Elegance Can Be the Enemy of Efficiency

I’ve been auditing some of the advanced Scala courses offered by École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and as always am curious about my own solutions compared against what other people come up with.

One of the things I love about Scala is its elegance. Once you understand the language, you can achieve some really complex things quickly and easily — and, elegantly. So, a problem posed in the coursework is to write a function that, given a character in a game field, returns the first index of that character in the field.

After writing my own solution, I Googled a few other solutions. Here’s one:

def findChar(c: Char, levelVector: Vector[Vector[Char]]): Pos = {
   val ys = levelVector map (_ indexOf c)
   val x = ys indexWhere (_ >= 0)
   Pos(x, ys(x))
}

This is pretty elegant. In fact, I was first taken by how functional it looked — more functional than my own code. But there’s a problem. This elegant code is potentially very inefficient.

Let’s assume the game field is big. It consists of a Vector of Vectors, and the above code searches the entire game field. That is, even if the character matches the very first element in the field, all the rest of the elements will be scanned:

  1. ys maps over the entire Vector of Vector scanning for the index of c.
  2. x then scans the vector ys for a positive hit.
  3. Then the coordinate is returned from the points described by x and ys(x).

So the obvious problem here is our elegant, functional, good looking code could be terribly inefficient. Here’s my implementation:

def findChar(c: Char, levelVector: Vector[Vector[Char]]): Pos = { 
   @tailrec def iterate(x: Int): Pos = levelVector(x).indexOf(c) match { 
      case y if y > -1 => Pos(x, y) 
      case _ => iterate(x + 1) 
   } 
   iterate(0) 
}

Ok, it’s not as pretty, it’s longer, but — it’s still functional by design. More important, it will look for the character using a linear search, and stops when it finds the character. It’s efficient:

  1. We start in the first Vector, checking for the index of the character.
  2. As soon as we find it, the function returns. Otherwise, it recurses and moves to the next Vector.

It’s not as pretty but it preserves efficient design. Just because we can write pretty, elegant code doesn’t mean we always should.

Incidentally, you could also achieve nearly the same efficiency using something like this:

val row = levelVector.indexWhere(_.contains(c))
val col = levelVector(row).indexOf(c)

Personally, I prefer to avoid any potential inefficiency — but, over-optimizing can also be a problem. It’s probably best to find a happy balance. Don’t ignore efficiency, but don’t spend all your time optimizing situations that, quite likely, don’t really need the effort.

Don’t Use Basecamp

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. Managing a multinational team can be really challenging. You have to make sure that each team, around the globe, is coordinating their efforts. That means overcoming the communication problems between them, tracking task dependency from one team to the other, and staying on top of projects — so that one team doesn’t get held up waiting for another one. So, the real challenge is figuring out to stay on top of each team and how do you make sure that all of their activities are coordinated well.

Get The Right Toolbox

Part of the answer is making sure that you have the right tools for the job. A good project management tool is going to help coordinate team activities and tasks around the globe. With the wrong tools in place, project teams suffer. They don’t have good communication, they don’t understand what the other team is doing, and task dependencies — the handoff of activities from one team to the other team — is not coordinated well. You end up with project chaos.

And when you’ve got team members that are separated by 8 or 10 or more hours in a day, this can derail the entire project for more than a day at a time.

We have two “go-to” tools that we use all the time very successfully. And we also have one that is a project nemesis. The one that we don’t like is Basecamp. We tell our customers, “Never use Basecamp.” The thing with Basecamp is, it’s super easy to use. You can sign up and start using it, literally, in a few minutes. People who don’t like process love Basecamp, because there is no process. You just put your tasks in. It’s easy, it’s unstructured, you can attach documents, and it all goes into Basecamp — and it kind of vanishes into Basecamp. That’s the problem, Basecamp doesn’t drive the process. We need tools that drive the process.

Driving The Process

A great project management tool is going to remind people of what they need to be working on, it’s going to track the interdependencies between tasks, and it’s going to make sure that someone doesn’t get hung up waiting on somebody else. This is particularly important for multinational teams where communication is already an issue. We need tools that will fill that gap and work hard to coordinate these teams, because they are already distributed, they are already having a hard time coordinating.

For small companies we recommend Teamwork PM. Teamwork PM is a good step towards an enterprise grade project management tool but it doesn’t have a lot of overhead. Your team can be using it in no time at all. It does coordinate tasks really well between team members, and it tracks dependencies, and it notifies team members of what they need to be working on. Which is one of the key ingredients to success.

