The Hidden Element The Role of Culture in a Globalizing World Dr. Robert Barrett Founder and Principal, de novo group inc.
Transcript of the 2014 RRU Calgary Alumni Winter Gala Keynote Talk ÂŠ 2014 de novo group inc.
About the Speaker Dr. Robert Barrett is an analyst, writer, and commentator on issues of security and foreign affairs, and is the recipient of eleven major academic awards for his contributions to the way we perceive and remedy conflict. Barrett has worked with several leading organizations, in a variety of industry sectors, to work through difficult communication, leadership, personnel, and cultural challenges. Barrett has presented in a wide variety of senior-level forums and is a regular commentator on national television and radio broadcasts. Dr. Barrett’s unique understanding of elite team performance is also backed by more than 10,000 hours as a commercial pilot and several years of competition on Canada’s national cross-country ski team.
DE NOVO GROUP INC CULTURE | CONFLICT | RISK | OPPORTUNITY www.dnginternational.com + 403 461 6499
Thank you for your kind introduction. It is truly a privilege and an honour to have been asked to speak here this evening at the Winter Gala. I have great memories of my time at Royal Roads – the beautiful seaside campus, the amazing people, and the all too often serenading peacocks, whose lovely harmonies act as nature’s alarm clock for morning classes. Above all, I enjoyed the spectrum of learning supported by a cohort – at least in my program – of mid-career professionals, who brought with them a wealth of practical experience to share. We had military officers who had fought and witnessed horrors in Bosnia and Afghanistan, we had community leaders, healthcare workers, CEOs and Presidents of companies, psychologists, native leaders, and of course, recent grads. Indeed, many of my classmates were already in significant leadership positions. Their pursuit of a graduate degree – like so many of us – was to build upon their life and work experiences – to provide a sound basis of theoretical understanding, and most importantly, critical thinking. I can say with some assuredness that even with the quality of their experiences, all were positively (and permanently) changed as a result of their Royal Roads studies. Certainly one of the greatest attributes of a university education is the ability to question ourselves, our assumptions, our beliefs, and to quite frankly, “think about the way we think”. Higher education has come under fire in recent years, even by superb periodicals like the Economist, questioning the value of graduate degrees with respect to immediate monetary benefit; that is, how fast one’s degree produces higher income. This argument is as naïve as it is frustrating. It is a gross failure not to appreciate that ultimately societal health and progress need to be built upon a foundation of knowledge. The absence of critical inquiry will, and is, threatening our ability to find creative solutions to complex problems. This is most pronounced when challenges arise that are not squarely within our areas of specialization. When we equip ourselves with narrow skills whose sole purpose is to propel our specialized vocational objectives and pad our pockets, we risk not seeing the powerful forces affecting our activities from outside our fields of view. One international relations
scholar said of the failure of general security studies to expand beyond military science: “it’s like losing your keys in the street and the only place you know to look is in the small beam of light cast by the streetlight. That’s your field but it quite simply ignores the many possible alternatives.” There is no likelier place to see this occur than in the world of conflict studies. Many of us in this room are experts in our fields, even thought leaders, patent holders, or acclaimed entrepreneurs, yet we are also humans, and as such, bring with us a host of complex variances in the way we think and act in the world around us. We are also more than individuals, we belong to groups of like-minded professionals, of families and extended families, of sports teams, or of spiritual communities. Much of who we are and the way we think is a product of our affiliations and of our past experiences. It is not surprising, therefore, that many points of friction can easily exist between groups of individuals and their interests. Moreover, and this underscores today’s theme, as products of our affiliations and our cultures, we tend to view solutions to problems and conflict through particular lenses often based on past experiences and the social and professional cultures into which we become indoctrinated. During the Cold War, military strategists and strategic studies scholars spent most of their energy discussing and calculating how to convince themselves and others not to turn the launch keys on thermonuclear weapons. Underneath such grand strategy were countless grassroots conflicts and genocides. In fact, many genocide scholars call the period from 1945 to the fall of the Soviet Empire as the “age of genocide”. During a time when nuclear experts were touting their achievements at what many called (and still call) the “long peace”, the real world was experiencing one of the worst periods of “direct” war-death in its history. At one point in the late 1990s 100% of all wars were taking place within states (that is, “intra-state” in nature) – again hailed, by many, as a success in an age dominated by nuclear debate.
