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"Who controls the food supply controls the people; who controls the energy can control whole continents; who controls money can control the world" - Henry Kissinger

and yet...

"Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences" – Robert Louis Stevenson

Arrogance and the importance of 'culture'

In response to an FT article by Gillian Tett on 21st April 2017, entitled 'An anthropologist in the boardroom':

“A number of years ago, Coca-Cola, the mighty US beverage group, decided to sell bottled tea products in China. It set about marketing its fruit-flavoured, sugary teas, which were already popular in the US.

The venture was an unexpected flop. In desperation, the company then asked social scientists to conduct so-called “ethnographic” research (on-the-ground cultural analysis) into what had gone wrong. This produced a fascinating explanation: in America the word “tea” is associated with indulgence and pleasure, so adding fruit flavours makes cultural sense; in China, by contrast, “tea” has different associations and significance.

“Tea — like meditation — is a tool in Chinese culture for revealing the true self,” writes Christian Madsbjerg, a consultant with knowledge of the Coca-Cola project, in a new book, Sensemaking. “The experience should take away irritants and distractions like noise, pollution and stress.” So Coca-Cola removed the sugar and flavours from its Chinese products — to great success. As Madsbjerg explains: “It wasn’t until Coke incorporated this fundamentally different understanding of the ‘tea experience’ that their bottled products gained significant market share.”

On one level, this is just a trivial tale. On another, it is highly revealing. It is often tempting to think that the 21st-century world is so closely integrated and digitised that the issue of culture is becoming irrelevant. But behind the scenes, a growing number of companies appear to be quietly realising that the reverse is true: as the world becomes more globalised, there is actually more — not less — need to understand cultural difference” - Gillian Tett

Good stuff Ms Tett, and not trivial at all. In the late nineties I was asked to help a US/UK multi-national integrate a group of Eastern European companies that it had acquired, which were described to me as 'a bit of a problem'. I was duly invited to a meeting in Rumania, and when I got there I found, as warned, that it wasn’t going very well…there was much grinding of teeth and deep sighing from the ‘Anglos’ and a lot of bemused faces and shrugging of shoulders from the 'locals'.

Clearly two ‘languages’ were being spoken even though everyone was speaking English. In a nutshell, the new owners wanted everyone to 'change' overnight and couldn’t understand why new business approaches couldn’t just be plugged in like a new machine. They had very little understanding that ‘behaviour’ is not simply a mechanical process. For example, a Rumanian sales-person will have a very different approach to visiting a new buyer that he doesn’t know personally, since ‘family’ relationships, and knowing ‘where people fit in’ are very important in Transylvanian culture. If you don’t know the ‘rules’ you can cause offence and blow any chance of building a relationship. In the face of centuries of doing business a certain way, any new ‘negotiation technique’ is…well let’s just call it…’laughable’.

One evening over dinner, a wise old Rumanian gave me an analogy that was very helpful in ‘educating’ my fellow ‘Anglos’. I paraphrase:

“You know Mark, people who keep goats know very well that when you tether them to a tree, they will eat the grass in a big circle around the tree. After a while, if you remove the tether, they will still remain within the circle, forsaking the longer, and sometimes greener, grass from ‘outside’.

Of course, a ‘spread sheet wizard' might say, and one of them did, ‘but people are not goats’.  Fortunately the penny did start to drop with the CEO, who even began to get the deeper lesson...that if you are working with people who think metaphorically, it might even be an idea to start thinking metaphorically…

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