For mid-sized and large teams, we recommend Atlassian Jira. It’s an enterprise grade solution. It’s completely customizable workflow system means that you can build out really elaborate, powerful processes to support your team and to support your entire organization. Jira can be customized to go all the way from requirements management and development through to customer support and care.

There are lot of great tools out there, Teamwork PM and Jira are two of them. But the most important thing to remember when selecting your project management tool — make sure it drives the process, make sure that the Project Manager is going to be able to easily get the information they need out of the systems so that they can stay on top of the project — before problems start to crop up.

Be sure to check our website. On this blog post we’ve listed a number of other project management tools that we have used in the past in addition to Atlassian Jira and Teamwork PM.

Our Project Manager’s Toolbox

Here are a few of the project management platforms that we feel are worth taking a look at. We couldn’t recommend Atlassian JIRA (for mid- to large-size organizations) and Teamwork PM (for small-size organizations) more highly, but they clearly aren’t the only solutions on the block. We track close to fifty different project management tools — these are the ones that have risen to the top, in our opinion.

  1. Atlassian — JIRA, Confluence, ServiceDesk for a complete enterprise solution
  2. Genius Project — Traditional, full cycle portfolio and project management platform
  3. Herogami — Agile development with Kanban
  4. Jama Software — Full lifecycle project management
  5. Liquid Planner — Traditional team and project planning
  6. Rally Software — Agile project management platform
  7. Teamwork PM — Full featured, easy to deploy task and project management

The Global Opportunity

Global activity has broadly strengthened and is expected to improve further in 2014-15, according to the April 2014 World Economic Outlook (WEO). Much of the impetus for growth is coming from advanced economies. As the global economy returns to growth, it’s clear there are expanding international opportunities. Businesses are focusing on global economic strategies and new, emerging markets.

But outsourcing, forming a joint venture, or extending supply chains across the globe isn’t easy. Engaging with your partner is, in many respects, like hiring new staff located on the other side of the planet. How do you manage these new employees that aren’t in the office, don’t speak the same language, work a different shift, and will probably never meet your customer or understand the local market? More than likely, they are accustomed to doing business in a completely different way from what you find normal and acceptable.

Doing Business In The Global Economy

Understanding the strong cultural biases and preferences of our counterparts overseas is critical to success. I run into these differences all the time when working internationally. Here’s an example: In a survey conducted across Western and Eastern businesses, respondents were asked to choose whether they strongly agree or strongly disagree with the following statements. Consider your own answer to these questions:

  1. At work, we do business with the firm that has the best product, regardless of our relationship with them.
  2. To avoid a conflict of interest, I avoid doing business with someone solely because of a personal connection.

When presented to Western business people, responses tended toward agreement with these statements. More so, when presented to American business people, the score is almost always very strong agreement. It demonstrates the strong Western preference to be unbiased in the evaluation of products and services. In fact, in many Western companies, there are rules and regulations that specifically forbid preferential treatment because of personal relationships. These companies go out of their way to completely remove personal preference from any buying or hiring situation, making the process one that is as objective and fact-based as possible.

But when presented to Eastern business people, respondents registered strong disagreement with the statements. In India, the Middle East and China, the response is almost uniform: Intense disagreement. These cultures are strongly relationship oriented, and that cultural preference permeates the business environment. A business person making decisions in the BRIC (an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China) will focus on how well they know the person or group they intend to do business with. Strong personal relationships are an integral part of doing business. These strong relationships are what keep things moving smoothly. For instance, Japanese business contracts are much shorter than those drafted in the United States. This is because many of the expectations of the business environment are so deeply embedded in the culture that long, detailed contracts are unnecessary and even offensive. Furthermore, the value of “face” and one’s reputation is so intrinsic that it provides a much stronger motivation than a legal document.

Business Culture And Conflict

These fundamental differences in values and business practices lead to huge misunderstandings in the business world. Just some of these differences include how we manage people, what kind of relationship a boss and a subordinate have, and how we communicate.

Studies conducted by KPMG and Standish reported that 70 percent of projects are failing to meet their goals when it comes to quality, budget, and time — and nearly one quarter (24%) of all projects can be counted as complete failures. These projects are either cancelled outright, or are so off the mark the customer never even uses the finished product.

