Saturday, 23 August 2008

Prague and preparation.

Last week I spent some time in Prague for the first time. Before I travel somewhere new, it's usually my habit to invest some time and energy in preparing to understand the place I'm going to and the people there. To get a sense of the language forms and a feel for the culture.

However, the week running up to the trip was just so busy (and the main purpose of the trip was to deal with a very international set of people) that I did not undertake my usual level of local preparation.

If this was a marketing pitch, I should have a list of the disasters that thus ensued. However, in fact, everything passed off very smoothly overall. Everyone was very friendly and the setting, whilst subtly different, was similar enough to other parts of Central Europe to enable me to extrapolate from other visits to the region.

All the same, I definitely noticed a difference in the levels of stress (higher) and confidence (lower) that various parts of the trip presented me with. Cultural preparation is as much about arriving at the critical moment in the right frame of mind as anything. It is not just about avoiding disaster, but creating a platform for success. Most people have the ability to perform under stressful circumstances, but orientation can help both remove distractions (by providing a framework for understanding differences in behaviour and situations) and allowing you to spot opportunities (through understanding the ritual element of what is going on.)

I'm resolved to make the time for more of my own preparation in future. Next stop: India. Bangalore and Mumbai in the first week of September. My family roots are in West Bengal, so it's clear that there are plenty of differences to think about.


Sunday, 10 August 2008

Culture and new products

I recently came across this open letter from Osamu Higuchi to Google, about the arrival of "Streetview" into Japan. [Translation by Chris Salzberg.]

It's a great reminder that despite convergence between countries, there remain significant differences and if your new product hasn't been developed from an international mindset, it may not be as popular as you thought.

Japanese life is full of advanced technology and Osamu Higuchi is no ageing luddite:

Now, let me start by saying that I actually really like Google (everybody likes them, no?). While I was involved in the creation of the Japanese Infoseek, I always felt envious of Google, a company that presented, as their vision, a dream that we were never able to attain. This was the dream that “if all the information and knowledge scattered all over the world on the Web could be organized in an orderly way, so that anybody could access it whenever they needed to, then the world would undergo a major change”. This was a dream that Google managed to realize.

His basic objection to the "Streetview" system on Google Maps is:

The residential roads of Japan's urban areas are a part of people's living space, and it is impolite to photograph a stranger's other people's living spaces.

And he notes to back this up that:

In the United States, and particularly in the case of people living on the west coast, the boundary line between private space and public space, both in terms of actual ownership and in terms of the way people think, is in the boundary line between the public road and privately-held land.


For people living in urban areas in Japan, though, the situation is quite the opposite. The residential street in front of a house, the so-called “alleyway” (roji/路地), feels more like a part of one's own living space, like a part of the yard.

His request to Google:

Could you please remove the residential roads of Japan's urban areas from Street View?


Should Google do so? Am I contending that you cannot at all release a product that challenges the boundaries in a culture?

Clearly not. However, "Streetview" has been released in Japan, as in many parts of the world, silently. This is quite normal for Google products, which slip quietly out of the labs, with little fanfare. And if it is not a success, or has to be modified after attracting a lot of bad publicity, Google are rich enough not to care.

However, if your reserves and cashflow aren't Google sized, it's worth remembering that just because your new product is accepted in your home market, does not mean it will be so everywhere.

What can you do?

1) Consider carefully how the product might not fit with the culture of the people who will be buying it, before you try to sell it to them.

2) Think carefully about possible modifications. Do not try to change the soul of the product, but if a small adjustment can make it more acceptable, you'll reap the rewards in acceptance.

3) If no change is possible without disturbing the core proposition of the product, ask yourself whether any resulting bad publicity will outweigh sales revenue through damage to your brand (possibly affecting sales of other products.)

4) If you are going ahead with no changes, then you should prepare a communications campaign alongside your product introduction, aimed at easing the cultural objections. Perhaps you can persuade people to view your product as an exception to the unspoken rules, or at least deflect the debate from your product to the cultural values that are in play.


Saturday, 2 August 2008

Sometimes translation is the problem?

When I describe my work to a new set of people I often have to spend some time encouraging them to think beyond language and translation as the problems in international business co-operation. The things that words don't say, about expectations, about different ways of approaching work and different assumption are often the real root of the problem.

However, recently I was introduced to an area where translation issues really are part of the problem. The setting is a small UK company that has been bought by a larger foreign organisation. Local management have mostly remained in place, although there are some ex-pats from the main organisation now present. [Details are obscured to protect confidentiality.]

Senior management from the larger corporation journey out from their home country twice a year or so to ask questions about performance and set new directions for the UK subsidiary.

Analysing a fundamental breakdown in performance it seems to be the case that communication between the foreign leaders and local managers is a particular part of the problem. Certainly, the foreign leaders show signs of misunderstanding the local business context and the local managers do not seem to grasp the strategic import of certain decisions.

As a  simplification, they are not managing to question each other properly and as a result, not obtaining important information from each other.

So why do I say, this time, language might be the problem? After all, we know that different cultures have different reactions to how various levels of the hierarchy should interact. Might that not be the root of this problem?

I won't deny that there were some of those issues in play. However, the key analysis point was that the situation had got noticeably worse with a change in translation services. So, for once translation is the problem!

This being a language I am certainly no expert in, I had to consult with others. They did an assessment and report back that the translator is of technically a very high standard and well suited to the nuances involved. The next step was "live" observation of the interaction between local managers, foreign leaders and the translator. At last, things start to become more clear. The culture of this particular foreign nation has a traditional tendency to place women in a subordinate position, putting less weight on their words, particularly when they disagree with someone of higher status. The previous translator had been male and the new one was female. The technical quality of translation had not changed, but the reception by the audience definitely had. So translation was the problem, but the problem had cultural roots.