CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
October 16, 2019
Forward Thinking

Panel highlights the important role of culture in global trade

Supply chain executives at the CSCMP EDGE Conference give tips and tricks for how to learn about culture of your global supply chain partners.

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:

  • Does the country have a culture that is more or less concerned about formal hierarchy than your own?
  • Does it more strongly value individualism or community and the collective group?
  • How does it define the concept of family?
  • How well does the culture tolerate uncertainty?
  • Does the culture value long-term results over short-term?
  • Is the culture more or less indulgent or restrained (in regards, for example, to spending) than your own?

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:

  • Research the country online.
  • Talk to friends, colleagues, or fellow CSCMP members who are from the country or have lived there.
  • Use the long international flight to read a history book about the country.
  • Come in a day early and arrange to meet with someone in the company who can take you out and educate you. (Vogt recommends trying to go to dinner at the colleague's home with his or her family.)

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."

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