Frank Ridder, research director at Gartner, has commented that, “[We] found that 55 per cent of global organizations manage their sourcing activities tactically and at an operational level, failing to add a strategic management layer and invest enough in developing critical multisourcing competencies.” In other words, these organizations fail to effectively manage outsourced projects because they don’t plan far enough out, and they don’t take the time to understand the markets they’re developing.

These figures are becoming more and more widely accepted. According to Brandi Moore, a respected consultant on multicultural projects, fully two-thirds of outsourced projects are unsuccessful, and at the same time 65% of Western managers cite culture as their biggest challenge in multinational organizations.

The emerging global economy is creating challenges that Western and Eastern business are just learning how to deal with. As Geert Hofstede, of the Hofstede Institute, aptly wrote, “One of the reasons why so many solutions do not work or cannot be implemented is that differences in thinking among the partners have been ignored.” It’s impossible to build a global organization when each of its parts operates in a cultural vacuum, unaware of how the other parts work.

How Business Culture Affects Your Business

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. We get a lot of questions about how business culture affects business on a day to day basis.

Sarah, a project manager here in America, is very successful at what she does. She’s got a lot of successful projects under her belt. But right now she’s having problems. It looks like the project that she is working on is going to ship late. There are lot of quality problems with it.  It’s over budget, it’s behind schedule, and Sarah is very frustrated. All of the techniques that she’s been using in the past aren’t working for her now. She feels like she is  not getting the feedback from her team that she’s used to getting. For example, she proposed some changes to quality assurance system and instead of getting feedbacks, there’re silence, delays and  then finally the team agreed to implement what she had proposed.

In a typical Western style, she is expecting very clear communication from her team.  Direct, critical feedback on the project and on the proposed changes that she is making. The problem is, her team is in Asia and they don’t think  that she knows she is doing. She asks too many questions. She doesn’t demonstrate the authority and the wisdom necessary for the team to feel like she’s in charge of the project.  They are not accustomed to this kind of management.

Sarah’s run into a couple of business cultural preferences. She’s experiencing power distance, which is the separation between a boss  and a subordinate, and how they ‘re allowed to communicate because of cultural constraints. And she’s also experiencing differences in communication style — the low context, direct communication of the West versus the very high context, rich and subtle communication of the East.

Sarah’s solution in this case is to get business cultural training and understand how her management style differs from what her team is used to and then adapt  her management program, her project management technique, to work well with her team is Asia.

Check our website for more information on both of these business cultural preferences. I’ve blogged about them quite a bit in the past.

And if you are managing an International multicultural team, it’s really important to understand how much business cultural preferences will affect your project and your management style. You need to be sure that the project management methods you’re putting into play, are going to work with your multinational team.

Engagement Style And International Success

If you missed the first part of this six-part series, see: Part 1 of the series, Creating An International Culture Of Success, or see the entire series right here.

Engagement Style

Do we get right down to business, without knowing much about the other person — or, do we build a strong and trusting relationship, only talking about business after we know each other well?

Sending a delegate to represent an American company must be well thought out before departure. This delegate must have authority as well as longevity in the organization. Replacing delegates during the relationship should be done with care and planning. The new contact will need to be brought in slowly to transition the relationship. It is wise for American firms to engage more than one delegate to a relationship with the BRIC or they risk the business leaving with a delegate who departs. — Moore, Brandi, The Little BRIC Book.

Most cultures throughout the world choose the latter path: A relationship-driven engagement style. Conducting business outside of the “in group,” the trusted circle of family, associates, and professional contacts that you know well, is unheard of. It is far better to go into business with someone that you know well, even if the price or product isn’t the best. You know what you’ll be getting. Furthermore, the combined influence of your in group means everyone will do their best for you — and if they don’t, there are always solutions to improve the situation.

The Western, venture-driven style is very different. It’s found in relatively few cultures — probably less than 10% or so of the world. America is perhaps the most dramatic example of a culture that believes in doing business first. It’s a message driven culture, promoting products, uniformity, and a “best product and best price gets the business” ideal. Some of this ideal is beginning to leak into other cultures, but culture doesn’t change quickly.