In fact, of the over sixty major databases measuring conflict in the world, only a small handful (less than five) were ever designed to measure intrastate conflict – this despite the fact that it was by far the number one type of conflict in the world throughout the 1990s. In a world where security scholars felt they must specialize in nuclear deterrence theory to be taken seriously, to be published, to lecture, and to be employed by government agencies, the entire industry was completely missing all of the critical changes occurring outside the spotlight on the street. While the threat of nuclear weapons continues (with the debate over Iran’s nuclear ambitions as the headliner) the challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan have shifted the strategic picture to understanding grassroots combatants, insurgencies, and terrorism. As we now know all too well, “we” were ill prepared to handle these emerging dynamics. Scholars who spoke of other forms of insecurity (including grassroots threats) were simply yelling against the wind. This even happened to me when I was introducing my research concept on recruitment into deadly groups at a public forum at the University of Calgary. One of the university’s board members asked why in the world we needed to study armed groups when we were in the middle of a war with Afghanistan? I’ll let that sink in for a second. Likewise, when my de novo group co-founder was approached by intelligence agencies to discuss what the quickly unraveling dynamic in Iraq meant and how to navigate it, he said something to the effect of “where have you been all this time?” What had happened was that “military science” had surrounded itself with likeminded problem solvers who viewed challenges from a particular vantage point. This lay the trap – and there are debates on this in advanced international relations theory by the way – of educating for jobs. At the time, strategic studies programs simply did not have the vocabulary to even define the problem, let alone solve it. Senior military officers like US General Patraeus were literally writing the book on novel ways to
defeat insurgencies with questions such as “if bombing one insurgent results in several more rising up in his place, is this the most productive way to carry out a counterinsurgency?” There is nothing like real conflict (violent or otherwise) to effect change. In fact, there is an entire body of study on the “constructive” nature of conflict. Nevertheless, such change not only occurs in militarized disputes, it is also taking place in the civilian world in a host of industries. At de novo group we are seeing this occur in a wide spectrum of organizations and companies. In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, organizations are experiencing a broad array of unprecedented challenges that threaten their investments. These often grow out of an inability to see the big picture, as it were, and can end up causing disruptions in operations costing many millions of dollars. This phenomenon has lead to an important observation. Conflict not only occurs where there are divergent interests (as is often the classical definition) but also in cases where interests are matched but cultures differ. Let me say that again: Where interests match but cultures differ. Step one in understanding intercultural conflict – like the shift in thinking in the military establishment – is to understand that our professional background (as well developed as it is) may not provide the tools to properly navigate conflict based on cultural difference. When we surround ourselves with only like-minded team members, we risk losing the creative cognition needed to decipher clues in our global marketplace. I, along with my de novo group co-founder, spent an entire day with a large engineering firm that is poised to expand its operations around the world. We talked of culture and conflict and negotiation and the many critical elements that could affect the outcome of their efforts. Most of it was very new to them, not because they weren’t intelligent enough
to understand how such dynamics worked, on the contrary, they were a brilliant bunch, but because they had quite simply never been exposed to such ideas. Because of our cultural lenses, none of us are immune. I’ve experienced this myself. In 2005, I led field research in Africa that would forever change my understanding of culture and conflict. I was in Nigeria, in the volatile and war-torn Middle Belt region. Plateau State had experienced horrific levels of violence. Immediately prior to my visit, 53,000 people had lost their lives in only a 3-year span. We can say that so easily. Think of it. Canmore has a population of 12,000; Chestemere 15,000. This was 53,000. Bandits and death squads, in some cases comprised of young men and the neighbors of those killed, and many with no history of violence, were armed with guns and machetes. They entered villages – often at dawn – killing everyone they saw. As was reported by several news agencies, of the 53,000 killed, 17,000 were children. My study sought to investigate why non-uniformed combatants with little or no history of violence could join violent groups and carry out acts of torture, rape, and killing against civilian populations; in many case, killing neighbours. Essentially, I asked, what motivated them to join? As the results would ultimately show, the answers were not quite so clear-cut as many had believed. Again, what we are talking here about is non-uniformed combatants – those who are not part of a trained army. To get the data, I proposed speaking directly with those who had experienced first hand the journey from non-violence to violence, and back again. It was an uphill battle to get the support I needed (in Nigeria and in Calgary) to carry out such as project. It was a nightmarish proposal for the ethics folks at the university and a logistical quagmire in Nigeria. Finally, working through a trusted colleague in Nigeria (who was a University Dean) and after working back and forth with the ethics body at the university, the project was launched.
