This is an article that I have been very excited to see come to fruition! It all started during a conversation at the pub (in true London style) where we were having some farewell drinks to Eoin who was a summer intern on the change management team (here is a blog post Eoin wrote during week 1 of his internship if you are interested). Peter and I got talking and he shared with me what he had been studying. It was so fascinating to me to learn about high and low context cultures that I made him promise me he'd write an article to share more about it. And here you have it - a truly interesting, thought-provoking and relevant article that I'm sure you'll all learn something from - I know I certainly did!
Big thanks to Peter for taking the time to write this article and for sharing his thoughts and insights.
"Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know."
Hello, my name is Peter and with this Japanese proverb I want to welcome you on a journey to the world of intercultural communication. I am currently enjoying my time as an intern for the Google Cloud Professional Services team in London. Just prior to my internship I graduated as an international management scholar with a focus on intercultural phenomena in business. From this background Kim asked me to share my thoughts on the importance of cultural awareness in change projects, which I will happily do!
Nine out of ten change management professionals agree that cultural awareness has an important to very important impact on the success of change projects. But what does being ‘culturally aware’ actually mean? And what impact does it have on a change project?
In this post I highlight the opportunities that lie in the cultural adaption of a project, using the example of change management communications. After a short excurse into the science of intercultural communication I present a framework to identify, understand and leverage cultural differences before sharing some best practices I collected inside Google.
Communication: High and low context
While there are various cultural dimensions to consider, this post focuses on one essential part of any change project: communication. With outstanding articles by Kim on engaging employees and Ayaka on tailoring a message to the audience I will not spend words on the importance of communication itself, but expand their concepts by adding the dimension of cultural contexts.As a theoretical base for this post, I have chosen Hall’s theory on high context and low context communication. It provides a comprehensible insight into the reasons the same communication might work in one country, but fails in another.
Hall’s theory of high and low context cultures describes the role of context in communication. Context is understood as information that surrounds a message, ranging from high to low. In high context communication, most of the information lies in the surroundings of an interaction, not in the words spoken. In face to face communication, this results in a great emphasis on mimic, tone and gestures. On the other side of the continuum in low context communication, the meaning is provided in the message itself: people speak more explicitly and literally say what they mean.
We constantly move along this continuum, using different levels of context in our interactions. A conversation over breakfast with our partner will have a higher context than casual small talk with a new colleague in the cafeteria: a simple look into the eyes of our partner reveals how he or she is feeling, but we need to codify and translate our message into language so that our colleague gets our message. The reason for this lies in the different level of knowledge and context we share with our communication partner, enabling us to understand the unsaid.
While this is true for one-to-one interaction, the concept can also be applied to country cultures. Communication in high context cultures tends to be harmonious, indirect, ambiguous and understated. Silence is an important part of communication and people are expected to read between the lines. In contrast, low context cultures communicate more explicitly, language is direct and precise. The meaning lies in the words themselves.
Without going into detail, this phenomena is the result of various other factors. For example, high context cultures are rooted in history and community, have a well-structured social hierarchy and strong behavioural norms. As a result there is a wealth of information embedded in and shared among the whole society, enabling people to make sense where words are used. Conversely, low context cultures tend to value individualism and competition, resulting in less information shared on a societal level. The gap of missing context between people is filled with words; communication needs to be explicit to not cause misunderstandings. The following table presents a country continuum from low to high context cultures.
Analysing the Japanese proverb from the introduction along this theory, it means that high context cultures, such as Japan, need few spoken words to convey a message. They construct meaning by relying on shared and embedded information in society, between interaction partners and the circumstances that surround an interaction. Hence, having in-depth background information is vital to ‘make sense’. On the contrary, low context cultures such as Germany or North America put less emphasis on the wider context and deduce the meaning from the information exchanged in the message itself.
High and low context in written communication
While this is highly relevant for personal interaction, it also has a major impact on formalised and written communication: Different cultures need a different depth and detail of information to make sense out of it. To illustrate this I invite you to a short thought experiment:
The setup is simple: You are in a room with another participant and are asked to take a portrait of the other person with a zoom camera. How would you frame that shot?
Interestingly, research has shown that the framing of the picture (the relation between the subject and the background) varies significantly across different cultures: While low context cultures tend to emphasize the subject, high context cultures put a higher importance on the background and the surrounding context. See the following images for a comparison (thanks to our new colleague Calvin for jumping in!):
Re-staged sample images based on Masuda et al. research
Left image represents a typical low context portrait, right a high context portrait
This phenomena has implications on how we design communication material for different cultures: High context cultures require rich context such as background information to understand and make sense out them. The reasons and circumstances for change need to be elaborated and provided, the additional information compensates for the otherwise missing context.
One very practical example are presentations and communication material: Presentations drafted in the US tend to have a clean, uncluttered design with few words or bullet points on a slide, focused on the main message. If these slides are simply translated, they fall short in satisfying the need for rich contextual information required in high context cultures. Failing to address this issue might result in sub-par reception of your carefully drafted communication and therefore limit the success of your change efforts.
To visualise this, I want to share the transformation of an internal asset, from low context to high context. The following slide is part of a transformation lab deck, designed in the US: the slide focuses on the main message.
Now look below how a Japanese colleague transformed the same slide to fit a high context environment:
Excerpt from an internal presentation - based on US version and adapted by a Japanese colleague
The slide is completely transformed and almost unrecognisable: The level of detail needed in a high context environment is clearly visible as a myriad of additional information. Just as the portrait of Calvin above, both slides aim to send the same message, but the degree of detail and background information is incomparable.
The field of intercultural phenomena is as vast as cultures themselves and the above example only describes only one opportunity to improve a project. I adapted the “Prosci Best Practices for Change Management” characteristics of global literate leaders into an actionable three step approach that can be applied to identify, understand and leverage cultural differences in any change project.
1. Be Aware
The first step is being aware that other cultures may have different social norms, methods and beliefs than one’s own culture. Having the same employer or speaking the same language does not necessarily mean that people share the same culture! By reading this article, you've already taken the first step to building this awareness.
2. Acquire relevant knowledge
Secondly, gather the knowledge that will help you understand the differences. Involve your local resources to acquire specific cultural knowledge or gain regional insights. Sharing our own best practice, this means:
- Appoint a local project manager/site lead
- During the organisational analysis and user profiling activities consider the level of context for each identified user group across locations
- Engage with the Google Guides from each region to get their input
- Encourage Guides and local leaders to shape the local execution of the project
3. Appreciate the differences
Understanding is a base, but you need to embrace the differences, use your gathered knowledge and adapt your project to make an impact.
- Allocate the necessary time and resources to adapt the project to local requirements
Be mindful that culture has an impact on every single step in a change project: from engaging stakeholders, to communication and even on the interpretation of success metrics. Keep an open mind, engage with people and dedicate the necessary resources to make the most out of intercultural change projects.
Thank you for reading! I hope I could pass on some of my fascination for cultures and you could take something away for your next project. Also special thanks to Kim, Yukari, Ayaka and Alvan for providing their insights and best practices!
I invite you to share your thoughts as comments below; I am very curious to hear what your experiences are!
“Often we may even smile or laugh at adversity, but all people share the same passions. They are merely manifest differently according to one's culture and conditioning.” (Yasuo Kuwahara)