The Global Project Compass identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by engagement style:

  1. Accounting Policy & Costing
  2. Risk Management
  3. Procedure & Outsourcing Management
  4. Business Continuity & Recovery
  5. Information Assurance & Security

Accounting Policy & Costing

Policies regarding accounting and cost management are deeply affected by engagement style. Strongly relationship driven cultures tend to support more relaxed, flexible policies when it comes to managing the flow of money. This flexibility affords hiring family members, awarding favored contracts to close allies, and giving favors such as gifts for professional favors.

Unlike relationship driven cultures, many cultures focus on cost and performance first, and enact policies accordingly.

Venture driven cultures tend to support stronger accounting and cost management policies, leaning more heavily on the rules of business. This is particularly true in countries such as the United States, Switzerland, and Germany. In such cultures, the favoritism afforded by strong relationships is regarding as nepotism or corruption.

It’s important to remember that both systems are unique and both kinds of cultures feel their system works very well.

Risk Management

Different cultures approach risk from very different perspectives. Cultures that prioritize relationships tend to view those relationships as a means to avoid risk. Awarding an important contract to a close relative or friend provides security. The close relationship helps eliminate unknowns. While price and performance may not be the best, they are known. The strong “in group” network that defines the relationship means everyone will want to support the in group. Performance becomes a matter of saving face.

Venture driven cultures tend to equate risk reduction with choosing the best performer. Giving favored treatment to friends and relatives is viewed as a risk, and potentially disastrous. This usually means taking as objective an approach as possible. Contracts are awarded based on price/performance analysis, and risk is reduced by evaluating past performance. Contingency plans for poor performance generally involve financial penalties or having a contract revoked (not something a relationship driven culture is comfortable with).

Procedure & Outsourcing Management

As pointed out above, the typically “Western” venture driven style eschews anything that seems like favoritism. When talking about outsourcing this is probably one of the biggest differences between venture driven and relationship driven culture. The relationship driven culture will stick to its in group, favoring existing relationships. The venture driven culture assumes that every project must be objectively awarded based on performance criteria.

This also shows up in organizational procedures. Venture driven cultures tend to have written procedures that are enforced through business mechanisms (such as forms, systems, and policy review). Relationship driven cultures, on the other hand, rely more on informal, cultural procedures. Important policies are enforced not by forms and systems, but by the peer network and cultural environment.

Business Continuity, Recovery, & Security

Who is responsible for the continuity of the business? Many venture driven cultures will push for a separation of concerns, using an objective, often outside third party. This might be a service provider responsible for auditing and securing an information network.

Relationship driven cultures tend to prefer a more closely-held approach. Sensitive information is often controlled internally, and important individuals within the organization are tasked with ensuring continuity.

Each culture’s approach to security and information management can be very different. Probably the most dramatic example of this is the American view on intellectual property protection versus that of Chinese culture. While China is definitely changing, the American perception that intellectual property is owned and protected by law is not commonly shared in China. We routinely hear stories about how products are copied in record time in the Chinese market — and U.S. firms are constantly evolving strategies to stay ahead of the Chinese copycats.

Cover graphic attribution: The artist and visual designer Yang Liu was born in China and lives in Germany since she was 14. By growing up in two very different places with very different traditions she was able to experience the differences between the two cultures first-hand.

Where To Invest Around The World In 2014

Are you looking to diversify your investments, spreading your money around the world? It’s a great idea. A multinational investment strategy protects you from fluctuations in one region. But in today’s tumultuous world, with geopolitical upheaval and unsteady markets, where should you invest?

Daniel Altman may have what you need. In Foreign Policy’s Where To Invest Around The World, 2014 Edition, he offers some great insight. His Baseline Profitability Index (BPI) maps economic growth, financial stability, physical security, corruption, expropriation by government, exploitation by local partners, capital controls, and exchange rates. His goal: To map the total pre-tax return on investments in a region.

Baseline Profitability Index (BPI)
Baseline Profitability Index (BPI)

Darker countries indicate a higher score on Daniel Altman’s Baseline Profitability Index for 2014, meaning they are a better bet for foreign investment. The index considers asset growth, preservation of value, and repatriation of capital. Botswana ranks the highest in 2014 with a BPI value of 1.31; Venezuela ranks the lowest at 112, with a score of 0.63.

As Altman writes, the shifting global landscape has moved a lot in the past year: “In just the past 12 months, quite a lot has changed in the global investing environment. Some struggling economies have found their feet, notably in Europe, while others around the world have fallen victim to conflict. A few have improved their economic institutions, too; neighbors Greece, Macedonia, and Turkey all bolstered legal protections for investors, and nearby Azerbaijan strengthened its property rights.”