What happened next was astounding for all involved. Not only did we get face-to-face interviews with victims and perpetrators of the mass killing but also we began to get interviews with actual leaders of the death squads, and then actual recruiters. When your study is on recruitment and you are speaking directly to a recruiter you sweep aside the questionnaire and just let them talk. So, the study became the first of its kind. Never before in Nigeria had any study been able to get one-on-one interviews with actual leaders of mass killing – to understand why and how they started communal wars and how they purposely preyed on particular cultural dynamics to force participation. One interviewee, a mother, told us of the morning armed gunmen arrived at her home and killed her husband and children. The killers decided it more interesting to let her live in psychological torture than to kill her. Such methods were, and are, routinely employed in genocides. Grief stricken, the mother ran to the killers, grabbed the end of the barrel of one of their guns and pressed it against her forehead. She pleaded for her own death but they laughed and drove away. Unbelievably, this mother told our interviewers this story – the first time ever to anyone outside her community. I was deeply moved by the interview – realizing the true gravity of what had happened to these people. This story was accompanied by countless others – of which I will spare you the details. But here is an example of how my own cultural assumptions influenced the way I thought about the conflict. I assumed quite quickly that women were the most victimized in the conflict, which was true. Yet, I also assumed, because of this, that women in this conflict would be anti-war. It was only later, in the interviews, when one of the women spoke openly about the role of women that underlying factors became apparent to me. Several female interviewees admitted that women were the ones who eagerly and willingly spread coded messages of secret training and preparations for war, through the use of song in the outdoor markets. They also described how they promoted the
war by pushing their husbands to join the fight and to kill – becoming some of the war’s greatest advocates. How could this be possible when they were also clearly the most victimized? To help answer this question I spent a solid week working with Nigerian scholars to understand the testimonials – looking almost entirely at the cultural differences – not in “communication” per se – but in thinking. As it turned out, the risk of physical and psychological harm was not as severe an outcome as having one’s family name permanently dishonoured for failing to join the fight. Being ostracized from the community and losing one’s land was deemed a death sentence. As such, women helped organize so-called information meetings that were in fact recruiting drives, pushed their husbands to join (both publically and in the privacy of their homes), provided for the fighters with meals and through other activities such as witchcraft (that often required the harvesting of body parts), and cheered their husbands on in the streets and in the fields under clouds of bullets. Without understanding the deep social and cultural currents that inform the ranking of values and decision-making in the region, one could entirely miss massive determinants of the conflict’s gestation. It remains a critical reminder that our assumptions, however common sense or logical we think they are – may be entirely wrong. I’d like to underscore a critical theme here. We are not talking about “intercultural communication” in terms of how to hold someone’s business card, where to sit at the banquet table, or how deeply to bow. We are talking about how culture changes the way we think. It’s a difficult concept to wrap our head’s around. Reflexive thinking is not natural as we tend to select out observations that do not support our existing views – which,
among other problems, is one of the ways we perpetuate racial stereotypes – but that is another topic for another day. An example of how difficult it is for us to understand how culture influences our thinking was highlighted in the work I did with the Department of National Defence where I wrote and co-facilitated (with de novo group’s co-founder, Dr. Hrach Gregorian) a program on intercultural negotiation. Attendees were senior officers (Majors and LCols) already with approximately 15-20 years of operational experience. It was clear that the program was mandated in response to challenges encountered in Afghanistan. Indeed, one of the clear revelations amongst all concerned was that war – traditionally thought of as occurring on land, sea, and space could not be won without understanding the complexities of the “human terrain”. Let me say one thing about military officers, which was conveyed to me prior to delivering the curriculum (in front of an auditorium of senior commanders). “Just so you know, they have no time for ‘BS’.” That is quite true. It’s not surprising how quickly bullets and bombs persuade you to separate the wheat from the chaff, to find the most effective solutions to get things done. It came as no shock that the officers were looking for more effective ways to bridge cultural divides so they could open and sustain lines of communication with locals and be able to accomplish mission aims. The program had very lively and interactive negotiation breakout sessions. In fact, we had twelve breakout sessions running concurrently. The first year I facilitated the program I wrote a scenario that was based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which was drafted to end the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. Part of the Security Council Resolution was a promise that Hezbollah would completely disarm. So, I went about designing a negotiation scenario that would demonstrate the powerful role that culture plays in negotiation, as well as how negotiations can be
