The plight of the global CIO

When working with people from different cultures, knowledge and understanding can make a big difference to your success or failure.

digital earth
Credit: Ilco (CC BY)

Welcome, bienvenue, добро пожаловать, 欢迎你来, fáilte, swagata, wilkommen, yôkoso, selamat datang, bienvenidos, härzliche wöikomme.

The chances are that you’d probably have to spend some time on the Internet looking up the words above to figure out the languages.  Yet, working in international settings, the language barrier is often the least of your worries. Bigger stumbling blocks can often come in the shape of subtle cultural differences that can derail the best laid plans.

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we do IT

Irish-Asian meeting Northern Ireland Executive

 Picture this: you have a large project underway that is affecting your company’s offices in different parts of the world. Mostly, things are going fine, but you've come across a major stumbling block. The director for the South-East Asia region is refusing to sign off on testing. There is a problem with the testing scenarios that have been designed by the integration partner, and that were agreed upon by everyone during the project’s preparation phase.

So you fly out to Seoul to meet the regional team. As your meeting with them progresses, you’re beginning to feel a bit frustrated because rules are rules, but the regional team doesn’t seem to see it that way when it comes to the testing scenarios.

The end of the day looms, still with no solution in sight. The regional director proposes that everybody go out to dinner, and you agree hoping to continue the discussion and save the day.

Things, however, do not go as you hope. While you take the time to compose your thoughts and restate your arguments, for some reason the regional team doesn’t seem to be interested in listening to you. They are much more interested in the food being served and are constantly ordering new items from the menu with frequent cries of “Yeogiyo!” leading inevitably to a new delicacy being placed in front of you.

shot glasses bl0ndeeo2

There’s another thing bothering you as well. Everyone is drinking abundantly. Beer glasses are constantly being refilled with something called soju, people are shouting “Gunbae!” and downing the drinks like there’s no tomorrow. You want to keep a clear head, so you’ve politely refused. And so the night continues, ending with no solution. What have you done wrong?

Well, the truth is that you did quite a lot wrong. To begin with you misunderstood the way in which they view contracts and agreements. Going in with the view that “what’s written is written” is not going to work in Korea. For them, an agreement is a starting point, a way to begin working and they expect it to evolve and be flexible over time, as working relationships change. So while you were trying to impress upon them that they’d agreed to the test scenarios, you couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to respect that agreement, they were equally baffled that you couldn’t just accept that they wished to make a change. Hung up on a cultural difference, neither side addressed the reasons behind the changes they wanted.

Your next misunderstanding concerns the motivation for dinner. It may appear obvious that having travelled half-way across the world to iron out the problem, the Korean team would want to push ahead with discussions over dinner. This, however, is not the reason behind the invitation. Koreans have a tradition called “hoesik,” where colleagues get together after a stressful day to eat and drink. It improves relationships. So, while you continued to discuss work, they wanted to discuss you, and themselves. Not doing so is considered bad manners, a refusal to bond and build rapport.

Probably the worst thing you did, though, was to refuse to drink with them. Refusing alcohol destroys the ambiance. You’re not giving them the opportunity to see you with your guard down, so that they can get to know you better and, later, work out a solution to the problem. Is it any surprise then, that the trip was fruitless?

Euh, that’s not what I meant

Cultural differences don’t have to be as complex as the Korean example to mess up plans. A very simple misunderstanding is in interpreting head nods in various places of the world.

Imagine being in Gujarat to agree on an outsourcing contract. You get back thinking you’d reached a verbal agreement, but you’re wrong. That bobble of the head was not the agreement that you thought it was.

May you live in interesting times

storm trooper twister JD Hancock

Cultural differences aren’t the only things that make the life of a global CIO interesting. Running a video conference at midnight (because it’s the only way to get your teams from Montreal and Kuala Lumpur to participate at the same time) is just par for the course.

Over the course of time with this blog I’m hoping to explore some of the challenges, opportunities, frustrations, and fun to be had as a global CIO. I’ll be interviewing CIOs and other senior IT people,

I will also be talking to people outside of IT to get their views on how the CIO can really help global organizations.

Do you have an interesting experience that you’d like to share? Some important lessons learned? If so, I’d love hear from you.

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