This year’s edition of the index has a few changes over last year. Most notably, a new source is used for measuring the likelihood of government expropriation. Altman is using the Index Of Economic Freedom in this 2014 edition.

The index suggests that not every fast growing country around the world is a great target for investment. You need to take into account the risks of each market — that’s the purpose of the index, after all. But it’s also important to make an educated decision. All indexes have their limits. For example, after switching to the Index Of Economic Freedom, China dropped from position 21 to 43 on the BPI. While the new approach is hopefully more accurate, it also illustrates why it’s important to understand the data.

Despite the change to the Index Of Economic Freedom, and shifts in the geopolitical landscape in the past year, India has maintained its position at number 6 on the index. Altman feels this is, “In large part because of the potential for real appreciation in the rupee.” He adds, “This may now be more likely than ever, thanks to Narendra Modi’s supposedly reform-minded government and the strong hand of Raghuram Rajan at the central bank.”

Creating An International Culture Of Success

The International Business Dimension

Multinational teams present new challenges for the International manager. There are logistics problems: How do you coordinate teams that work in different time zones? What kind of collaboration can you create in a team that rarely sees one another?

As well as the logistic problems come cultural problems. For example, successfully creating a culture of innovation can be a challenge. Honeywell experienced this, according to a November, 2013, Time article, when Rameshbabu Songukrishnasamy began working as general manager of the company’s R&D centers in Shanghai and Beijing. He found his employees were not innovating. They weren’t tinkering or inventing on their own — not a positive sign in an R&D lab! “They were happy just doing what they were asked to do,” Rameshbabu says. The problem is, R&D is about doing something new.

A project manager for a large corporation in Brazil recently told me that the PMI Book of Knowledge is used infrequently at best inside Brazilian projects. He also warned against assuming that someone with a PMI certification has extensive experience, as is the case in the US. — Moore, Brandi, The Little BRIC Book.

Rameshbabu found that his Chinese workers had a fear of failure. They worried that the company would be upset if their work did not yield positive results, so they didn’t experiment. Another problem is that some Chinese engineers “tend to shy away from critical questioning,” a process that is fundamental in R&D. “The reason they are able to make so much innovation in Silicon Valley is that people question the status quo and find alternative ways,” says Rameshbabu. But he found that Chinese culture and education focused on rote learning, not critical thinking.

Creating A Culture Of Success

Creating successful International programs requires understanding and adapting to different business cultures. Applying Western management practices in Asia will fail, just as surely as transplanting Western employees into an Eastern environment. Imagine an independent, critical thinker from Silicon Valley landing in Foxconn, Shenzhen — where challenging the status quo is forbidden.

Team dynamics play a huge factor in management style, objectives, and capabilities. Building a culture of innovation is just one example of where these dynamics become complicated. Power distance will affect everything from goal setting to how problems are socialized. Communication style can quickly lead to misunderstandings. Differences on the fluidity of time can mean completely missing the mark with customer deadlines. And differences in identity and engagement style can lead to initial confusion, bad first impressions, or distrust.

This is why understanding business cultural practices is so important. Hyrax International LLC has a program that explores each of these five preferences. The program examines each of 27 different management disciplines, such as goal setting, risk management, change management, and assessing outcomes. The affect of business culture on each discipline is explored and explained, providing a road map to success on the International management scene. The company also offers many free resources to explain and explore International project management, and is also sponsoring Successful International Project Management, an in depth book that maps project management processes to cultural preferences.

We’ll be posting five more parts to this article (read Part 2, or see the entire series right here) in the coming couple of weeks. Each post will look at one of the five business cultural preferences, and briefly introduce how that preference impacts and affects the 27 management disciplines.

Hyrax International LLC’s Global Project Compass™ is the only visual map that clearly shows the connection between business culture and business process. This is what makes Cross Cultural Management™ so much more effective than traditional management.

The Compass maps 27 project management disciplines directly to business cultural preferences, and shows how these preferences affect business. The goal of the Global Project Compass, and Hyrax International’s associated management program, is to show how culture affects businesses worldwide — and to provide a clear map on how businesses can adapt successfully.

Did you know India has a little more risk today?

Euler Hermes, the 100-year-old trade credit insurance firm, has a fantastic little tool for assessing credit risk around the globe. Euler Hermes monitors country risks in 241 countries and territories. Their country risk map aims to assess the risk of non-payment by companies in a given country.

