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Can SMEs afford to ignore intercultural training?

Global opportunities and expansion

Kathleen O'Donnell | 25th May 2016

Access to diverse markets and economic sectors has created enormous opportunities for the Small and Medium Enterprises

There is no doubt that globalisation has greatly narrowed the commercial gap between nations. Access to diverse markets and economic sectors has created enormous opportunities for expansion and trade not only for the traditional large multi-nationals, but for the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Globalisation has an impact on nearly every business, from manufacturing to services, retail to technology. As a result, every SME has to see itself in a global context whether they intend to physically export their products or services to a foreign country, create relationships with international partners or suppliers, or attract foreign customers to compare cost and quality in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

The Second Annual Sunday Times Heathrow SME Export Track 100, researched and compiled by Fast Track, ranks the UK’s private SMEs with the fastest-growing international sales. Europe and North America were cited as the first and second largest overseas markets for the 100 SMEs polled. And despite the UK’s high trade deficit, the pace of overseas growth achieved by the SMEs in the Fast Track league table is higher than last year, seeing exports increased by an annual average of 84%. Total sales from the 100 businesses came to £1.3bn, achieved mostly by the £438m rise in international sales.

SMEs actually have several advantages over large multi-nationals. The strategic use of ecommerce and social media to expand brand recognition and develop close customer contact and relationships has always been a strength of the smaller enterprise. A simpler, leaner governance structure also allows them to make and implement decisions more quickly than their big, bulky counterparts. But there is one key area where the SME loses it’s competitive focus; enhancing their cross-cultural competence in international settings.

In this global market, understanding behavioral nuances is not just a matter of cultural courtesy; it’s a business necessity. In order to avoid potentially disastrous misunderstandings with foreign clients and customers, management and staff must be provided with cultural awareness and skills that transcend mere etiquette and language. Cultural insensitivity leads to lost business, failed overseas assignments, poor client and investor relationships, staff attrition and ultimately wasted time and investment.

So, why don’t more SMEs make intercultural training an integral part of their international growth strategy? The number one reason for the lack of management training within SMEs is, understandably, financial constraints. But with globalising economies putting increased pressure on SMEs, can they afford not to invest in their main asset; human capital? Few see intercultural training as a strategic tool, perhaps because there is little empirical assessment on the impact. It is common sense, though, that what works on a local levelwill not necessarily be successful when applied to an international context. Adapting an existing marketing strategy, tailoring products and services for new markets, and developing the global dexterity of management and staff is a crucial investment for companies wishing to expand abroad...especially when so many of their competitors are already doing it!

Intercultural assessment, development and training provides an in-depth study into understanding the impact of cultural differences, an investigation into the many challenges found in the international workplace, practical tools to enhance cultural sensitivity and reduce cultural mishaps, as well as prepare staff for working with specific countries. Feeling safe in the knowledge that you speak the same language as the country of your largest export channel provides a false sense of security.

Sharing a common language should make doing business with Americans easy, right? The cultural differences between the UK and US are much greater than one would imagine. Are you comfortable selling yourself? Americans thrive on the art of self-promotion, something most Britons consider an embarrassing taboo. Instead, a Brit may use selfdeprecation to communicate how useful a product or service is; except Americans don’t understand why anybody would voluntarily criticise themselves! Are you eager and enthusiastic in the workplace or when marketing your business? You might want to learn tobe if you want to succeed in the never-understated United States.

Fortunately, investing in intercultural training need not break the bank to be effective and make a difference in an SMEs overall global adaptability. Training methods range from one-on-one programmes, group workshops, multi-business seminars and webinars. Programmes are custom-designed to provide the most relevance for the business and staff involved, and are conducted anywhere from a half-day to two days, depending on the specific requirements of the client. A needs-assessment is conducted prior to any programme in order for the trainer to provide a tailored experience for each client.


Making the jump to the global marketplace requires planning, strong vision, commitment and real leadership. Cultural awareness training should be part of the strategy of any SME with the desire to increase their international market share.

Kathleen O’Donnell is an Intercultural Trainer and Consultant based in London. If you
would like to discuss Intercultural Training in more detail, or book a training session with
Kathleen, simply get in touch with us via email or using the contact form.

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