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The Six Traps of Global Organizational
Development and How To Avoid Them
THE SIX TRAPS OF GLOBAL ORGANIZATION DEVELOPMENT
AND HOW TO AVOID THEM
Robert I. Tobin
"What's different about global organization development,"
is usually the first question that I'm asked when I tell people
that my work is based in Tokyo and Bangkok. I'd like to reply,
"OD is the same everywhere." But I can't. "Be prepared,"
I say, "to work in a very different way."
Global organization development requires a set of unique personal
and professional skills--hyper-sensitivity to others, ability
to bring diverse groups of people together, courage and risk-taking,
negotiation and mediation skills, deep cultural knowledge, and
strength in mobilizing networks of community resources. The organization
development consultants who succeed in working outside of North
America also have many of the same skills as effective expatriate
managers and executives. They are flexible, culturally sensitive,
comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, and are aware of the
impact of their work on the local country and the entire organization.
During the past twelve years, I have worked with more than 65
organization development projects outside of the United States.
The clients were global corporations--usually with headquarters
in the United States, Japan, or Europe. Most projects focused
on a client's operations in one country or region, while others
were part of a large global change effort. They were usually well-planned
and, to the extent that I could judge, well intentioned. Some
succeeded--resulted in a desired change for the organization and
the people working there; some did not fare well--they were stopped
in the process of getting started or they did not deliver results
for the client organization.
The projects that did not produce lasting change, as well as
those that were abandoned, were victims of at least one of six
traps in thinking or design. Like a trap for a mouse, the six
traps of Global Organization Development are well camouflaged
and appealing. They also can be damaging, costly, and even fatal
to a change effort.
In this article, I will describe the six most common traps so
that you and your clients can avoid them.
Trap 1: The Trap of Headquarters Planning
Too often, the efforts to develop global teams, global initiatives,
global projects etc. are started and planned at headquarters.
The leaders of an organization may reason that "this program
has been successful here in Boston, or London, so let's roll it
out all over the world."
The problems with this approach are immediately clear to any
organization development consultant who recognizes that a key
ingredient in successful projects is the involvement of people
at many levels and many locations. Yet, the leaders of global
organization development efforts can too easily forget what they
know about involvement and change. Convenience, accessibility
and costs are the usual reasons given for planning at headquarters.
The thinking goes something like this:
"The clients are here, the programs and the technology are
here. It's expensive to bring other people in, and there's a need
to get something started quickly. So we'll plan something at headquarters
and then bring it out into the field."
The results can be disastrous. Here is one example of a project
planned only at headquarters that resulted in large expenses and
negative impact. A global planning team identified a new approach
to marketing and sales that was successful in the U.S. With the
support of the Marketing VP, the global planning team decided
this new program, dubbed Marketing Excellence, would be adopted
as a global standard. The global planning team was comprised of
staff from various departments but only the United States.
A world tour was scheduled for seven locations in Europe and
Asia where the new approach, would be introduced. The involvement
of local staff was limited to scheduling and translation of some
materials. After the Marketing Excellence program was presented
to 65 participants in Seoul, the program was stopped. Participants
complained that they could not see any value in shifting to a
marketing focus. After all, they had been successful selling and
marketing based on relationships. They wanted to be involved in
the planning and implementation of the program and they were not.
Result: Program cancelled, money spent, hopefully some lessons
It is not that the members of the global planning team were insensitive,
cultural barbarians. They took what looked to them like the most
sensible, expedient approach, but it was flawed. They may have
reasoned that it would be expensive, and take longer if staff
was brought in from other countries. They may have also been unwilling
to start the process of video and conference calls. They may also
have been satisfied that they were pleasing the headquarter-based
change leader. In their perspective, the resources that they needed
were at headquarters. However, they failed to recognize that they
also needed the involvement of resources in the field.
There are several ways of avoiding this trap. The simplest improvement
is to bring in people from other countries to be part of the global
planning teams. However, this does not do enough to address the
concerns of local staff and create a successful program.
It is far better to have global planning teams that are based
in the field--not at headquarters--and headed by overseas, local
staff. Headquarters staff or consultants do not provide direction
to these teams. Instead, they provide support to the teams that
work across product lines and country borders.
At a recent meeting in Hong Kong, I witnessed one of these decentralized
global planning teams in action. Human resource and organization
development executives from more than twenty countries reviewed
some of the most successful programs in their countries and their
client areas. The group was not limited to English speakers, and
several interpreters helped with explanations and translations.
Staff from headquarters who attended this meeting were not there
to "sell programs from headquarters." They listened
and asked questions. They provided endorsement and encouragement
to local human resources staff, and they helped identify ways
that local programs could be adopted and adapted in other countries.
