Guest Post: Consulting in Multi-Cultural Europe

We’re very excited about today’s post. It comes from Aarni Heiskanen of AE Partners in Finland. Aarni is a long time consultant, and today will share some of his thoughts on what it’s like to be a consultant in Europe.
>> Aarni’s full bio here

The European Union currently has 27 member states, almost 500 million citizens and 23 official languages. This is certainly a very interesting environment for a consultant, but not without challenges. So far I’ve worked professionally with people from at least 12 European nations. Multi-national projects have taught me that the consideration of cultural differences helps me avoid cultural misunderstandings and is a factor in successful cooperation.

The change that the EU brought about
Finland joined the EU in 1995. From a consultant’s point of view many things changed thereafter. Suddenly it seemed that every project had an international touch point, be it a multi-national client, or a multi-national team.

It would be natural to presume that it is the large, multi-national clients that offer international commissions for consultants. However, I’ve had several SME clients that are active in Europe, or even globally, because they also sell services or products on the global market, co-operate with companies in other countries, or have a foreign owner seeking an M&A.

What are the opportunities for small consultancies?
Management consulting the way my colleagues and I do it is very much person oriented. We are trusted advisors. Our sales are based on referrals, and in the internationalized world we have found those referrals also cross borders. Thus the new, global business environment offers us a chance to expand our client base, even if we are not a massive player. It also offers opportunities for learning and development. Working with people from outside your neighbourhood is most often fun, interesting, and rewarding.

What are the consulting challenges in multi-national projects?
Consulting is always difficult, but multi-national projects add an element of thrill. It may sound like a cliché, but national characteristics come into play in any consulting project with people from different parts of Europe. That is true even if (or perhaps especially when) you are working with people from the neighbouring country.

Here are the most common issues that I’ve confronted:

  • Differences in communication cultures
  • Language barriers
  • Different managerial systems

Communication cultures differ
“Human communication usually fails, except by accident.” This is one of my favourite quotes from Professor Osmo A Wiio. If this is true for all human communication, the issue becomes exacerbated when, for example, a Finn and a Spaniard try to communicate.

Edward T. Hall’s concepts of “low context” and “high context” cultures aptly define the playfield in cross-national communication. In high context cultures non-written, non-expressed messages are important. “Reading between the lines” and social relationships are essential. People in low context cultures, on the other hand, value clear, explicit communication and individualism.

I definitely come from a low context culture, like most of my Nordic and Germanic colleagues. Our communication focuses on “hard, measurable issues” more than on the manner in which the message is delivered.

The differences in communication cultures can become an issue if a consultant does not recognise them in advance. A badly formulated email or ambiguous wording in a presentation can result in unexpected reactions if they occur in the wrong context.

English can sometimes separate rather than unite
I recently had a project that involved people from five European countries. The interesting thing was that none of us spoke English as a first language. Still, English was the language we used for oral and written communication during the project.

What kind of challenges do consultants face in this situation? Here are some of my observations from teams with varied skills in English:

  • People who are fluent in English can dominate a workshop or meeting just because they can express their thoughts compellingly
  • People with a limited vocabulary feel restricted
  • Some members of a team can be labelled “hostile” due to their inappropriate use of direct language
  • Phone conferences are strenuous because you cannot communicate with gestures or visual aids
  • People sharing the same language form “cliques” within a project

Management systems evolve but old habits die hard
Mergers and acquisitions were very popular recently. They also provide consultants with lots of work when companies try to harmonize their global management practices.

Modern companies, especially in the Nordic countries, have reduced their number of organizational levels. This approach empowers employees, reduces the number of managers and requires employees to take initiative and personal responsibility. However, when all that is combined with a matrix organization and process management this model can offer quite a demanding environment for a consultant to work in.

The challenge lies in the adoption of the same managerial model throughout a corporation. If a client has expanded e.g. to countries where the model is new, the business maturity of the people expected to adopt the “new way of managing” may not be at the level hoped for. This becomes evident when people from different sections and regions within a company cannot collaborate on an equal basis. Not recognizing this problem in advance can seriously hamper a consulting assignment.

Some lessons learned
Good communication is a prerequisite for a successful consulting project. Cultural flavours in communication within Europe are a fact that you must take into account. The best way, I think, to prepare oneself is by doing preliminary work with the client, if that is possible.

Bigger corporations have HR and training specialists who certainly have faced cultural and language issues before. It is also advisable to get to know the project team before the work actually starts. Knowing what kind of communication has worked within the client’s organisation is valuable information once a project begins.

The choice of communication channels is also important. Face-to-face, phone conferencing, video etc. each have characteristics that affect communication. Email is probably the most “dangerous” form of communication. I’ve seen many good intentions fail due to an unwise use of email.

Furthermore, a consultant should leave any bias and prejudice at home when dealing with people from different backgrounds during a project. If they are displayed, you could lose face or credibility in your client’s organization.

Since globalization does not show signs of decline, I suggest that every consultant should start to develop their skills to take on more multi-cultural work. I’ve begun my process and I am learning new things every day.

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  • Cesareo Goyanes

    Aarni was right on target! Europe is with Asia the most culturally diverse market one can find.

    The insight on the incompatibility of management models is very relevant to post-merger integration. That is where many a deal fail.

    The case of a large Spanish bank in a Latin America country comes to mind. They brought in a bunch of expatriate managers and faced enormous resistance to post-merger integration efforts. Indeed, mis-communication played a role but undoubtedly the differing management models clashed until expatriates left and a local team took over and adapted HQ procedures and systems to local realities.

    Congratulations to both, host and guest author for this siteª

  • Cesareo, glad to hear you enjoyed Aarni’s article. We hope to have more to come!