Many multinational companies have hidden, unrecognised multicultural gems within their ranks. To find these and get the most from their unique skills means taking the time and trouble to carefully develop and deploy multicultural managers in critical positions.
Multicultural managers can make a huge, positive difference to the success of global innovation projects and processes. The research of Hae-Jung Hong, now an assistant professor at the Rouen Business School and co-author of our article (“How L’Oreal masters multiculturalism” in the June 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review) on cosmetics giant L’Oreal shows how unique features of multicultural minds enable them to play five critical roles better than their monocultural counterparts.
These roles are:
Making creative associations and drawing analogies between geographical markets, allowing L’Oreal to develop global products and build global brands while remaining sensitive to local market differences.
Interpreting complex knowledge – i.e. tacit, collective and culture-dependent, hence impossible to simply “explain”_ across cultures and contextsan essential skill when marketing products like cosmetics, where much of understanding is tacit and culture-dependent.
Anticipating cross-cultural conflicts, and addressing them, something critical to the effectiveness of global teams.
Integrating new team members from different cultures into teams that quickly develop their own norms of interaction and a strong “in or out” identity, making joining the team once it has been in existence for a while particularly difficult.
Mediating the relationship between global teams, with a high level of cultural diversity among their members, and the senior executives they report to, or their interaction with local subsidiary staff they collaborate with, who are usually monocultural.
In short, their ability to be creative, to share complex knowledge across locations, contexts and cultures and to manage global innovation and product development teams effectively is precisely why multiculturals in integrative roles in the innovation process do make such a positive difference.
Multiple Cultures Means Creativity
Indeed, using lab experiment methods (with students or executives performing revealing exercises), INSEAD Professor Will Maddux and his colleagues found that the experience of multiple cultures favoured creativity. In addition, they identified intercultural, cognitive integration (one’s ability to simultaneously hold and apply several culturally different schemas and thus to think as a member of one culture or another depending on need and context, or to think simultaneously as member of several cultures) as the key to creative, adaptive and leadership skills fostering their career success. As one of the managers Hae-Jung Hong interviewed put it:
The most important skill I need in order to develop and launch this product line successfully is to exploit what I’ve got from one part to other parts of the world, which brings something innovative in the market. I am able to do this because I have references in different languages— English, Hindi, and French. I read books in three different languages, meet people from different countries, eat food from different countries, and so on. I cannot think things in one way only. That’s not my way.
(Indian-American-French project manager)
Observing multiculturals in action, a monocultural executive at L’Oreal commented:
“Multiculturals have a kind of gymnastic intellectual training to think as if they were French, American, or Chinese and all together inside them.”
Yet not all multiculturals are equally skilled at integrating across cultures at work. Personality plays a role: Being extroverted, assertive, and sociable, contributes to effective multiculturalism. A balance of integration strength between cultures is also a required condition for effective bridging. If in the self-representation of a multicultural person one cultural identity “wins” to the detriment of the others, the person cannot actually be effective as a multicultural!
And not all organisational contexts are equally propitious for multiculturals to play effective roles. Organisational culture, human resource management policies and cultural value conflicts in the organisation reduce or enhance a multicultural’s willingness and ability to be effective. Being appreciated and trusted by their colleagues and peers in global teams is also a must but colleagues may zero-in on one of their cultures and make the development, or maintenance, of balanced integration skills harder, and multicultural managers’ roles less effective.