Exploring cross-cultural aspects of collaborative innovation

Much has been written about how to inspire a culture of innovation within enterprises. But in an age of globalization, the term “corporate culture” carries a much more complex meaning, given the geographic and cultural diversity of collaborators.

The terms begs a few questions: How can you build a culture of innovation across countries? Are there specific places that have a culture more conducive to leveraging and accelerating the innovation process, and is collaborative innovation, for lack of a better word, “foreign” in some countries and cultures?

Failure to prepare for these cross-cultural factors can result, at best, in a glacial pace of innovation and, at worst, in the complete implosion of the process.

In my academic and consulting work, I encourage the development of a “global chassis with a local body.” This is especially pertinent when applied to global branding strategies, whether for a consumer product or a global IT organization within an enterprise.

The strategy calls for developing an overarching brand or innovation baseline that runs throughout the global organization and its customer base. For example, anyone who has watched McDonalds’ advertisements knows the theme of family is embedded into broadcast spots around the world, regardless of the local culture. Family is the foundation of the company’s global chassis.

On the other hand, the advertisements add a “local body” in the form of visual styles and variations in menu items (i.e., in India, the meal is vegetarian).

So how can a VP for technology innovation identify the universals (global chassis) and the collaborative aspects that need to consider local cultures. It will come as no surprise that it can’t come entirely from the center.

I can hear you saying, “It’s hard enough being a CIO as it is, but now I have to add cultural anthropology to my credentials?” Indeed, having a deep understanding of the cross-cultural aspects of digital disruption is perhaps the hottest double-deep skill since SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud).

If collaborative technology leaders can identify embedded cross-cultural assets in international operations, they can leverage them as navigators or cultural translators in the global collaboration process. In doing so, leaders must take great pains to assure that “like-minded” cultural resources do not attempt to sanitize the unique strengths of the local innovation process and force the adoption of universals. The leaders’ role should be one of bridging the global chassis and local body.

So what steps can corporate and IT leadership put in place to optimize cross-border collaborative innovation?

  • First, study variations in “uncertainty avoidance” and “collectivism” across cultures, as found in the work of Geert Hofstede. Be careful not to paint cultures with too broad a brush, but do recognize the clear patterns that reflect how places approach risk taking and collective thinking.
  • Keep an eye out for places that accelerate collaborative innovation at the local level, without influence from HQ. Some of their techniques may actually be counterintuitive as they relate to cultural stereotypes for collaboration. You may be able to learn from and borrow from these successes.
  • Review the risk-reward structures that inspire collaborative innovation. If collaborators feel that their jobs might be at risk if they stretch the boundaries, there will be no disruptive innovation occurring.

There’s much more to discuss on this topic. Watch for more thoughts on building a global corporate culture focused on innovation tomorrow (Thursday, December 10).





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