Aperian: Helping Companies Bridge Cultures

Such online services as Aperian Global's GlobeSmart make it easy for managers to train employees in cultural differences among customers

Dan Ryan, the 46-year-old head of real estate management at EMC (EMC), has lived his whole life in Massachusetts. But as his company has become increasingly global, he has had to widen his horizons.

So before he undertook a major expansion of EMC's operations in India, he turned to an online training tool called GlobeSmart, designed to help companies overcome cultural and other barriers that can hinder success abroad. Produced by San Francisco's Aperian Global, GlobeSmart helped Ryan prepare to deal with EMC employees and potential landlords in India—and avoid the faux pas that might have derailed plans to move from a 165,000-square-foot office in Bangalore into a building three times as large.

Multinational companies have long had to prepare themselves to operate in different cultures. Corporations give executives crash foreign language training; Indian call-center kids Americanize their names and accents and read up on U.S. sports teams to improve their interaction with customers. These days, many large companies ask their widely scattered employees to bridge far wider chasms—learning to collaborate with co-workers in different cultures, for instance, or communicate with partners or make sales pitches to customers, no matter where they are in the world.

Eco-Friendly Offices

Technology plays a key role. Like a digital-era equivalent of Dale Carnegie's perennial bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, online tools such as GlobeSmart are starting to show up on PCs, alongside Microsoft (MSFT) Office and Google's (GOOG) Web search tool.

For Ryan, GlobeSmart underscored the importance of relationships in Indian businesses. Armed with that information, he spent a lot of time with potential landlords so they would get to know him and understand his priorities. Once he had their trust, he explained to them the importance at EMC of occupying an environmentally friendly workplace. He plans to sign a lease this week that not only achieves his financial goals but also puts EMC in a building that meets some of the highest environmental standards in the world. "Building our relationship with the landlord first allowed us to get him to consider meeting those standards," Ryan says. "Now he's talking about doing all of his projects that way."

Aperian Global consultants have been training a select few EMC employees on cross-border interactions for more than a year. EMC also has 200 executive coaches stationed around the world to improve managers' intercountry dealings. But right now the company is taking a giant step and rolling out Aperian Global's online tools to its workforce of 40,500, which includes 17,000 people outside the U.S. EMC says it wants everyone on staff to have a global mindset. The belief is that all of EMC's employees need to be able to function well with people around the world on a day-to-day basis, and they need to be able to do it with a high degree of cultural awareness and flexibility. "This is about ensuring that we're a truly global company," says Louise Korver-Swanson, EMC's global head of executive development. "We need everybody in the organization to be tuned in."

In the old days, EMC used to do nearly all its research and development in the U.S. and sell its products directly to large multinational customers. But now its research labs are widely scattered—from India and China to Israel. At the same time, it increasingly sells products through local partners. So cross-cultural interactions are constant, and mastering them is paramount.

Variety of Tools

A half dozen companies offer consulting and technology tools to help companies build up their employees' skills at interacting with foreigners. One major player in this niche, Training Management, was recently purchased by language training giant Berlitz International. Some large multinationals, including IBM (IBM), have crafted their own tools for fostering cultural awareness and collaboration.

Aperian Global's tools provide a glimpse of the possibilities. They're used by companies as diverse as manufacturing giant Timken (TKR), semiconductor maker Freescale, and Web media pioneer RealNetworks (RNWK). The basic Web site, GlobeSmart, is essentially a database designed to help employees learn to deal successfully with people from 54 nations, from Angola to Venezuela.

You start by answering a set of 36 questions to establish everything from where you stand on independence and egalitarianism to your communications style and willingness to take risks. Then you can compare your profile with that of a colleague or a typical person in another country. Click on a red dot on a chart representing a colleague's attitudes, and a box pops up offering advice on how best to interact with that person. Workers in the U.S., for instance, may find themselves to be highly independent-minded, while those in China tend to favor interdependence.

Teaching the Obvious

The site also includes more general advice, some of which may seem obvious—but isn't always heeded by people in everyday settings. "Be observant. Be curious. Be interested," advises Ted Dale, Aperian Global's president and chief creative officer. "They're generic rules, but they're profound. Somebody who is truly observant, curious, and interested will do much better in a global assignment than somebody who isn't."

The lastest addition to Aperian Global's online toolbox is a set of lessons designed to help people from certain countries handle interactions with specific other countries. The first lessons match India with the U.S. In a few weeks, those will be joined by modules matching the U.S. and China, with more to follow later. These pages use video, photos, and audio clips to walk employees through scenarios that are acted out by real people. Trainees can see where interactions go wrong, learn why, and then watch how to handle them more successfully.

Timken has offered the learning modules to all of its 25,000 employees worldwide, with emphasis on 1,000 Indian employees and the people who interact with them in 26 other countries where the company operates. Traci Dunn, Timken's director of global inclusion and talent acquisition, says one of her favorite things about the training modules is that employees can watch a sample meeting and click on the faces of different participants to see how they're reacting to what is being said. "You get the perspectives of different people," she says.

In some cases, cultural differences between countries are obvious. In others, they're more subtle. Aperian Global's Dale says Americans and British often get frustrated when dealing with one another because they assume that, because they share a language and a heritage, they think alike. Not so, he says. Americans tend to be frank and immediately lay all their cards on the table. Brits are put off by this kind of behavior. To them, it seems rash.

Dale cautions that his company's training tools should not be seen as the last word in cross-border interactions. "This isn't supposed to be gospel truth," he says. "It's a discussion starter."

Business Exchange related topics:Employee EngagementWorkplace DiversityCorporate IntranetsGlobalization

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.