Why even local businesses must think global

Technology Eye | April. 06, 2016

We all run global businesses now. Even those organizations like mine that serve a specific and local geographic community are increasingly required to consider international sensibilities, cultural sensitivities and the other marks of doing business in a world made significantly smaller by everything from technology to immigration.

If you set up shop in New York City, for example, you soon realize that your potential clients speak more than 800 languages, follow a multitude of creeds, and have divergent concepts of what to expect from companies and service providers. As my own job as the CEO of a large healthcare system serving an extremely diverse population depends, in large part, on understanding how to think globally while doing business locally, I’d like to share a few tips for those facing the same challenge.

Sweat the small stuff

Even the most thoughtful among us take much for granted. When, for example, is the last time you’ve gone over your company’s paperwork, or taken the time to think about what is said when a receptionist greets a new customer? These things may seem trivial, but they hide enormous potential pitfalls. Forms that include language that makes innate cultural assumptions, waiting rooms that are designed to look and feel a certain way that may appeal to some cultures but repel others – all those need to be carefully considered and, if necessary, addressed.

Do your homework

No one expects you to master all languages and gain an intricate understanding of all cultures, but doing some homework always helps. If your business serves a particular community, take the time to learn about their habits and their beliefs. You’ll be surprised how much goodwill just a little bit of effort can generate.

Learn a foreign language

You might think most of your customers speak the local language, and that it is therefore unnecessary to put up signage or other forms of communication in any other language. But you’d be surprised just how much goodwill even a single phrase in another language can generate for customers who speak that language and who want to feel welcomed and respected. In New York City – home to as many as 800 languages – subway systems, hospitals and other businesses that serve a widely diverse clientele are already in the business of publishing official documents in a variety of languages; join them, and you, too, will benefit.

Be flexible

In the health system I oversee, doctors frequently face a family-related conundrum: patients from some cultures will refuse to hear intimate medical news if their family members are present, while patients from other cultures insist that their entire clan be there for a doctor’s appointment. How to accommodate both? The answer is flexibility. Rather than setting clear and stringent rules, it might be a good idea to identify particular areas of cultural concern and allow for some leeway.

Recognize your unconscious biases

If asked, most of us would probably reply that we’ve no biases whatsoever. And, looking at it from the perspective of our straightforward consciousness, we’d be right – we have no biases we’re aware of. But the reality is we all have unconscious biases resulting from our individual backgrounds, education, experiences and cultures. Even if we’re not aware of it, each of us has a specific lens through which we see the world, and that lens shapes our attitudes towards those who are different than us. Recognizing this unconscious bias is critical if we are to minimize the potential for discrimination or disparate treatment.

Make an institutional commitment

My final piece of advice is, perhaps, the most important one: if you want anything done seriously, hire a person to make sure it’s done well. Good intentions alone won’t suffice. To guarantee your organization grows attuned to the needs and concerns of a large and diverse audience of potential customers, you need to find, hire and train a person whose job it is to help the organization grow and change. Sometimes that person is already working for you and just needs to be empowered; sometimes they need to be hired from the outside. But without a designated officer in charge, no real change is likely.

To become a truly global company, then, don’t just think of expanding overseas or attracting foreign investment. Think of the people who’ve come from afar to settle right next door, and what you can do to break the natural barriers divergent upbringings, belief systems, and expectations naturally put in our way. Do that, and you’ll realize that global growth always begins at home.

SOURCE: World Economic Forum

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