frustrated by what we call “contending narratives” – of the “facts”. The problem was how to build an interaction in which the participants could really experience cultural difference. Once people are aware that they are role-playing, the scenario is contaminated. This is a serious instructional error that most training professionals simply do not take into consideration. Above all else there needed to be realism to achieve the “aha” moment. It may sound bizarre, but there is nothing quite so influential for behavioural change than being mildly blindsided by your own error. So, I went about studying the narratives of various stakeholders in the real conflict as well as their cultural styles of negotiation. I then wrote a description of the problem (of disarmament) from the real perspectives of each of the key parties. The descriptions were, of course, very, very biased, as were the real perspectives of each group in the conflict. I then attached completely fictitious titles to each of the groups so as to disguise the actual groups and the actual conflict. It worked well. The groups of officers who took on the “fictitious” roles each read their briefing notes of the conflict prior to the negotiation and met with their team members to create a plan for the negotiation. I separated them out so that they could not hear each other – the real reason being that the briefings that they were reading were each uniquely biased, as were the genuine views of the disputants in the real conflict. Furthermore, strongly biased opinions of the other side were written into the briefing notes as well as instructions for what was actually up for negotiation. Twelve simultaneous negotiations took place. It was quite fascinating to see the two sides show up thinking they had read the same briefing notes. Adversarial positioning and clear frustration became apparent almost immediately. Those playing the role of ‘NATO negotiator” were given a mandate to make headway in the disarming process – any measurable headway at all would do. They were also under pressure to report tangible advances in talks to their superiors – to demonstrate their negotiation prowess. They focused almost exclusively on small incremental steps, anything that would demonstrate some advance in the disarming process. Those playing the role
of Hezbollah were told (using fictitious names and places) to focus on ensuring that the so-called “oppressors” ceased their activities in vulnerable societies. They spoke of grand moves, not incremental steps. They also paid little attention to timelines, saying the big picture items were a prerequisite to cooperation, no matter how long it took. This was diametrically opposed to the very linear and time-crunched mandate of the NATO negotiator. At the end of the scenario the real identities of the parties (and the real narratives) were revealed – to their great surprise I might add. Much discussion ensued, particularly from those who had found themselves negotiating (apparently) on the side of Hezbollah – a recognized terrorist organization. Moreover we had a lively discussion on the differences in negotiating style – not only the substantive issues that made up the contending narratives (although those were very important in their own right) but also the cultural differences that informed “how” negotiation was handled. While some of these attributes were scripted, most were not. The NATO negotiator viewed success as being able to make a step forward in the negotiation, no matter how small. He could then report back to his superiors that he had a successful meeting. The Hezbollah side adopted a less linear approach, using more so-called spiral logic, moving around the Security Council Resolution in order to focus on much grander ideals and ideology. In most cases the NATO negotiator acknowledged these concerns but insisted the problem would be best solved by demonstrating commitment through incremental steps. They could not reconcile the difference in how they viewed the real problem. There was also the issue of time. The NATO negotiator clearly saw his role as being timelimited. Results had to be produced according to the time he had allotted to carry out negotiations. The Hezbollah negotiator had no such constraints. Time was on his side. There were many other points of discussion as well – such as how direct or indirect was the negotiation as well as the role of relationships vs. credentials.
