In the mix

Who is typical? Seriously. Imagine you’re responsible for characterising the world’s ‘average’ person. What kind of profile would you come up with? Once, in the not too distant past, the world’s ‘typical’ face was almost invariably represented as white.

Even though the world’s white population has – as proportion of the global population – been shrinking for the last 50 years, for most of the twentieth century they nevertheless comprised the vast bulk of the world’s consumers. In commercial terms then, it made sense to depict the world’s average person as white. But this is no longer true. The face of the world is changing, and changing fast.

There are now seven billion people in the world. 1.3 billion of them live in China and over one billion live in India. As for the rest of the world’s population, many of them live in Brazil, Russia and South Africa – the three other emerging mega economies. Among these populations, a large and growing number of people are middle class. The population of the ‘BRICS’ nations (as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are often termed) have seen their fortunes change dramatically. Their geopolitical clout has grown and they now enjoy a degree of influence that would have been unimaginable even a few decades ago.

But quite apart from changing stature of the BRICS nations, it’s their individual citizens who are changing the face of the world.

The middle class populations of the BRICS nations are avid consumers and their spending power is having a transformative impact on the global market in consumer goods and services. They are also avid travellers, and indeed, migrants. You don’t have to look far to see this phenomenon in action: Australia provides one of the world’s best examples.

Demographer Bemard Salt points out that Australia derives 60% of its population growth from immigration, granting 300 citizenships daily. Despite the controversy that continues to surround Federal immigration policy, the idea that Australia is fundamentally Anglo-Saxon has long been replaced by a reality which sees more than 15% of us speak a language other than English at home.

But multiculturalism in Australia is old news. What we’re now witnessing is the rise of interculturalism. This refers to a population that’s not simply ethnically diverse. Instead, interculturalism describes a society that actively values the benefits of cross-cultural mixing; it refers a community that actively promotes the diversity of our social fabric and consciously ‘makes room’ for peoples’ differences. 

The rise of interculturalism is – to some extent – the product of good old-fashioned romance. According to the 2006 Australian census, 52% of marriages were between people from different ethnic backgrounds. Now, it remains to be seen what the divorce rates for these couples will be, but you have to conjecture that those who remain happy will be practicing interculturalism at home. Successful couples will have to learn how to understand each other’s differences in manners, customs, religious beliefs and general outlook. By definition, cross-cultural couples must not only understand each other’s differing customs, but must actively embrace them. This, in essence, is interculturalism.

Now, it’s not often that you can suggest that business can learn anything from looking at Australians’ romantic habits, but this is one of those occasions.  Cultural diversity is a reality for Australian businesses, and there are real opportunities associated with leveraging this diversity. The question for most businesses is how we shift from being merely multicultural, to embracing the opportunities associated with interculturalism.

Unfortunately, it has to be said that examples abound of how not to practice interculturalism. When KFC first entered the Chinese market, it’s reported that they discovered that their slogan “finger lickin’ good” translated as “eat your fingers off”. Likewise, Chinese translation from English proved difficult for Coke, which took two attempts to successfully translate their slogan. They first tried Ke-kou-ke-la because it sounded roughly like Coca-Cola. It wasn’t until after thousands of signs had been printed that they discovered that the phrase translates as “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax”, depending on the dialect. 

While laughable, these examples point to the danger associated with making broad assumptions that the language – or more importantly the behaviour – that works in one cultural context will be appropriate in another. Business who find that they’re not getting the reactions they want from cross-cultural clients need to consider the possibility that their messages are misleading, confusing or even straight-up offensive. 

The same applies to bricks and mortar projects. Increasingly, people in the design, building and construction industries who fail to understand that we’re moving into the era of interculturalism run the risk of being embarrassed about the brief they set today when they meet the occupants of tomorrow. The BBC – and closer to home RMIT Melbourne – both found themselves subject to a firestorm of media criticism as a result of their failure to provide prayer rooms for Islamic staff and students. What does this teach us? It’s a manifestation of the fact that the built environment conveys powerful messages about who belongs in our community. Increasingly, people who feel like they’re being excluded – on cultural or religious grounds – are going to make their dissatisfaction known, loudly and clearly.

This idea that the built environment makes strong statements about who belongs in the community is not altogether new. Ask women over 50 about their memories of looking for a bathroom in a workplace that was male – not officially, but in effect – and they tend to have plenty of stories about feeling professionally excluded. Likewise, years of physical exclusion from public buildings and workplaces saw legislation enacted throughout the world to ensure that all people – regardless of their physical mobility – can have unrestricted access to public places and significant private spaces, including the workplace. There can be little doubt that analogous legislation will emerge to ensure that all people, whatever their cultural or religious needs, can have unfettered access to public places and important private spaces, including the workplace, and this prospect that‘s likely to shape many aspects of our architecture and design in coming decades.

Still, those who really capitalise on interculturalism won’t do it because the law says they have to, but because they want to. The businesses who embrace this trend most successfully understand that there are big external opportunities associated with embracing other cultures, and big internal benefits as well. For just as interculturalism opens up new client networks, it opens up new employee networks. Some of the most interesting statistics here point to the particular – and highly beneficial – attributes that specific socio-cultural demographic recruits possess.  Highly qualified, ambitious so-called ‘tiger businesswomen’ are pouring into the skilled workforce in China and India and they’re playing an important role in Asia’s economic transformation.

Companies who can’t – or won’t – meet the needs of wide range of potential recruits will find they’re losing out on dynamic employees.

This is not to say that embracing interculturalism will be easy. While on the one hand the trend means that companies can recruit from a growing pool of talented, international candidates, there are associated cross-cultural complexities that need to be carefully managed. For example, increasing numbers of Australian businesses are recruiting engineers who trained in China. This was inevitable as China is producing 40 times the science and maths graduates that Australia does.  These graduates constitute an enormous benefit to the Australian businesses who’ve hired them, especially if companies are savvy enough to utilise their recruits’ language skills and cultural nous to work on projects with China-based clients.  At the same time, however, some Chinese graduates are finding it takes time to adjust to Australian workplace culture, given its comparatively ‘flat,’ non-hierarchical nature. Building capacity to manage productivity in a diverse workplace is a challenge that won’t simply be met by waiting for newcomers to adjust to the dominant culture. It will take a proactive approach and a genuine commitment to demonstrating that everyone’s perspective is valued.  

 Another big issue that business leaders will have to face is the different perspectives on work-life balance people from different cultures tend to hold.  Employees in France receive as many as 30 days of statutory holidays a year. Those in the UK and Russia are entitled to 28 days, while Australian and Scandinavian workers receive 25 statutory holidays. Yet in Taiwan, there are only 15 holidays per year – with a mere 12 in India and 10 in China. (Indeed, it is not unheard of for Chinese employees to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week with just one day off per month.) So what happens when an employee who used to receive 30 days of annual leave is reduced to 10? Managers will need to decide how they are going to approach this disparity in their employees’ expectations – and the extent to which they are willing to accommodate them. 

Regardless of these challenges, some Australian businesses are already demonstrating an understanding of interculturalism. ANZ provides a great example of how businesses can successfully leverage their connections with – and proximity to – Asian markets. They recently rebranded ANZ’s Asian operations with a new logo that resembles the lotus, the national flower of India and Vietnam, with stunning commercial results. The opportunities for other Australian businesses are huge. Our cultural diversity, coupled with our position in the Asia-Pacific, means we’re ideally placed to provide food, energy, resources and commodities – as well as services such as education, tourism, entertainment, health (perhaps) and lifestyle property – to the countries who are shaping the Asian century. If we can genuinely embrace interculturalism, it may well be our century too.