Understanding Asian culture

It is now generally accepted that Australia’s future is intimately bound up with Asia. There are economic, strategic and obvious geographic reasons why this is so. Consequently, the conversation has shifted from the outdated, “Will you engage with Asia?” to the current, “How can you engage to best advantage?”  It’s a reasonable question, says Dr Margaret Byrne from UGM Consulting.

While the Asia-Pacific region is rich with opportunity for Australia, it’s also fraught with complexity and cultural risk, Byrne explains.

“Things can go wrong, and sometimes do. The challenges faced by Australian organisations in Asia are like complex and interwoven puzzles. The key that unlocks the solution to these puzzles is cultural competence”, says Byrne.

“Unfortunately, it’s still the case that many organisations stress out-dated and limited ‘awareness-raising’ approaches to learning about Asia – where the focus is on increasing your appreciation of the role that culture plays in shaping who you are and how you behave. 

“This is, of course, a vital first step but, of itself, it isn’t enough. It offers little or nothing when it comes to knowing what to do differently and why. Your goal is to become more competent and adaptable in another culture, not just more aware of it!  It’s not uncommon to meet people who are aware of cultural differences in Asia and who 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 Western approach.”

Byrne explains that while this new Asian century is certain to present Australia with significant economic, strategic and social opportunities, it is already bringing challenge and risk as well.

“Cultural differences run deeper and are more pervasive than many realise. For example, the obvious differences in communication patterns, soon encountered when you work in Asia, reflect deeper and subtler cultural differences in cognitive style. In addition, although cultures change, this happens slowly and in ways that tend to reflect a society’s particular historical traditions.

“All this means that Australia urgently needs to build greater cultural competence: an integrated set of attributes, insight and skills for effective collaboration with Asian colleagues and counterparts. Taken together, such skills support both individuals and organisations in addressing the challenges and mitigating the risks that are the inevitable companions of opportunity. If professionals across all sectors can succeed in this task, then Australia will possess a unique competitive advantage and a sound platform for future security and prosperity.”

Dr Margaret Byrne is a speaker at Company Directors Conference Directorship:15 in Kuala Lumpur, from May 20-23, 2015.