Importantly, these underpinnings were most evident in how the two sides tackled the problem, not how they communicated. Again, these are not issues of how to “meet and greet” in different cultures or how to avoid stepping on someone’s cultural toes. This is about getting things done while working across cultures and in multicultural teams. It’s about how to work through problems, find creative solutions, and carry out project management on a global scale. Like soldiers – because of life-and-death working environments – astronauts too have little tolerance for inefficiencies. In 2005, while presenting on operating room culture at the Aerospace Medicine Conference in Florida, I was approached by a group of scientists working on space programs for NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. I have to take a pause here and add that these folks were some of the smartest people I have ever met. It was not unusual to chat with individuals with more than one PhD in different disciplines. They spoke of the various challenges they faced putting people in space for long periods of time – specifically talking of the International Space Station and of future Mars Missions. They said they were getting pretty good at engineering reliable rockets, capsules, and life support systems, but the one thing they had not figured out yet was the issue of human fallibility. Using sophisticated methods of risk analysis, conflict and/or psychological breakdown was deemed in the top three threats that could lead to critical failure of a long-duration space mission. I believe the other two were mechanical malfunction and disease. Like the unforgiving environment of the battlefield, space offers little (some would say no) margin for error. As such, astronauts cut right to the chase. They asked me, “Considering a three-year Mars mission, what do you think of putting astronauts of different cultures in the same capsule? Different religions? What about gender? What about one woman among several men? Is that a problem? What about resolving conflict? What about odd or even numbered crews; for voting purposes?”
I was struck by the uniqueness of this scenario. A capsule containing a small crew of people would be sling-shot to Mars with no way to return for three years. It will be nearly a closed system with only delayed communication to Earth. Excluding serious advances in telemedicine, they will be on their own. What are the implications for conflicting relations? I set about exploring this question in more detail, did my research, and had several discussions with members of the Canadian Space Agency, including those who have flown and those who evaluate medical flight readiness. The anecdotal experiences by astronauts, psychologists, and psychiatrists whom had observed psychological stress and conflict in space demonstrated that the magnitude of crew conflict in short missions would have surely escalated over time. One astronaut said to me that even the most minor annoyances are significantly exaggerated in what NASA calls an ICE (an Isolated Confined Environment). He recalled how he became annoyed with the way a colleague chewed his food – something that would never have bothered him on earth was now actually affecting his relationship with a fellow astronaut. And what about deep-seated animosities or attractions? Such ideas were previously outside the realm of concern for one or two week missions. When I spoke with one of the head medical supervisors in charge of astronaut psychological readiness, he was quite defensive, arguing that the system would warn of any impending psychological or social challenges. Yet remember Lisa Nowak? She was the American astronaut arrested for attempted kidnapping and assault and battery. She had become entangled in an astronaut love triangle and had driven 900 miles to confront her fellow astronaut and rival, Colleen Shipman, in a parking lot at the Orlando, Florida airport. She wore a wig and a trench coat and carried a duffle bag that according to police reports contained assorted weapons. In original statements made to police she claimed to have worn diapers
(the same ones worn for orbital re-entry) during her drive to Orlando so that she would not have to make rest stops. After her 900-mile drive, she confronted her love adversary in the airport parkade and assaulted her with pepper spray. She was later arrested and charged with assault and attempted kidnapping. She was promptly dropped from the NASA roster. What’s interesting about this case is that Lisa Nowak had been deemed completely flight ready six months earlier, when she went into space. A future Mars mission would [have her in space (?)] three years. As I mentioned, once launched, a Mars capsule will slingshot around gravitational fields toward Mars – with no way of returning early. What if Lisa Nowak and Colleen Shipman (and potentially the popular male astronaut) had been onboard? This is why the National Space Biomedical Research Institute has ranked crew psychological and social breakdown as one of the top three critical threats to exploration-class missions. In its original form, the medical system was clearly not designed to assess for issues of deep potential conflict. Moreover, there were few good options for intervening in real crew conflict in space. I set out to design a strategy that could help train astronauts to self-diagnose their crew conflict and self-regulate it. It was based on simulation and red-teaming. The idea contained several elements but broadly speaking proposed a process by which astronauts would be challenged by conflict situations in the simulator – situations that they would have to debrief and keep journals of with respect to conflict mitigation strategies. The idea would be to force discord amongst the crew using cue cards that would simulate conflict behaviour or attitude. It would be up to the crew to recognize the condition and work through the problem. Debriefs using conflict mitigation strategies would be essential. This is similar to simulating crew sickness or incapacitation, which has been done in airline training simulators for some time – and also includes
