At the heart of my account is a desire to show that insight and eventually more effective actions for cross cultural collaboration in a Joint Venture are to be found in different layers of cultural shaping that go beyond knowledge of typical intercultural differences. In this blog I will share how this plays out in the context of an assignment to improve German-Chinese collaboration in a Joint Venture Partnership.
The initial situation
My client was tasked with strengthening the collaboration between his organization and their Joint Venture Partner in China. Like most Joint Venture Partnerships, the stated long-term aim was to drive German technologies into the Chinese market. At the time, a Joint Venture Agreement had been in place between the organizations for several years.
During this period, some of the client’s employees enjoyed regular, even cordial relationships with their (Chinese) counterparts. The questions of “how much to share and how much to hold back” when working with Chinese partners, are typical for such collaborations between Joint Venture Partners.
My client’s organization was at a point in the partnership where the dust had begun to settle and frustrations surrounding the collaboration were emerging along clear fault lines. At the center stood the practical challenges involved in collaboration across cultures, time zones and languages. At Board level, initial optimism and patience for the time needed to set up the collaboration had turned into pressure to realize the advantages expected on both sides from the Partnership.
In this situation, my client had put forward a structural solution involving functional partnership “tandems”. These tandems channel and coordinate information and communication and create a formal space for the topics needed to put the Joint Venture Partnership into practice. I recommended a formal statement from the Joint Board for this new set-up to strengthen and guide its strategic purpose. This statement duly followed, emphasizing the strategic importance of the Joint Venture for the future of both companies. Each side also assured their willingness for “professional” and “trustful” collaboration.
With formal approval secured, we discussed how best to support the implementation of the tandems. We reasoned that, despite the organization’s previous experience of working with other cultures, raising awareness of the intercultural differences would be a helpful addition to the first task of identifying the functional topics relevant for the success of the Joint Venture.
With the news of my intention to include intercultural topics in a workshop, clients requested early workshops to prepare for their forthcoming visits to China. The need was real, but so was the constraint: we had a half-day for intercultural awareness and a half-day to identify the strategic topics for collaboration.
I personally had a longstanding reservation about the effectiveness of intercultural training based on the assumption that knowledge of difference alone makes a difference. I asked two colleagues – one a bilingual coach and facilitator and, the other an experienced facilitator of intercultural training within the region – to help me with the workshop’s design. The brief was to identify the most relevant topics and approaches for Chinese–German collaboration. As I had anticipated, my colleagues agreed that half a day was an ambitiously narrow window: we needed to balance time for exercises and information with time to share and reflect on actual personal experience.
Their suggestions included graphics made by Yang Liu, a Chinese born artist and visual designer who has lived in Germany since she was 14. These matched some of the classic Hofstede dimensions for intercultural difference and, during more than 20 years’ experience I have come to appreciate the value of visuals as a quick route to information and insight.
As workshops began, other issues began to emerge. The first four sessions gathered varying numbers of attendees: some thought they were experienced enough and only turned up for the afternoon, and others had commitments that prevented attendance in the afternoon. Out went the idea of exercises with parallel groups who share and compare their experience.
Instead I took a more flexible approach: armed with Liu’s pictures, videos and different exercises to explore and share experience, I decided to trust the “collective intelligence” of the group and to offer something of a “reality check” for many of my clients who may underestimate China’s continued global rise as both nation and economy.
There are two more articles on this topic: In part 2 you will learn how the workshop unfolded and part 3 will highlight our lessons learned as consultants, facilitators and coaches.
The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of James McCaul and Michelle Beck at commonthread.vision.
Link from Yang Liu:
Link to China's rise: