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3 Steps in Aligning Culture Across the Globe

The skyline of shanghai at dusk.

​The sales department is in Shanghai; the manufacturing plant is in Mumbai; leadership is in London; and accounting is in Abu Dhabi—yet everyone works for the same company. Today, it's not uncommon for an organization to have offices all over the globe, spanning continents and languages.

For these multinational companies, aligning culture and strategy across these vast distances can bolster their success, but a misalignment can cause headaches such as lost sales, inefficiencies, internal conflict, employee confusion and loss of direction. Even simple tasks like making a conference call can get bogged down in troubles with time zones, language barriers, work culture and technology access—and workers will not want to work their way out of the mess if they don't understand the common goal the whole organization is working toward.

Considering the critical importance of alignment, how can multinational companies keep a consistent culture across countries and regions?

1. Start with Purpose

"Creating a 'one team' culture is an ongoing challenge," said Athalie Williams, chief people officer at BHP Group, a global mining and resources organization based in Australia. "We are aligned around a common set of goals and a clear organizational purpose. Trust and care are the two cultural themes we have chosen. At the core, if we are able to genuinely trust our teammates, wherever they are in the world, we will find new ways of doing our work and achieve far more than we can by each focusing solely on our own priorities."

John Fillingham, HR lead at The Transforming Autism Project in the United Kingdom, has more than 25 years of experience as a global talent and HR director. He believes the best approach is centered on principles. "There are two views: Align as best you can from a centralized point of view or common goals with local methods and strategies. The middle ground is to drive strategy and culture from central principles with local solutions and interpretations."

These principles and values will be different for each company. For example, a retail organization may focus on customer service to drive growth, while a technology company may put learning and innovation first.

2. Coordinate Actions with the Purpose

A company that puts customer service as a top goal needs leaders who value and understand customer service, training that encourages best practices in customer service, sales functions that ask for customer feedback, HR policies that reward excellent service and employees who put the focus on the customer. All systems must support the ultimate goal of superior customer service.

"Values are extremely important, and these are usually promoted and communicated from leadership," said Constantine Kiritsis, speaker, author, founder of StudySmart and international curriculum development expert, based in Greece, for PwC Academies in Europe and the Middle East. "Consistency in cultural areas is assisted though employing similar controls, IT systems, HR policies, communication and brand information.

"Technology is probably the most manageable area to align globally," Kiritsis said, basing his judgment on his 27 years of experience in global HR training. "It takes training, but software is generally the same. HR and marketing are more difficult because of different mindsets, requirements, languages and cultural norms."

BHP focuses on flexible solutions to solve common issues. "Time zones are a big burden, and while enabling flexible working options has helped with this, it's not the same as working side by side each day with your colleagues," Williams said. "We have to be deliberate about building virtual relationships and valuing the diversity that comes from being a large global business."

3. Allow for the Local Idiosyncrasies

"You can't avoid a local element," Kiritsis said. "However, in terms of operations, procedures, proposals and delivery of work, multinationals can be consistent 80 percent of the time, and 20 percent may be different to comply with local culture, laws or habits."

Understanding local markets and opportunities and matching methods to those traits can head off problems before they start. There are many cautionary tales of companies dropping a U.S. business model into a vastly different market, such as China, and ending up with a failure.

Fillingham encourages incorporating key stakeholders from different countries to help resolve issues. "Gaining consensus is the biggest obstacle. Using simple language is so important, and often, using symbolism and visuals can help break linguistic and cultural barriers."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Global Human Resources Discipline]

Begin Now

Global advisory company Willis Towers Watson suggests that leaders ask these questions as they examine their culture and global alignment:

  • Do leaders have a common understanding of the existing and future culture they want to achieve?
  • How well does the culture support achievement of the organization's strategic goals?
  • Do leaders agree on the organization's competitive advantage?
  • What changes are required to reshape the culture for performance in the future?
  • Are executives, managers and the HR function equipped to develop and execute new strategies and new aspects of culture?

Becoming a high-performance multinational organization requires leaders to shape a culture that aligns with business strategy. Starting from a common purpose, creating coordinated systems and being flexible with local customs can ensure the alignment process is much smoother.

Deborah Stadtler is managing editor for HR People + Strategy, SHRM's Executive Network.


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