performance debriefs. In these types of simulations, only one of the simulator participants knows the instructions – all others have to react accordingly. One of the challenges in building and selling these ideas is they often fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Astronauts were originally selected for their complementarities. Each brought unique qualities that helped create a more complete crew. Moreover, the need was recognized for some crewmembers who are more “techy” and others who are more “people-oriented”. This is different than selecting for “congruency”, which means building a team of like-minded individuals with similar skills. But according to astronaut experiences, the assumption of complementarities does not always hold true with prolonged space flight. Indeed, it may be the case that the strong role of culture – particularly with respect to the way non-technical challenges are discussed and handled by a crew – namely issues of relationships and of “people management” – may not have been fully appreciated in earlier selection processes because of the shorter mission lengths. So important are the people issues (or the conflict management issues) that many airlines now train their new captains to view the management of people and decisionmaking as a critical component of airline safety. This was not always the case. Traveling at 7 miles a minute compresses time and narrows options when faced with the complexity of human emotions that tend to underlie our interactions. Many airlines devote extensive classroom time to reviewing non-technical problems and decisions in which options are openly discussed in an atmosphere of non-judgment. But in the case of the astronauts the most significant challenge is long-duration interaction. Interestingly, this is not a unique problem – and I have a case that is closer to home to illustrate this. This past year, de novo group was commissioned to carry out a large research project for a major international organization based in Ottawa. The topic of the research was international project management. The organization is competing
internationally for large overseas contracts in places like China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. Project size is measured in the $billions. They approached us with an interesting observation. They noticed that initial international business encounters were mostly fruitful, and it was not overly difficult to garner support for setting up working partnerships in these countries. However, six or twelve months down the road things became a little puzzling. The offices were there, the nice signs were on the doors, but the projects were slow to gain traction. The momentum had been lost. We were asked to investigate. We conducted extensive interviews at the organization’s headquarters with most of the executive management, and then administered an online survey to several hundred frontline project leaders (many in our survey had different cultural backgrounds), and what we found was quite telling. The initial encounter between cultures was not the problem. It was not how to hold your business card, or how deeply to bow, or where to sit at the banquet table, that was the problem, despite these being conventional points of discussion for all too many intercultural communication workshops. What we found was that these were not problems at all. In a globalized world, there is much interest and familiarity with the idea of international partnerships. The lure of opportunity tends to override or nearly erase “initial” cultural differences. We can think of these as the types of differences one might see during a “meet and greet” phase or first contact. This means the majority of the business seminars out there on intercultural communication will not give you the knowledge or tools you ultimately need. Our research at de novo group demonstrates that these skills are becoming more and more redundant as we become increasingly networked. The globalized world is beyond first encounter. The new challenge is in working together – I mean, really working together on joint projects, sharing offices,
management styles, prioritizing, visioning, mixing work and home life, managing conflict, evaluating performance, setting goals, assessing how much or how little to risk to take at a time, how to manage budgeting, how hard to work, and much more. This is what we at de novo group have coined “cultural interoperability” and it speaks directly to the challenges faced by companies six months or a year into their joint international projects. It is, in fact, a form of culture shock. Of the many executives we interviewed, one summed up the problem particularly well. He is from Afghanistan, and is a former Mujahedeen commander (who worked with the United States against the Soviets). He moved to Canada and has risen to prominence as one of the world’s leaders in surgical training. He is a surgeon himself. He told us that when he first came to Canada, everything was new and exciting. “There is no shock,” he says, “other than being thrilled. You really don’t care about differences in the way people do things. It is only after some time when the initial excitement wears off that culture shock sets in – when you begin to notice that the deep fabric of society is quite different than you are used to. It is at this point that difference becomes pronounced.” His observation about alienation was that it was not something experienced at first encounter, but an evolving feeling that became manifest after one had settled in. This is precisely what we found to be happening in international business relations, particularly in global partnerships. The “honeymoon” phase is sweet but short. It is when the real work begins that “interoperability” challenges come to the fore. Few training courses deal with this phenomenon, and by the time realization dawns that there may be a problem, projects are up against the rock face of failure. Interestingly, the stalling or failure of projects often suffers misattribution. This is when the reasons for the project’s failure are misdiagnosed. It’s not unlike negotiations that have faltered due to cultural issues but where those involved attribute it to substantive differences.
