr Sun is an agricultural scientist by training, who was born in China, sent away for re-education during the Cultural Revolution, educated at Griffith University in Australia, and then become Australia’s Trade Commissioner in both Guangzhou and Shanghai before joining Honeywell in 2006.

Other elements of the program examine: art, individual expression and the challenges of propaganda and government censorship; patriotism, self-criticism; (mis) perceptions of China from Australia and the nature of the Australia/China relationship.

Worth a listen!

Australia’s future in Asia – understanding cross-cultural complexity

Participating in a diverse or global workplace is no longer a choice.  Australia is connected and culturally diverse now, and our economic future is in the Asian region.  Forty five percent of Australians were born overseas or at least one or their parents were.  The fastest growing languages in Australia are Mandarin, Arabic and Hindi.  Our children are growing up in an interconnected world where Asian economies are having increasing influence.

In my business, a large part of our role is educating our clients about the realities of Asia. When we were engaged by Austrade to research Australian perceptions of Asian markets, we found Asia was often seen ‘a traditional yet poverty stricken region which needs Australian ‘help’’, rather than a business destination.  It’s interesting to look at where these perceptions originate. Due to prolific tourism campaigns, Asian cultures are widely seen as ‘traditional’ with highly evolved local crafts and ‘cultural activities’ such as vegetable carving and local dancing.  Another key source of information about Asia is the news which features footage of frequent natural disasters and a risk of terrorism.  The perspectives of Australia one would receive through similar channels may feature the dangers of sharks, spiders, fires and floods, and oversimplified, or images of swagmen, convicts and aboriginal people throwing boomerangs.  Such imagery does not reflect the daily experience of life in Australia, nor in Asian cultures.  The images of Asia we less frequently see are those of people like you and me living their lives, travelling to work on the train (which in many Asian cities is a far more pleasant and reliable experience than in Sydney) and working in a globally connected environment with high speed internet (far higher speeds than we have in Australia). Asia is a key business destination, and many Asian economies are the fastest growing in the world.

Cultural literacy is not only about recognising the surface symbols and visual cues of cultural difference.  Such symbols can readily lead us astray, and we often hear cultural difference being minimised due to the appearance of sameness “Culture is becoming the same everywhere, people drink Starbucks and wear Levi’s”.  To understand cultural difference, one needs to explore: the difference of values, beliefs and world-views; their origins; and the implications for how people act and interact in the world.  For example, for an Australian engineer to be effective when working on an infrastructure project in China, technical skills are not enough.  Cultural literacy will often make the difference between a bridge being built or significant delays being encountered. To enable a bridge to be built, it’s important to be able to lead a cross-cultural team, to negotiate with senior bureaucrats, and to communicate clearly with key project team members.  Such skills are developed through an understanding of the world-view of counterparts, their cultural origins and ideally, local language capabilities.

Cross-cultural collaboration is increasingly complex.  We are being called upon to assist global teams collaborate in a virtual, online environment.  Last year we worked with the leadership team of a large multinational company which involved key team members from more than ten Asian cultures and one Australian office.  When the team came together, we worked with the team to discuss and agree upon shared process, common goals, and behavioural norms. Behavioural flexibility, an awareness of one’s own cultural preferences, and the ability to develop close working relationships with others are essential skills. The Australian team members committed to listen more than they speak, Japanese colleagues committed to share their opinions when asked, Thais committed to share constructive feedback. Cultural ‘awareness’ is not enough. If someone needs to be a good leader, we don’t invest in ‘leadership awareness’ training. Awareness is essential and the first step, skills development follows.  Extensive research shows, individuals who are most effective across cultures have highly developed people skills, empathy, self awareness and a tolerance for ambiguity.  Such skills make us better citizens and fully contributing members of society.  The ability to recognise the strength and validity of diverse perspectives, to negotiate difference and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes are essential skills for a rapidly changing world.  Deep learning about other cultures is a primary avenue of developing such skills.

The issues we face as Australians can not be solved by technical knowledge, or by ourselves.  Global challenges confront us:  the global economic crisis, global warming, and resource scarcity are just a few examples. Australia’s ability to thrive and prosper as a nation is dependent on our ability to collaborate with our neighbours to work toward solutions on shared issues.  Particularly in post-colonial settings, there is a resistance to outsiders ‘telling’ what should be done, or alternatively a passive acceptance of the aid revenue stream.  As has been so strongly proven through the ineffectiveness of so much international aid, technical ‘skills transfer’ and dollars alone do not effectively enable communities. Multilateral agencies such as APEC are rethinking their models of capacity building.  In 2008, we designed a framework for capacity building in APEC, commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which focuses on ‘Twinning’.  Twinning is a way of developing partnerships for capacity building.  The most effective capacity building, and development happens through incremental approaches which are tailored to the local context and involve partnerships for mutual benefit.  A good example of such partnerships in the education space is the Asia Education Foundation’s School BRIDGE project.  The project will involve 90 Australian and 90 Indonesian educators from 40 Australian and 40 Indonesian schools.  These educators will work together to develop intercultural understanding, improve professional capacity to support implementation of Internet-based collaborative learning and actively support language learning.

Education in Asian cultures is highly valued, and cross-cultural learning and language skills are recognised as the key to guarantee future employability and economic security.  Hundreds of thousands of Asian students are highly literate in the cultures, and languages of the west and also of their home countries and regions, and will be competing in a global workplace with our children. 543 000 international students were studying in Australia in 2008 (Gillard, cited in The Australian, Guy Healey, Feb 26, 2009).  There are over 300 000 Australian alumni in Malaysia, and over 95 000 Indian students currently studying in Australia.  These students become competent at traversing intercultural spaces, expect to have career paths which involve global mobility, and will be able to draw on their international networks to achieve results.

As mother of two children under four years old, I have a vested interest in contributing to the conversation about our future national curriculum.  I don’t envy the National Curriculum Board their task in such a rapidly changing context.  One thing we can be certain of in these times of change is that the world will be radically different by the time our children graduate.  The ability to navigate difference, to find common ground with people from diverse backgrounds, and to deepen our knowledge of our cultural starting point will stand us in good stead.  I truly hope the Australian education system provides my children with the opportunities to develop key Asia skills and language abilities.  I honestly believe these are the skills which they will need for the future.

By Tamerlaine Beasley
Managing Director of Beasley Intercultural