In other words, if you’re thinking of developing a new market, you can use this little tool to see how likely (or unlikely) it is you’ll get paid. The map is interactive, and updated periodically to reflect changes in the global economy.

As many of you know, we do a lot of business in India — so, I was pretty surprised to see that Euler Hermes upgraded India from “low risk” to “medium risk” this year. In retrospect, while it took me by surprise, it probably shouldn’t have. India still suffers from an immature business market. I can see how this can translate into higher credit risks.

Country Risk Map
Country Risk Map, Euler Hermes (click to open)

It also underscores how important it is to work with a trusted source, and an experienced partner, no matter what country you go into. Euler Hermes is one such resource when it comes to insuring your revenue stream — whether its import/export, manufacturing, or even R&D. If you’re doing International business, trade credit insurance is a must, and these guys know how to do it well.

Getting back to India: Yes, maybe it is a little bit more risky today, at least when it comes to credit risk. But that’s no reason to stay away, it just means you need to account for those risks. Engage with a partner that really knows how to work with India, take the right precautionary steps (such as using trade credit insurance), and move forward with your eyes open. India is an incredible market opportunity, and not one to shy away from!

What Parts Of My Business Should I Outsource?

Rather than wear every hat — every single day — businesses need to be strategic about what can be outsourced or subcontracted. Outsourcing is a way to focus on what you do well. But the challenge is knowing which parts of your business should be outsourced. Here are few tips to help you on that.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International, and I want to talk about what parts of your business you should outsource.

Whenever you use an outside Attorney for expert advice, or a CPA firm to audit your books, that’s outsourcing. Outsourcing allows us to focus. It allows us to concentrate on what makes us great. A lot of companies don’t do this. They get distracted by what doesn’t make them great. But, success means focusing on your secret sauce — on the one thing that you do that nobody else knows how to do. Everything else then becomes a candidate for outsourcing. It’s a simple cost benefit analysis. If there is someone else that can do the work cheaper or faster or better, then let them do it and you stay focused on what you do really well.

Take Apple for example, and the iPhone. Their secret sauce was the industrial design behind a new phone and the software that makes it work great… not so much the manufacturing of the devices. They outsourced that to Foxconn and they delivered a fantastic product, much faster than they could have done on their own. They focused on their core competency and because of that they were incredibly successful.

Outsourcing allows us to focus on what makes us great, and not get distracted by the things that don’t.

Is Culture Shock Ruining Your Chances Overseas?

Traveling to a foreign country, living there, meeting new people, and facing success or failure abroad can trigger fear in all of us. To some, it’s a mild fear of the unknown. To others, it can be a stress-inducing, unpleasant experience. It’s rooted deep in our psyche: Differences in beliefs, race, color, religion, culture, and even language have led to innumerable acts of war and violence throughout human history. Believing that globalism has put it all behind us is naive at best. Those that think trivially of the differences between cultures, and the deep-rooted permanence of those differences, should think again.

Experiencing Culture Shock In The U.S.

Most willing expatriates will approach the prospect of an International sojourn with trepidation. Fortunately for most such feelings are usually manageable. Yet, intercultural issues absolutely cause stress. The stress of travel, of the unknown, being away from home and family, of making a mistake that leads to failure. Stress causes anxiety, and as humans we react to anxiety in much the same way we react to fear.

This exact situation happened to Venkat, after relocating his family to the United States. Venkat had been working for his employer a few years when he was invited to move to the U.S. office. It was an excellent opportunity and one that Venkat embraced wholeheartedly.

But, soon after arrival, Venkat started to have difficulty. Being from India, he was accustomed to a strong social network at work and home. Both he and his wife felt cut out of society because Americans just don’t connect like Indians do. Neighbors typically don’t become close friends, and co-workers rarely create strong after-work bonds. Venkat was unprepared for this. He felt excluded when his social invitations to neighbors and coworkers weren’t enthusiastically reciprocated. Soon, he came to feel the promises of “getting together after work” where well-meaning but insincere pleasantries — even the few times his efforts were successful the get together was stiff, brief, and conversation revolved around work.

Eventually, Venkat came to realize that Americans only get together rarely after work and when they do, it’s more an obligation than genuine camaraderie. He and his wife felt isolated, and decided to end their stay in America after about a year. The socially distant culture of America was never something they could get used to.

