They don't teach anthropology in supply chain programs, but maybe they should. When it comes to effectively operating a global supply chain with partners all of the world, the ability to understand and navigate different cultures can make or break you.
"Culture works hand in hand with trade," explains John Vogt, president of WWBC LLC, an independent consulting firm focused on strategy and global leadership.
Vogt moderated a panel discussion at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) EDGE conference today, where of supply chain and operations executives provided tips and tricks for working with supply chain partners from different countries and navigating the inevitable cultural gaffe.
Vogt provided a list of dimensions adapted from the work of social psychologist Gerard Hofstede that can be helpful to know about a culture before doing business there:
These factors, however, should only be taken as a starting point. Lee Beard, senior director of global transportation for Nike, warned attendees to watch out for stereotypes. For example, Nike does a lot of work in Singapore, which is a cultural melting pot with many different cultures within cultures that can make it hard to generalize.
The biggest challenge, agreed the panelists, was effective communications. So much can be lost in translation through written communications and even in phone calls. Darrell Evans, senior vice president and chief supply chain officer for La-Z-Boy, recommends using video conferencing or physical visits for important issues so that body and facial language can be read. He also warns against using slang or euphemisms, citing the story of a colleague who caused confusion among her international team after a pep talk that ended with encouragement to go out and kick some butt!
Panelists recommended a variety of ways to gain cultural knowledge, including:
No matter how much preparation you do, however, you will inevitably make a mistake, admitted the panelists. Beard shared how he made the mistake of underestimating the importance and value of the Lunar New Year to his colleagues in Singapore.
"There are a lot of things no one tells you," he said. "You just have to handle it with humility, say you are sorry, and fix it."