In the 2003 film “Lost in Translation,” Bill Murray plays the role of aging American actor Bob Harris who comes to Japan as the celebrity face of a whiskey ad campaign. In the studio, the Japanese photographer spends several minutes providing very animated direction to Harris, who finally turns to his translator to find out what the photographer is saying. The translator simply answers: “Smile.”
The disinterested character of Bob Harris still manages to do his job—i.e., smile with a tumbler of whisky in his hand—but being clueless is hardly an option for alliance managers. The success of partnerships that cross boundaries can be greatly impacted when cultural nuances are lost in translation, according to Andrew Masland, senior manager at NEC Corporation of America, and Judy Mirkin, director of alliances at Riverbed Technology. On the other hand, making the effort to understand partners’ cultures and build bridges from your culture to another can pay off.
“It takes effort to step out of your own culture to participate in an activity that’s out of your comfort zone, but it can be very beneficial for the alliance relationship,” Mirkin said. Masland and Mirkin Wednesday, July 23, in an ASAP Netcast Webinar, “Across the Great Divide: Managing Alliances for Success Given Cultural Differences.”
Cultural differences present commonplace challenges for alliance managers working across geographies, across their own and other companies, and across industries and sectors. It’s crucial for alliance managers to understand multiple dimensions of the partner’s culture—business values, time and schedules, food and beverage (including the role of alcohol), gifts, directness vs. subtlety in verbal and written communications—even appearing to fall asleep in a meeting. Business meals can be very important—and put you on shaky ground. Did you bring a gift? (In some Asian countries, that’s customary.) Are you imbibing alcohol? (It may play a crucial role.) What and how should you offer compliments? Are you scheduling meetings in the middle of someone’s night—or have scheduled a meeting when your partner’s entire country, it seems, is watching the World Cup soccer semifinals? Are you sufficiently awake and on your game for a Barcelona business dinner that won’t start until 10 p.m.—the customary evening meal time in Spain?
Communication is obviously a critical factor—but it’s not just a question of literal translation. Culture plays a huge role in the approach taken to conversations and how much or little nuance is communicated. In a negotiation, for instance, an American business executive might say, “Let me be direct with you,” but such a statement might not translate or could be offensive, Masland says. In some Asian cultures, the response to your directness could be something like “maybe I will consider your proposal”–which might be encouraging to you, until you learn that in that culture this response actually means “No.”
Even factors you might think of as purely business are not just business.
“The metrics and valuation of alliances can differ greatly across cultures,” Masland shared with the netcast audience, pointing out that “in a successful alliance, both parties don’t have to have the same goals—but ideally each can meet their own goals by working together.” Making that joint success happen requires careful attention to what matters to all parties. “Is this a cash culture, a sales company where things are run by quarterly results? Those things help you define the right metrics and goals. There can be tradeoffs—such as balancing quality, cost, and time-to-market. Some cultures will place more emphasis on quality, whereas others will be aware of and focused on time-to-market.”
Masland emphasized that relationships are central to making cross-cultural alliances work.
“It’s important to understand what is my common denominator?” so that you can maintain the relationship, even when it’s not in a building phase, “and choose good forms of regular communication and connection.” If you make that effort, she said, “You can use culture to your advantage. Yes they are different and [cultural differences] can get in the way, but if you pay attention and understand, people you are working with appreciate that.”
– By John W. DeWitt