Building Bridges Across the Cultural Divide
My recent move to Singapore, where multiple cultures live and work together, and a country in the process of transforming its national culture, makes me think about the power of building bridges across the cultural divide.
I started my career as an Information Technology (IT) pre-sales consultant, working between two groups with very different cultures. They were the business functions (with application requirements and budget) who needed to invest in new technology to meet their business objectives, and the IT department with the technology and expertise for implementing the solutions.
It makes perfect sense to think these two groups would be motivated to support and collaborate effectively to meet the business requirements. “You have the money; I have the toys, let’s play.” However, this could not have been further from the truth. To be quite honest, it felt like I was working in a war zone. Even after all these years of new information technology being introduced into organizations, these groups continue to have difficult relationships, often plagued with animosity, frustration, and misunderstanding.
This is a perfect example of a cultural divide and the impact when different organizational cultures collide. Why is this? There are many reasons that boil down to differences in the way people communicate and work. They have business processes that have been developed based on best practices, guiding principles, education, operating values, beliefs, and cultural norms that are not the same. The language and buzz words they use to communicate are different, along with their habits, traditions, strengths, attitudes, and emotions. These differences are the reason behaviors of each group are not understood and this lack of understanding causes a great deal of conflict. When your values are not understood, it feels like they are being ignored or stepped on, which creates conflict and deepens the challenge to work collaboratively and harmoniously.
Bottom line, groups and nationalities have distinct personalities that come out in how they think, communicate, and do things. This is how culture is defined and why cultural divides exist. Every organization, community group and nation suffers from some form of cultural divide unless steps are taken to invest in culture and consciously work together to develop greater awareness and appreciation for each other’s differences and diversity of strengths.
In Canada we have had a national policy of multi-culturalism for over 40 years, where distinct nationalities and cultures are respected and accepted. This policy has led to Canada being known for its values of accepting diversity and appreciating differences.
Living and working in Singapore, I have come to appreciate the challenges of integrating multiple cultures. There is a continual effort by the government to focus on values and find new solutions to support the many different cultures living and working together in harmony.
How do you create harmony and peace within organizations, communities and a nation? Through dialogue, seeking valuable feedback and sharing information, to see and hear things from other people’s perspective. It takes a wise person to value diversity and accept that differences might be strengths, experience or knowledge another person has which they do not.
All too often we keep our values buried beneath the surface. By making values explicit and having conversations based on values, we empower people. Everyone learns what respect, harmony, and trust look and feel like, and they share with you the impact when a value is broken or being lived.
Most if not all transformations entail an enormous amount of time, money, and personal commitment from the whole organization, community and nation to be successful. On average, the industry rate of successful IT project implementations is around 45%. This statistic has not changed in the past forty years. Why is successful implementation of strategic initiatives so hard to achieve? Studies show cultural change as the number one reason implementations fail because leaders underestimate the investment it takes to ensure staff members take different actions or demonstrate different behaviors. This is cultural transformation.
Much Love, Joanna