Trap Two: The Trap of Minimizing Cultural
Global organizations have learned from experience that a "one-size
fits all" approach for global policies and programs simply
does not work. In foreign countries, the food is different, the
art is different, the way of doing business is different. Why
shouldn't OD be different?
Organization development consultants recognize the importance
of developing an approach that will fit and not offend local cultures.
However, when it comes time for project implementation, there
is often a race with the clock coupled with concerns over budget.
The net result is that cultural considerations suffer.
Involvement of local resources and decentralization of the global
planning teams, as discussed in the first trap, do help in raising
and addressing cultural concerns. However, all OD consultants
must recognize that culture has an impact on every aspect of OD.
Global organization development requires: a willingness to acknowledge
and suspend our own cultural norms, a major effort in attempting
to understand the local culture; and being diligent in using culture
as one of the ways of interpreting behavior.
Even in those situations where all involved recognize that global
programs require localization, consultants unconsciously use their
own cultural frames of reference and icons to the detriment of
the local program.
An example from a recent meeting with an U.S.-based consumer
goods manufacturer's human resources director in Tokyo provides
an example. He was thrilled about a change program that relied
heavily on the imagery in Alice In Wonderland. He ordered books
for corporate staff and invited the consultants to Japan to deliver
a program. The human resources director and the consultants did
not recognize that Alice in Wonderland is not a well-known story
in Japan. The program sponsors thought that the Japanese staff
could easily understand the story, but Alice in Wonderland had
no meaning for the local staff. Besides, the child-like story
and the use of icons that were alien to their culture offended
Lack of attention to cultural rituals, discomfort with discussion
of topics such as religion and family, and very different notions
of formality and status are other cultural aspects that will impact
a change program.
The leaders of another global project designed to develop a more
active learning environment for a food service organization sought
to understand and raise cultural issues in all discussions. They
customized the program in every country and used local trainers
and consultants for implementation. The global planning and implementation
team had members from several organizational levels and countries,
held many conference calls to talk about the plan. They also gave
local staff an opportunity to review what had been implemented
in other countries, and got the help of local resources in modifying
the program to specific cultures. Program planners attempted to
find out the kind of discussions that would be likely and what
questions might be raised and asked. The program resulted in increased
per-store sales, higher levels of employee retention and reduced
Attention to cultural differences requires local involvement,
tenacity in incorporating cultural issues and customization of
a program to fit the local culture. Big marketers like Nestle's
and Pepsi Cola know the importance of cultural differences in
marketing. Nestle's lotus and red bean yogurt is successful in
Thailand, and Pepsi has modified product size, offerings and advertising
throughout Asia. Organization development efforts merit the same
degree of customization.
Trap 3. The Trap of Country-By Country
Like each of the traps discussed here, country by country launch
and start-up looks like a logical and sensible way of proceeding
in global organization development. It appears as if implementing
projects this way can address cultural concerns, and break the
project into manageable segments. However, when implementation
begins at the country level, there are often huge obstacles and
mountains of resistance that must be addressed.
In each country, organization development projects encounter
different states of readiness, and new cultures which will require
program modification. Certainly, earlier involvement and effective
partnering with representatives in each country can help with
launch and implementation. However, local staff may align themselves
in resistance along well-established organizational patterns.
One way to avoid this trap is to launch projects on a regional
basis-preferably along business product lines. This changes the
context for all country's representatives, provides a specific
business focus to the change effort, enables participants to learn
from each other, and generally involves a wider cross-section
It might seem that launching a project on a regional basis with
multi-country groups would be more difficult than working with
groups from one country. However, it is often easier. There is
no dominant group, and fewer constraints from existing relationships.
The regional executives and product line leaders can tie the change
program in with specific business goals and objectives.
Regional implementation of change can also create a high level
of excitement--exchanging knowledge among peers, learning across
borders, and meeting new people who have grappled with similar
problems and challenges. When people leave their familiar surroundings
and relationships, change can happen more easily. The cultural
issues which are so important are often addressed by each country's
team. They, rather than the organization development consultants,
take what they learned at the regional level and modify it on
Regional programs take more planning (which is usually a positive
factor) and expenses (to cover travel expenses for participants),
but the impact is likely to be greater.
In a recent project for an electronics company, project staff
were sent from headquarters to explain a new financial reporting
system that would be implemented separately in four different
countries. In the first two countries, resistance was strong.
In the words of the project manager, the "troops were well-prepared
to protest," and several managers had mobilized their people
to resist the change from headquarters.