From these and other experiences, we at de novo group have been able to arrive at several conclusions as to why culture remains such an elusive and hidden element for so many involved in intercultural settings. To achieve a functional level of “cultural interoperability” several requisite conditions must be met. Without an astute understanding of these, costly projects risk failure. From the Nigeria story, we learned that our own cultural lens is always firmly fixed in front of our eyes but utterly transparent to us – yet it continuously informs the way we interpret data and analyze the interactions of others. Removing this lens is extremely difficult and requires either much practice or outside help. In the social science sphere, this is a form of “reflexivity” in which we try to understand and separate ourselves from the elements of culture that inform the way we think. It’s not an easy task without adequate training or outside consultation. During my Nigerian research I spent a week working with a highly placed local expert to separate my bias from my analysis; this, to get my own mind into the minds of those Nigerians who joined the violence. If I had not done this, I would surely have come to many erroneous conclusions about the motives of the warring parties. So, we must begin with the age-old principle “know thyself”. How do we do this? I started this presentation with a reference to higher education, and the accusations by some that we are not producing graduates with skills that rapidly lead to higher incomes. If we “train” – and I use that word purposely – for only those jobs that pay well, we unwittingly narrow the creative community needed to think about the way we think. We build teams of like-minded and like-educated individuals, and when issues of culture affect our efforts we simply lack the tools to properly interpret the true nature of key problems. At de novo group we have seen this in several cases. We’ve worked with highly specialized professionals such as doctors and engineers in overcoming challenges associated with cultural interoperability.
It is wonderful when these professionals recognize they need assistance understanding something that is not within their area of specialization. In many instances, they do not. These are cases in which they simply “do not know what they do not know”. In many of these, large organizations may assume that they know how to navigate intercultural challenges because they believe that because they can close deals and resolve conflicts at home, so too can they can do it in intercultural environments. Two years ago I met with officials at the Canadian Embassy in Chile. As you may know, Canada has enormous investments in Chile, particularly in the extractive industry. Such engagement is not without its challenges. By and large, Canadian companies adhere very closely to legal protocols with respect to community stakeholder consultation. In some cases, this leads to problems. Discussions at the embassy revealed how these problems unfold. A mining company’s legal department fulfills all legal requirements for a mining project, and the CSR department (the corporate social responsibility department) formulates plans for community-based “give-backs” – yet the project still becomes embroiled in conflict. The education and experience needed to diagnose incipient conflict conditions – and especially potential conflict of an intercultural nature – simply does not exist in many in-house calculations. Where companies recognize this, they have a chance to mitigate project disruption. Surprisingly, many do not recognize it. We have had mining executives say that they do not need to buy “common sense”. We hear these kinds of comments and then we are puzzled by cases such as Goldcorp’s suspension of its multi-$billion project in Chile on a court order charge that it failed to adequately consult with an affected local community. Can you imagine the costs associated – all the suppliers, the lost revenues, and the stock tumble – from this failure? Very likely it was not chalked up to cultural disconnects, but it should be.
