Spring break gave me some time to read and consider, rather than write. Now, I have a lot to catch up on here. First up, cultural differences. Some get squeemish when you talk about differences in cultures. The reality is that differences in culture do affect how we engage employees in discussion (the tools and channels we use) and what messages we use to engage and drive desired behavior.

I remember the Cincinnati social workers at the child welfare agency I worked at early in my career. They tailored their communication with clients based on where they came from – if they were southern (Kentucky usually) they took a slightly different approach than if they were from a northern location. The approach to helping a young woman with a child realize her freedom from an abusive spouse was tailored based upon cultural aspects.

Today I see it applying on a much broader scope with our clients who have employees around the globe. Too often, we communicate with all those employees in exactly the same way using the same messages. Our only question is “do they speak English.” When the answer is “yes,” we march ahead as though everyone is the same.

But there are two elements that frankly should be considered and dealt with more strategically:

  1. People in different cultures and geographies prefer different communication channels and use them differently
  2. Cultural nuances mean that people in different geographies interpret messages differently, or have different tolerances for different message approaches

For example, employees in the US still prefer print for benefits information (go figure!). Meanwhile, people in Asian countries such as China, South Korea and Japan are participating in social media as contributors and critics more than in the US (http://www.forrester.com/Groundswell). Shouldn’t we communicate with employees in these different locations using different channels as a result? For strategic reasons, not just because of budgetary issues.

Then, there are the cultural nuances. How will employees in different locations perceive messages, and will we actually get the desired behavior, or something else because we didn’t anticipate a cultural nuance?

The great culture researcher and author Geert Hofstede gives us important insight into how messages might be perceived. For example, a message about personal responsibility for workplace safety could be perceived very differently in the US with its focus on individualism versus Japan that has a more collectivist culture. US employees may be more apt to accept personal responsible for their own safety. But, in Asian cultures such as Japan, where there is more focus on the collective responsibility – you may need to focus messages around the team responsibility and the individual’s role within the team when it comes to keeping everyone safe.

For so many organizations headquartered in the US with communication staff taking the lead from here, more and more will have to take tailoring seriously. It might mean the difference between success and failure in a multi-national employee population.

Tip: Want to compare cultural differences on the fly. Get CultureGPS on your iPhone. It’s based on Hofstede’s research and could be a powerful tool.