Earlier involvement of a wider cross-section of people could have
helped, but it was too late to think about what should have been
done. Rather than continuing country by country, the project team
decided to change the implementation model to a regional one.
At a central location, they brought people together from the two
countries that had not been visited together with representatives
from other countries.
The walls of resistance that the project teams had encountered
in each country did not exist at the regional meeting. Representatives
from the various countries, with different views and experiences,
were able to address the concerns raised by other participants.
4. The Trap of Orthodoxy
As a field, organization development relies heavily on social
science action research techniques with a focus on integrity,
authenticity, and values. Organization development consultants
need not abandon their approaches when they board the plane to
go to another country. However, flexibility is an important ingredient
in working overseas. Strictness about definitions of organization
development and methodology may result in stalled projects and
frustration for the client and consultant.
Clients may be intrigued by specific methodologies, but their
number one interest is in results. There is often pressure to
accomplish objectives very quickly due to the high travel and
expense costs of using consultants overseas. This often means
taking on new roles and working with clients in different ways
than in North America. Organization development consultants who
see themselves primarily as facilitators may find that additional
skills, such as being a catalyst, mediator, resource locator,
and bridge are most in demand.
A human resources director in Bangkok explained how a strict
adherence to a specific approach worked to the detriment of the
project and consultant. The project looked simple enough for the
consultant sent from Chicago. She was to review the data from
an employee survey; participate in a series of meetings where
the results would be presented; and work with client groups in
developing and implementing recommendations for improvement.
The consultant reviewed the data, scheduled a series of presentations,
and met first with the local General Manager to go over the findings.
The General Manager didn't like the results, cancelled public
reporting of the findings and asked the consultant for a series
of recommendations to implement.
The consultant had expected adherence to the schedule for full
disclosure and reporting. She accused the General Manager of trying
to control the entire process and explained that full disclosure
of the results was promised to the survey participants. She told
him that he must agree to public reporting.
The next day, the General Manager's secretary called the consultant
to arrange her return to Chicago the following day. She was sent
for two months but returned in a week. Once she returned, she
talked about how the General Manager did not understand organization
development. She also accused the General Manager of sabotaging
The consultant's insistence on a certain way of working procedures
resulted in her being removed from the project and replaced with
a local consultant. In this situation, she had very little capacity
to influence. She left feeling proud that she stuck to her values,
but she and the client may both have lost in this situation.
When I first arrived in Japan, several clients I spoke with in
Osaka and Tokyo were not interested in action research. Instead,
they were interested in having someone who would talk with their
workers and managers. The expatriate executives could not understand
local workers, did not have the time to listen to them, or were
too isolated from workers to ever communicate with them. They
wanted someone who would talk to staff, and find out more about
their thinking, and listen to their concerns about change.
I initially voiced my worries about how the data would be used,
the lack of structure to the project. I asked the clients why
they didn't go out and talk with workers. I wondered about the
clients' commitment. I would attempt to convince the client of
a structured project-with more time, more resources, more involvement
and more formality. The client would object--the project would
never get started or would be conducted by someone else who would
work in a more accommodating way.
When I realized that a certain degree of flexibility on my part
would get projects off the ground, I was able to develop a clearer
understanding of what the client wanted and needed. I was then
able to develop services that met those needs.
5. The Trap of Being Focused on Only Sessions
Organization development consultants give considerable focus to
planning the sessions at a work-site or conference. Here again,
it seems logical: The trip is expensive, and the consultant is
being paid for the sessions. It is during the sessions, some may
believe, that the real work happens. The temptation is to fill
up the hours with sessions. This is a mistake. The real work and
results may come from informal meetings, face-to-face conversations,
and social events.
Too often the consultant goes overseas, does his or her work
in the sessions, then goes back to the hotel early and skips the
socializing that happens after the sessions. After all, the consultant
is tired, jet-lagged, and must get ready for the next day. When
the project is completed, the organization development consultant
flies home. This focus on sessions only and the rush to return
home (to a familiar environment) robs the consultant of opportunities
to have a greater impact.
The sessions should be seen as only a starting point. The change
and connection inside heads and hearts often happens in the hallways,
in the restaurants, in the bars, and around the pool. The same
planning that goes into sessions should be given to the non-work
hours, non-session time, with substantial time for one-to-one
discussions and informal and formal social events. The organization
development consultant can also have one-to-one conversations
with staff who did not attend the sessions but whose support is
needed for the success of a program.
Global organization development can not be restricted to normal
working hours. Successful global consultants know that what happens
during the after-hours, lunches and parties is as important as
what happens during the sessions.