These companies are using the tools they have at their disposal, be they robust legal teams, risk offices, and CSR departments. They build these teams to handle these problems but are they appropriate? Sure, these companies exist in a world of law and order and they have countless legal obligations. Yet, they are also, unfortunately, bound by the somewhat anarchic and often inescapable world of human conflict. Like most conflicts that involve deep and often intractable issues tied to place, identity, values, simply ordering one side to stop protesting under court order, or pointing to a piece of paper and saying “we are not mandated to consult with you”, is a recipe for disaster. The requisite then, of adapting to new realities, needs to be recognized by those organizations that deal directly with affected communities in intercultural settings. Like the work we did with the military officers heading to Afghanistan, there was recognition that so-called “old ways” of war fighting (which had proven useful in a previous era) were not winning the war in Afghanistan. Far smarter methods of engagement and negotiation were needed to navigate the cultural complexities and needs of the affected society. Canada is poised to be a global energy superpower. There are some $650billion in natural resource projects planned for the next ten years. As I have been arguing – and as I wrote in an Op-Ed a couple of years ago – our greatest advantage is stability. We do not transport through the Strait of Hormuz, and we are a stable, peaceful democracy – a safe and reliable source of energy for years and years to come. Yet we are faced with a volley of protests. For the moment, I will discount the armchair protests from Hollywood Hills – and consider the much more real protests stemming from affected communities. A recent news piece stated that 2014 will be the year of litigation in Alberta with First Nations communities suing government and industry. In many cases, protests have been court ordered to stop while development
carries on. Again, we see a lack of creativity and the use of old tools for new problems. Surely we must understand that this is not sustainable, does not make business sense, and is not the way we are going to be the global energy superpower we ought to be. Just last week I had the opportunity to sit down with one of Canada’s most iconic First Nations representatives. We spoke in confidence so I won’t give out the identity of the individual, but what I can say is that the words collaboration and partnerships with industry were the favoured approaches. This should be great news for the oil and gas industry – and specifically pipelines. Yet, there seems to be far too many fumbled opportunities as well as environmental intercepts along the way. Some consulting firms are working with industry on building better PR campaigns that try to “rebrand” or “recast” the oil and gas industry. Is it a case of better whitewashing? Or green washing? Or, is the answer proper negotiation? How to escape protracted conflict? How identity and culture alter the way we think about problems? Does a court ordering a protest to stop so that a company can lay a narrow strip of pipeline mean you now have a safe and sustainable operation? Real “business” sustainability means freedom from operational disruption. Without this you may achieve a condition of temporary “negative” peace, loosely defined as freedom from actual violence, but you lack “positive” peace, which is a condition in which all parties actually get along without simmering tension. At de novo group we have been building programs that deal precisely with these challenges. Our team consists of individuals who helped in the development of the Human Terrain System model for Afghanistan (a program that paired cultural anthropologists with US Special Forces on the front lines of the war), individuals who worked to bring together war-torn communities in post Civil War Lebanon, individuals who have spent a lifetime studying and working on peace-building projects in the
most challenging conflicts from the Middle East to Africa, and individuals who have written and developed strategies for countering terror and insurgency. From these stacks of challenging files, many, many lessons can be drawn. The role of culture as a hidden element is a significant problem but one whose solutions are within grasp. Globalization means that we are far less challenged by first contact – issues of customs and gestures. In our globalized world we are far more connected and networked than we may know. The next challenge is one of interoperability. Cultural interoperability. You now know the phrase. Its up to you to discern what it means in your own context – for your own operation. Negotiating and managing conflict across cultures takes practice. Don’t let anyone tell you that it is merely “common sense”. I have one acquaintance who, this past year, opted out of building a program on intercultural project management. I received a call on Friday telling me that his China program was in jeopardy – and he now feels strongly that it was due to incongruent cultural management approaches. The final word then is plan and prepare for cultural encounters and projects as you would for any valuable effort. Do not discount the lens through which you see the world and do not be blindsided by the deep cultural nuances that very subtlety inform the way we all manage our business affairs. Know that no matter how amazing your team of specialists may be, cultural interoperability may be your Achilles heel. Try to define what project stability and sustainability means to you – and the potential threats posed by cultural missteps. One statistic that I read recently said that one-third of all global partnerships fail due to cultural issues. Amazingly, the failures are almost always attributed to something else, something more easily recognizable than cross cultural competency. I know you won’t make the same mistake.