What is it?
Cultural differences result in practical differences of political and commercial practice. For example, contrast the views of political elites in China and American. China’s political elite focus on strategy. The process of foreign policy for China is one which is measured in decades. This is informed by their world view of ‘exceptionalism’: China is unique and is playing the long game against the world. American foreign policy focuses on short to mid-term benefits. This is a direct result of the short term election cycles demanding accountability. Politicians want to show that they can deliver on their promises. The result? America wants detailed plans with lots of check points; China wants to look at the final outcome.
Bluntly, these differences mean that if you walk into a meeting room in Italy and England and give the same presentation you would be singularly unsuccessful. As an Italian, I recognise that many Italians – based on their education which focuses on theory – prefer understanding concepts and applying themselves rather than the more British approach of bullet pointing the solution.
Of course, politics and business represent two snapshots where cultural differences impact on outcomes. It can extend into almost every sphere. America applied it to the military. The US Army ran a program named a “Human Terrain System” (HTS). In 2005, McFate and Jackson identified deficiencies in the command echelons of the US army in understanding its field of operations (Afghanistan and Iraq). Consequently, the Army introduced HTS which embedded anthropologists with units in order to give them a better understanding of ethnic groups in the region. Highly controversial, the impact is unclear; a benevolent interpretation however fits HTS into a world which increasingly pursues understanding.
How does it work?
Ang, Van Dyne & Livermore (three prominent academics in the field) break CQ down into four parts. The first is the CQ-Drive. This is the a person’s interest in making effective links in culturally diverse settings. Secondly, CQ-Knowledge seeks to identify how much a person actually knows about different cultures. Thirdly, CQ-Strategy quantifies an individual’s ability to analyse their multi-cultural experiences. Finally, CQ-Actions is the ability of an individual to put their learning and reflection on multi-cultural differences into practice.
This is quite technical, so let’s render this more simply: cultural intelligence is a bit like cooking. View the Drive as the reason for cooking. The Knowledge is the recipe. The Strategy is the picking of the recipe. Action is the ability to actually cook.
This analogy is useful because it underlines something very obvious: CQ is part-intuitive and part-learned. You can gain a reason to cook and you can certainly learn recipes, but the gut feeling of which is the right recipe to use or the ability to judge whether this particular fish requires a little more garlic to bring out the flavour is something you either have or don’t have.
Either way, it is vital to be able to use CQ because it allows you to take the best every culture has to offer. The point is that rather than being fault lines which separate team members you can use them to build the unit to cover each other’s faults.
A basic answer would point to globalisation. Dr. Henry Kissinger, speaking to The Economist, defined the present as the first time in history we have a global international system. Every part of the world can affect every other part of the world by its actions. There are ever more reasons pushing individuals from different countries and cultures together. And there is a consequence ever greater need to be able to work effectively in this environment.
But if you accept the “basic answer”, you haven’t been paying attention. This is because the mere ‘push’ of people together is unlikely to provide enough CQ-Drive. Often, enforced proximity may result in further entrenchment of one’s own views against a perceived “encroachment”. In fact it is precisely the sense of haplessness and inevitable arrival of the ‘other’ that has provided a swell of nationalism across the Western world.
The critical difference is that some people have no choice but to work with individuals from foreign cultures. These individuals compete against one another, and in this fight-to-survive world, CQ provides a form of Darwinian edge – and thus snowballing its effectiveness.
If this conclusion is correct, it suggests that as more industries have no choice but to work cross-culturally the importance of CQ will continue to grow. Capitalist economics will allow no other approach because understanding the individual sitting across from you in a negotiation is an edge that cannot be ignored.