Business Without Borders

Cross-cultural differences can be an obstacle to efficient interactions among a company’s stakeholders, but consumer products company WD-40 Co. recognized this challenge as a growth opportunity in January 2011.

WD-40 didn’t have a communication problem between its domestic and Shanghai offices, despite the fact that the American and Chinese cultures are so different. Knowledge of these differences seemed to increase sensitivity and awareness of issues that could divide the teams. Instead, for many years, the company experienced challenges with communication between its U.S. headquarters and U.K. operations.

“While it’s tempting to think that based on the fact that we all speak English, we therefore understand each other, the adage ‘two countries divided by a common language’ has significant meaning in business interactions,” said Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40. “I could sense a constant push-pull and inefficiency in communication between the two offices that could not be explained by a lack of competence, motivation or work ethic. I could only guess that there was some sort of underlying cultural difference fueling the problem.”

The U.S. and U.K. offices learned that linguistic fluency and cultural fluency are not the same, and a lack of knowledge about cultural differences adversely impacted their ability to work together. Americans communicated in a direct style that their British counterparts perceived as abrupt and authoritarian, not collaborative. British staff communicated more indirectly, making their intent easy to overlook by American staff who generally took the input at face value rather than reading between the lines.

Ridge chose to implement the Business Model of Intercultural Analysis (BMIA), a proprietary tool developed by international consultancy firm Universal Consensus, to address the problem. The BMIA framework uses six comprehension lenses to analyze cross-cultural interaction in the business environment.

1. Cultural threads: Factors about each culture that drive how its people interact with each other and with other cultures.
2. Communication: Verbal and non-verbal factors that influence the business relationship.
3. Time orientation: The manner in which each culture approaches time, deadlines and work-life balance.
4. “Glocalization:” The extent to which domestic policies, procedures and ways of doing business are adapted to meet a foreign culture’s needs.
5. Process engineering: An analysis of global business in a cross-cultural context.
6. Group dynamics: The way the culture interacts in groups, including the power imbalance, its approach to risk and change, the formality of interaction, global leadership quality, team dynamics and how individualism and collectivism impact the business relationship, strategies and objectives.

The assessment began with interviews of key stakeholders. Ridge identified key people in the U.S. and U.K. — individuals he thought had their finger on the pulse of the organization and the interaction between the two offices. Consultants interviewed several dozen individuals in all business functions to assess:
• Level of collaboration across cultures.
• Understanding of WD-40 global messaging.
• Use of reasonable and contextual time boundaries and deadlines.
• Understanding of counterparts’ roles, responsibilities, business processes and IT systems.
• Input and collaboration in global policy development.
• Consideration of local norms in global policy implementation.
• Cross-cultural communication effectiveness and efficiency.

Once the barriers to communication and operational efficiency between the two offices were identified, a survey was administered to all employees in both places. This survey supported interview findings. The problem between the two offices was that the U.K. staff felt their American counterparts were dictating, rather than collaborating, on global policy, protocol and business process. Prior to the assessment, the U.S. staff could not identify or understand this perception; they could only perceive the push-back they received as lack of cooperation, rather than justified resistance.

Then consultants outlined cultural differences with which the teams were grappling. Identified areas for improvement included cross-cultural verbal and written communication skills, communicating tasks and reasonable and contextual boundaries, understanding the cultural divergence of business process, and localization of global organizational policy and procedure.

The last phase planned and executed a strategy for remediation. Ridge requested cross-cultural competence training for his American and British staff. The first day’s training revealed the challenges between the two offices in a cultural context. The BMIA framework helped staff members understand the differences that were creating misunderstandings. The second day focused on interactive exercises and brainstorming to improve communication and understanding, including an integrative plan to promote collaboration, rather than competition.

In facilitated follow-up sessions, differences in business process and communication were addressed to find ways to help employees understand their differences so information requests, deadline setting and other business issues would be better received across cultures.

“Communication that was previously perceived negatively is now received in a positive light,” Ridge said. “Staff in the U.K. understand the cultural context [and style] of the communication, and staff in the U.S. [have] learned to modify their communication style as well as the way global policy and procedure is localized. Ultimately, that meets WD-40’s objective of working effectively as a tribe.”

In addition to improving the communication between all concerned, the assessment provided a more profound understanding of the roles and responsibilities of WD-40’s counterparts in each respective office.

“It’s important to understand our strengths and weaknesses, and equally important to have the tools to turn our challenges into growth opportunities,” Ridge said. “We learned, for example, that staff on both sides of the pond had a strong desire to improve cohesion and efficiency in their global operations and communication and how we could capitalize on that strength. We learned that both tribes were motivated to optimize their interactions, and we learned that there was great respect for upper-management in both offices.”

When it comes to improving cross-cultural competence, benefits can be qualitative, rather than quantitative, and bring an increase in operational efficiency.

“We only have so many hours in our day, so many brain cells to expend and so much room in our budget,” Ridge said. “The return on investment is that our people understand each other better, are more efficient in their interactions and more productive, with less time wasted on misunderstandings or faulty communication.”

Denise Pirrotti Hummel is CEO and founder of Universal Consensus. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com