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Op-Ed: Global Sourcing: How to Improve Communication to Enhance Business, Reduce Risk

Words are powerful. And in the world of sourcing, clear communication is essential. Operating across borders, time zones and cultures can create meaningful experiences and opportunities. Developing international relationships with people around the globe can lead to unique connections.

But these global interactions can also lead to cultural confusions and communication challenges. In the routine of daily meetings, emails and conference calls, messages can be easily misconstrued. Many people involved in cross-cultural dialogue are working in a second language. Some may be answering an email late at night, early in the morning, on the road, or half way through their lunch. Aspects of this routine correspondence can be connected to significant business decisions. So why rush such important communication? Why run the risk of unclear messages?

The complexities of a U.S. vendor, working with a U.S. based agent, partnering with a China based agent, working with a Chinese factory, who hires a local consultant, who then interacts with a locally based multinational sourcing office, were fascinating to observe and often difficult to process. Like the age old game of telephone, messages turn from amusing to messy when communication from a corporate office in one country sends a response that flows through six separate parties, only to end with back and forth confusion, frustration and a list of other potential risky issues. In some cases, a simple business misunderstanding can escalate into a complex and costly dispute. I have learned the importance of setting clear communication as a priority at all times.

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Four years ago, an opportunity to work in India presented itself. After a conversation with my wife and a few deep breaths, I accepted the job. We lived in Bangalore for 18 months and absolutely loved the experience of living and working in a foreign country, yet, at times, found ourselves equally frustrated. We learned that two minutes often meant 20 minutes. A head nod could mean yes, no, maybe, or simply “I’m listening to what you’re saying.” We identified ways to approach and respond to a new culture and encountered customs based on a unique set of values and world views. We learned how to adapt and create positive changes to make this new place our home.

As a westerner coming into the Indian culture, I continued working with typical American expectations and brought my “drive forward” mentality into the local office. My direct approach, which favored productivity over people, quickly clashed in a place where getting to know someone before starting a work discussion is deeply valued. By the time I left, I understood the importance of sitting down, having a cup of chai, asking about family, laughing about something simple and then proceeding to do business. In the end, we accomplished the work and I gained a new perspective on this relationship-based approach. I learned how to value and enjoy a conversation that would eventually lead to a productive outcome; a philosophy which included patience, understanding and trust that desired goals would ultimately be accomplished.

Two years ago, I was asked to take a role in Hong Kong. My wife and I were thrilled for another opportunity to experience living in a new place, so we packed our bags and made the move. Living next door to the manufacturing giant of China and witnessing the sheer volume of business taking place in this ancient land was astonishing.

There are several articles written that describe the business world as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). Daily news enforces the VUCA theory, and I certainly would concur with the idea after living abroad for a few years. The VUCA concept brings four questions to my mind; how does one:

  • Develop resilience to deal with volatility?
  • Nurture a level of patience to deal with the uncertainty?
  • Create an openness to deal with complexity?
  • Embrace flexibility to deal with ambiguity?

Incorporating resilience, patience, openness and flexibility into the communication process will help when responding to challenging situations. Well-structured messages can mitigate risks and lead to growth opportunities that improve business. Below are three strategic rules to cultivate effective communication:

  1. Be focused: Set aside all distractions and focus on the person speaking or the words in a written message. Take time to craft and deliver a clear response.
  2. Be curious: Consider the person on the other side of the communication channel and what might be driving his or her message. Verify what was heard or read.
  3. Be simple: Do not let the message become lost in translation. Corporate speak or local slang can easily bring confusion into communication. Pace speech, annunciate words and be audible.

When I worked in India, my favorite saying became, “Have you had your lunch?” If answered, “No” the person asking would typically respond with, “Ok, I’ll come back and talk to you later.” If answered, “Yes” they would move forward with their request. My initial reaction was “Why does this matter? Let’s get the work done now.” It took me some time to understand the underlying meaning of this simple phrase. Asking if someone had their lunch was a sign of respect and a way of caring for the other person, making sure they had a break, been nourished and were prepared to move forward with the work day. The intent behind a basic comment may be greater than an initial interpretation.

When working in global business, one cannot underestimate the impact of communication across cultures. Learn something about the differences of other countries and give back by sharing in return. Prioritize personal development of communication, foster growth by seeking feedback, reflecting and taking action from what is shared. Small, slow, continuous steps are imperative to the success of an improved dialog. Ultimately, better communication will enhance business and mitigate risks which frequently occur from misunderstandings. Take time. Create a positive change in communication. Words are powerful.

About the Author: Adam VanderPoel is a manager for a multinational retailer based in the United States.  He has studied in Greece and Italy and recently worked in India and Hong Kong, China (SAR). Adam holds a Bachelors degree in Business Management from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. and is pursuing his MBA at Bethel University. With 10 years of experience in merchandise planning/global sourcing, risk management/corporate security and distribution/supply chain security, Adam has a passion for international business and travel. Meeting and connecting with new people motivates him to learn more about himself and the world. Currently he resides with his family in Minneapolis, Minn.