At a recent Organization Development Network Conference, one presenter
described a client's attempts to speed up the software development
process of their partners in Japan. Headquarters development teams
visited and explained rationally what needed to be done in a series
of sessions. However, it was during dinners and drinking sessions
that the defenses between the teams was reduced and the Japanese
developers were able to understand the needs of headquarters and
commit to a faster schedule.
The consultant who spends time on site before the program begins-and
then stays around at night and after the official program has
been completed will be viewed positively by the client groups
and will have greater success and impact. There will be dinners,
socializing and conversations and a chance for participants to
answer one of their biggest questions: What kind of person is
the consultant who is working with us?
Some people working overseas like to brag that they never encounter
culture shock. I would argue that this may indicate too much distance
from the host culture and the client groups. A dose of culture
shock goes a long way in developing compassion and understanding.
Trap 6. The Trap of Focusing Only on Process
I am always a bit surprised when I meet organizational development
consultants who have worked outside of the United States and tell
me that they focused on process and made no modification in their
approach for culture. It seems that organization development consultants
do not tell me this out of disrespect for local cultures, but
out of pride in their well-developed process skill set. Some tell
me that they focused on process and relied on the local client
representative for cultural insights and industry knowledge.
There are at least two flaws with this approach. First, the processes
of change and working with groups are different in other cultures.
This includes how people view change and the verbal and non-verbal
cues that individuals use in discussions. Even the most sensitive
consultant who focuses on the processes they know will misdirect
and misinterpret much of the process unless they are familiar
with cultural issues.
Second, when the consultant uses his or her process skills as
the starting point, it puts too much focus on the consultant rather
than putting the focus with the client where it belongs. Instead
of focusing on utilizing process skills, the more effective consultant
will focus on the group to learn the special processes of change
in another culture.
One university colleague in Bangkok, Thailand is particularly
effective in working with groups throughout Asia because she spends
time understanding the process of change in countries where she
works. She studies the culture, learns at least a few words in
the language used, learns about her client's business, and understands
the competitive environment for her clients. When she partners
with local consultant, the partnership is based on three platforms:
(1) her understanding of how her process skills will have to be
modified in another culture; (2) her knowledge of the culture
and elementary language knowledge; and (3) her understanding of
her client's business.
Her local partners enjoy working with her because they can connect
with her in these ways. Too often local consultants complain that
they are marginalized in the roles of cultural and business informant.
Most would prefer to be involved in process as well.
Successful internal consultants in any country know that the way
they develop credibility with their clients is to know their client's
business concerns. The best global organization development consultants
must know the business challenges of their clients, and learn
about the culture where they work.
Clients and consultants need a common language. When the consultant
brings process skills that the client can not understand and only
the client representatives has cultural and business knowledge,
the chance for connections are not likely to be deep.
The best preparation for an overseas assignment should include
learning about a foreign culture, and the client's business. The
clients will recognize that you are someone who has made an investment
in working with them.
As reported in Business Week, when Microsoft's Bill Gates and
Steve Ballmer went on a world tour to strengthen Microsoft's businesses
overseas, they didn't watch the movies or sleep on the plane.
Instead, they read books and magazines about every country they
would visit. They learned some words in the local language and
developed an understanding of specific cultures. They connected
with local people by listening and developing an understanding
of the local culture and business practices.
Gates' and Ballmers' approach is one I recommend to all global
organization development consultants. You may be hired for your
expertise in process skills, but you will be re-hired when you
know your client's culture and business.
Concluding Remarks and Suggested Resources
There are many temptations to think of work overseas as "the
same as in the U.S. and Canada." This, I believe, is a mistake
that can have negative consequences for organization development
consultants and their clients.
There are hidden traps of thought and action that damage the impact
of global organization development efforts. This article has discussed
six of these traps and has offered suggestions on how clients
and consultants can avoid them.
If you would like to do additional reading, I recommend starting
with the following books.
Friedman, Thomas L. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. New York: Random
Osland, Joyce Sautters. The Adventures of Working Abroad: Hero
Tales from the Global Frontier. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.
Storti, Craig. The Art of Crossing Cultures. Yarmouth, Maine:
Intercultural Press, 1990.
About the Author
Robert I. Tobin is Professor of Business and Commerce at Keio
University in Tokyo Japan. He is also Visiting Professor of International
Business Management at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.
He is an organization development consultant, executive coach,
and speaker at international conferences. Originally from the
Boston area, he has lived in Asia for over twelve years. He has
worked with more than 100 organizations, including IBM, Nissan,
Merck, AIG, The Gap, NEC, and State Street Companies.