Participating in a diverse or global workplace is no longer a choice. Australia is connected and culturally diverse now, and our economic future is in the Asian region. Forty five percent of Australians were born overseas or at least one or their parents were. The fastest growing languages in Australia are Mandarin, Arabic and Hindi. Our children are growing up in an interconnected world where Asian economies are having increasing influence.
In my business, a large part of our role is educating our clients about the realities of Asia. When we were engaged by Austrade to research Australian perceptions of Asian markets, we found Asia was often seen ‘a traditional yet poverty stricken region which needs Australian ‘help’’, rather than a business destination. It’s interesting to look at where these perceptions originate. Due to prolific tourism campaigns, Asian cultures are widely seen as ‘traditional’ with highly evolved local crafts and ‘cultural activities’ such as vegetable carving and local dancing. Another key source of information about Asia is the news which features footage of frequent natural disasters and a risk of terrorism. The perspectives of Australia one would receive through similar channels may feature the dangers of sharks, spiders, fires and floods, and oversimplified, or images of swagmen, convicts and aboriginal people throwing boomerangs. Such imagery does not reflect the daily experience of life in Australia, nor in Asian cultures. The images of Asia we less frequently see are those of people like you and me living their lives, travelling to work on the train (which in many Asian cities is a far more pleasant and reliable experience than in Sydney) and working in a globally connected environment with high speed internet (far higher speeds than we have in Australia). Asia is a key business destination, and many Asian economies are the fastest growing in the world.
Cultural literacy is not only about recognising the surface symbols and visual cues of cultural difference. Such symbols can readily lead us astray, and we often hear cultural difference being minimised due to the appearance of sameness “Culture is becoming the same everywhere, people drink Starbucks and wear Levi’s”. To understand cultural difference, one needs to explore: the difference of values, beliefs and world-views; their origins; and the implications for how people act and interact in the world. For example, for an Australian engineer to be effective when working on an infrastructure project in China, technical skills are not enough. Cultural literacy will often make the difference between a bridge being built or significant delays being encountered. To enable a bridge to be built, it’s important to be able to lead a cross-cultural team, to negotiate with senior bureaucrats, and to communicate clearly with key project team members. Such skills are developed through an understanding of the world-view of counterparts, their cultural origins and ideally, local language capabilities.
Cross-cultural collaboration is increasingly complex. We are being called upon to assist global teams collaborate in a virtual, online environment. Last year we worked with the leadership team of a large multinational company which involved key team members from more than ten Asian cultures and one Australian office. When the team came together, we worked with the team to discuss and agree upon shared process, common goals, and behavioural norms. Behavioural flexibility, an awareness of one’s own cultural preferences, and the ability to develop close working relationships with others are essential skills. The Australian team members committed to listen more than they speak, Japanese colleagues committed to share their opinions when asked, Thais committed to share constructive feedback. Cultural ‘awareness’ is not enough. If someone needs to be a good leader, we don’t invest in ‘leadership awareness’ training. Awareness is essential and the first step, skills development follows. Extensive research shows, individuals who are most effective across cultures have highly developed people skills, empathy, self awareness and a tolerance for ambiguity. Such skills make us better citizens and fully contributing members of society. The ability to recognise the strength and validity of diverse perspectives, to negotiate difference and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes are essential skills for a rapidly changing world. Deep learning about other cultures is a primary avenue of developing such skills.
The issues we face as Australians can not be solved by technical knowledge, or by ourselves. Global challenges confront us: the global economic crisis, global warming, and resource scarcity are just a few examples. Australia’s ability to thrive and prosper as a nation is dependent on our ability to collaborate with our neighbours to work toward solutions on shared issues. Particularly in post-colonial settings, there is a resistance to outsiders ‘telling’ what should be done, or alternatively a passive acceptance of the aid revenue stream. As has been so strongly proven through the ineffectiveness of so much international aid, technical ‘skills transfer’ and dollars alone do not effectively enable communities. Multilateral agencies such as APEC are rethinking their models of capacity building. In 2008, we designed a framework for capacity building in APEC, commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which focuses on ‘Twinning’. Twinning is a way of developing partnerships for capacity building. The most effective capacity building, and development happens through incremental approaches which are tailored to the local context and involve partnerships for mutual benefit. A good example of such partnerships in the education space is the Asia Education Foundation’s School BRIDGE project. The project will involve 90 Australian and 90 Indonesian educators from 40 Australian and 40 Indonesian schools. These educators will work together to develop intercultural understanding, improve professional capacity to support implementation of Internet-based collaborative learning and actively support language learning.
Education in Asian cultures is highly valued, and cross-cultural learning and language skills are recognised as the key to guarantee future employability and economic security. Hundreds of thousands of Asian students are highly literate in the cultures, and languages of the west and also of their home countries and regions, and will be competing in a global workplace with our children. 543 000 international students were studying in Australia in 2008 (Gillard, cited in The Australian, Guy Healey, Feb 26, 2009). There are over 300 000 Australian alumni in Malaysia, and over 95 000 Indian students currently studying in Australia. These students become competent at traversing intercultural spaces, expect to have career paths which involve global mobility, and will be able to draw on their international networks to achieve results.
As mother of two children under four years old, I have a vested interest in contributing to the conversation about our future national curriculum. I don’t envy the National Curriculum Board their task in such a rapidly changing context. One thing we can be certain of in these times of change is that the world will be radically different by the time our children graduate. The ability to navigate difference, to find common ground with people from diverse backgrounds, and to deepen our knowledge of our cultural starting point will stand us in good stead. I truly hope the Australian education system provides my children with the opportunities to develop key Asia skills and language abilities. I honestly believe these are the skills which they will need for the future.
By Tamerlaine Beasley
Managing Director of Beasley Intercultural