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Keeping ahead in uncertain times




Jeremy Comfort discusses the role that Business English teachers can play in developing a culture of innovation. Jeremy will be talking about Business and Culture at the BESIG annual conference in Dubrovnik on 19 November 2011.

As the storm clouds darken even further over Europe, it makes one reflect on our destiny. Economic power is shifting inexorably towards Asia and China in particular.

It seems that Europeans must accept a diminishing role.  The jury is still out on America as to whether they can recharge their batteries and once again be the strongest motor in the world economy.

A deciding factor will be technological innovation and where it comes from. Although Europeans have often been the initiators in terms of original research it has been the Americans and Japanese who have commercialized most of the big breakthroughs over the last fifty years. So the big question is whether the emerging economies can also take a lead in this area.

So what’s this got to do with Business English? I think the context is critical if we are to make our contributions beneficial for our clients. One of the ways into this is through looking at the culture of innovation.

I have been working closely with a small German fan-making company which is making big inroads into emerging markets. But they also have challenges in terms of adapting their innovations to these new markets especially in terms of the price–value relationship. On the other hand, the Chinese have started to really talk up the critical role innovation will play if they are to make another step in the development of their economy.

In both cases, they need to start by reflecting on where they currently stand – in other words, be mindful about their current business cultures. I often encourage my clients to use SWOT to focus on their current situation – what strengths do they have, what are their weaknesses, where are the opportunities, and what is going to get in their way (threats)?  My German client would certainly identify research and quality as key strengths, and a lack of adaptability and maybe humility as weaknesses. Their Chinese partners would probably see adaptability and speed as strong points, and maybe a lack of consistency as an obstacle.

We can see how they might help each other as long as they are convinced they can learn from each other. My participants who travel and get close to their partner’s business culture are usually convinced. The ones who stay at home struggle to get the distance you need to be perceptive. We can help them do this by using business cases from unfamiliar cultures and also encouraging the colleagues who have international experience to share their observations.

Commercializing new innovations is very much about awareness of opportunities. We can help our learners to be more aware by developing mindfulness. Being mindful means observing, reflecting and trying to understand yourself and others. These insights can make a significant difference to both personal and professional development.

Business English trainers are in an ideal place to develop mindfulness. First we need to reflect on ourselves and our own cultural baggage – for business people this also means profiling their own company cultures. Then we can turn our attention to our partners, competitors and target markets. After the knowledge phase, we can develop the skills they need – to influence, to stimulate, to inspire. In this process, we can also encourage curiosity and openness – the vital ingredients for building a culture of innovation.

How do you encourage a culture of innovation in your Business English classroom?

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  1. Jeremy, I like the way you summarise your SWOT analysis:

    “German client . . . research and quality as key strengths . . . lack of adaptability and maybe humility as weaknesses . . . Chinese partners . . . adaptability and speed as strong points . . . lack of consistency as an obstacle.”

    The analyses are, of course, typically much more complex. However, your summary points at an important theme of globalisation. Emerging giants, aspiring multinationals and even entirely domestic market focused organisations depend on innovation. Many local organisations, especially in emerging markets, face much larger, well-resourced MNO rivals with multiple sources of competitive advantage (financial and technological resources, seasoned management, and powerful brands).

    Successful local organisations appreciate that innovation is not limited to technical superiority (e.g. research and quality), but is increasingly reliant on organisational / managerial capability. Leapfrogging developed country competitors is rare; capability building takes time but ultimately leads to results.

    In turn, many developed country MNOs (probably including your German client), will also need to ‘build capacity’ at the managerial level — including the capacity for humility. Their Chinese partners’ strength (adaptability and speed) may well be their own biggest weakness.

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