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Cultural intelligence (and cultural competence) minimises cultural risk

What is cultural intelligence?

The term 'cultural intelligence' captures three interconnected dimensions: attitude, knowledge and skills. The way people interact is closely linked to their cultural identity and the assumptions they hold about thinking, relating and communicating. The goal is to bring insight and skills to bear in complex settings where things can appear strange and confusing. Without this capability, strategic objectives beyond national borders can falter and even fail.

It's important to note ‘cultural awareness’ and 'cultural intelligence' are different! Cultural awareness focuses simply on increasing your appreciation of the role that culture plays in shaping who you are and how you behave. Often cultural awanress training involves going through a list of protocols and tips for how to respond in a particular country. Trouble is, when the situation develops into something different from the list of tips the individual is unable to respond appropriately.

In contrast, the aim of ‘cultural intelligence’ is to go beyond this in order to become more competent and adaptable in another culture, not just more aware of it. It’s common to meet people who are aware of cultural differences and are also very well-intentioned, yet they’re unable to achieve practical results amidst the complexity of real life. They have the motivation but lack the skills to do anything different from their usual Australian approach.

Cultural intelligence should be a requirement for all those whose roles take them into Asia. The good news is that while intercultural exchanges can be complex, cultural intelligence is a capability that can be learned and improved over time and with experience. Since actions, rather than simply knowledge or intentions, are so critical, it is not uncommon to use the term cultural competence as a synonym for cultural intelligence. It's of little use to be 'culturally smart' but then be unable to act in the most culturally effective manner in real-world situations. A skills focus is thus a vital component in developing cultural intelligence in a way that makes a difference in intercultural situations.

Examining the 'culture' part of 'cultural intelligence'

When we talk about culture, we mean everything that makes up the world view of a group of people. This includes their behaviours, beliefs and values. These have been determined by historical experiences and reinforced through the socialisation process, as well as by the form and structure of the particular language spoken. Language and culture are like right glove and left glove.

Many different studies have identified contrasting sets of cultural values. Knowledge of these and how they vary provides a useful foundation for developing the skills needed to be effective in Asia. Different cultural value systems form a fundamental, yet usually hidden, level of meaning when people from different societies work together. The challenge is that, while all cultures have remarkably similar values, they can rank them in a different order of importance and relevance. Understanding these different rankings helps us to analyse the underlying cause of a misunderstanding and so propose a more effective strategy.

The skills (competence) component of cultural intelligence

Awareness and knowledge aren’t enough to ensure effective performance in culturally complex settings. We need to know what we must do differently to get the results we want, selecting an appropriate skill from a solid repertoire. In an ideal world, we would have the time to build country-specific skills, acknowledging the tremendous diversity of cultures that make up Asia. But for most Australian professionals, this is a luxury beyond their reach. For this reason, UGM recommends a basic set of cultural skills which are portable across the region and apply to most situations.

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UGM adopts an evidence-based, cultural intelligence approach to the related issues of cultural diversity, cultural awareness and international business. This develops an Asia capable workforce as well as one which is culturally competent in global settings. We focus on the cultural competence needed to implement strategic plans. This involves developing specific intercultural (or cross cultural) skills to behave effectively and appropriately in relation to cultural differences. It may also include consideration of unconscious bias and building inclusive cultures.

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