Understanding Culture Shock

Misunderstandings, embarrassments, and misinterpretations occur today, on a regular basis, between tourists and professionals alike. The accelerating pace of technology is speeding up communication — it’s becoming cheap and nearly ubiquitous. Where we relied on couriers that would take months to deliver a message, now we connect with people globally in seconds. The expanding pace of International business adds to the rapidly expanding, global reach of companies — and as it does, so our need to interact across cultures increases with it.

When a family, or husband and wife, are sent abroad, it’s often the partner who stays at home who experiences the worst culture shock. The professional in the family is embroiled in work, kept busy with professional obligations. The business network forms a sort of insulation from the cultural impact. This insulating effect can be stronger when an expatriate is positioned as an expert, visiting a foreign culture to lead a team, share important knowledge, or otherwise perform a critical function. At the same time, the one staying at home — possibly looking after children or a household — is not so insulated. There may be no support group to turn to. Learning to get around, picking up the local language, facing contractors or repair personnel, dealing with school officials, and learning local customs is often harder without the support of an eager team of coworkers.

Acculturation Curve

Culture shock is a normal situation. It affects nearly everyone that relocates abroad for any period of time. It may not set in immediately — in fact, early on, an opposite effect of euphoria often masks the anxiety most people experience. People living in foreign environments typically report a transition in their feelings that follow an “acculturation curve,” shown in the above figure and first introduced in Cultures And Organizations.1 Positive and negative feelings are shown on the vertical axis, while time progresses forward from left to right. The initial euphoric phase is typically short; it represents the initial feelings of adventure, seeing new lands, travel, and meeting new people. Culture shock sets in during Phase 2 in the diagram, as the euphoria begins to wear off and the realities of life in a foreign society set in. Acculturation, or adjustment to local culture, takes place during Phase 3. This is when the foreign national begins to acclimatize to differences in culture, learns to adopt and function within local customs, and establishes connections with a new social network. Finally, self-confidence and comfort with the local environment is established. This “stable state” of mind can settle as negative or positive when compared with home, depending on the individual and their circumstances. Those that are lucky enough to experience a relatively more positive stable state (4c) are ideal candidates for long-term repatriation, and quite likely are well suited to cross-cultural business relationships. This is when the visitor has “gone native.” On the other hand, a negative steady state (4a) can mean that the individual never becomes fully acclimatized. Instead they continue to feel out of place, discriminated against, or an outsider.

The feelings instigated by culture shock often lead to feelings of distress, of being out of place, longing for home, helplessness, and in some cases hostility toward the new environment (as pointed out in Managing People Across Cultures).2 Expatriates often experience higher incidence of medical problems soon after relocation, as opposed to later. These illnesses are linked to the mental state brought on by culture shock. Symptoms can be the same as those of mild neuroses, and can extend to skins rashes, appetite loss, depression, sleeplessness, swellings, palpitations, and more.

Getting Used To It

The time period for acculturation varies dramatically. Both temperament and situation factor into acculturation. The most significant common factor seems to be the time period of the foreign visit itself. People on short term assignments, say a few months, have reported experiencing all phases of the acculturation curve in the same short time. On the other hand, people on long term assignments stretching over several years indicate acculturation takes longer, as much as a year or more.

Culture shock can be so severe that assignments may need to be cut short. In extreme cases, anxiety, depression, or homesickness will directly affect work. Such cases can lead to significantly reduced performance, and even inability to function. In at least one situation I’m aware of, a family relocating to Europe experienced long-term problems with social integration. The stay-at-home partner, responsible for raising the couple’s child, developed a strong aversion to leaving the house and continually avoided learning the local language. This left the working partner saddled with most responsibilities for both business and household care, at least when it came to running errands, arranging services, and working with the local school or health care system. The anxiety of the cultural transition became exacerbated, leading to a strain on the couple’s relationship. After several years, there was little improvement. The “steady state” was clearly a negative one. Even though the husband wanted to stay abroad, the couple frequently discussed plans for returning to the United States.

In part two of this article, I’ll discuss how to prepare for and deal with culture shock, from both a management and individual perspective.

1 Cultures and Organizations: Software for the Mind, Geert Hoftstede, Gert Jan Hoftstede, and Michael Minkov, McGraw Hill.
2 Managing People Across Cultures, Fons Trompenaars, Charles Hampden-Turner, Capstone.