The Enable Blog #2: The Great Cultural Barrier (Reef)
One of my friends joked that in Japan, the level of politeness is so high that if the response to a business pitch is “we will think about it”, the culturally correct interpretation is “we will likely never ever do it”. In Germany, one is likely to encounter an opposite, more direct response, influenced by the unambiguous communication style preferred in the German culture.
Cultural differences are often an underestimated barrier in life sciences and healthcare efforts in the Emerging Markets. For example, how does one apply a culturally sensitive lens to the interpretation of Voice of Customer (VoC) data collected in the Emerging Markets?
The risk as well as the rewards of successfully navigating inter-cultural communication can be huge. However, the tools for this navigation – i.e. the “cultural GPS” – are subtle and can be deceptively elusive.
Some excellent tools and resources are available on the subject. My personal favorites are the books Jugaad Innovation and Diffusion of Innovations, as well as the Intercultural Communication Institute in Portland, OR.
Several other resources and approaches out there however, seem to address the subject in a limited manner, with an overwhelming emphasis on managing rather than embracing the challenge. Turned on its head, every challenge is an opportunity.
Consider our choice of words and their sub-conscious underpinnings – cultural barriers, cultural differences, cross-cultural challenges. Are barriers and differences meant only to be navigated, or could they also be leveraged? All cultures, many of which have existed over millennia, represent unique traits, which evolved to overcome unique challenges in a given culture’s history. How much richer could medical innovation be, if we could bring to bear the collective distilled wisdom of human history to bear upon innovation the world needs to create true clinical impact?
Every barrier could be perceived as a mosaic instead – think of the Great Barrier Reef, which is dazzling in its diversity of its under-water eco-system. Perhaps we can evolve towards the use of phrases and concepts such as cultural tapestry and cross-cultural collaboration. For that, openness to cross-pollination of ideas and styles of problem solving is required. Can the life sciences community evolve from “navigating the cultural barrier” to “leveraging the cultural barrier reef”?