Cross-Cultural ‘Co-opetition’ Means Better Business

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By Cherie Zeringue, BSME, BSBmE, MBA

In any number of industries in the United States, there is a growing trend towards "co-opetition"-that rare and stratified arena where two companies who would otherwise be in competition with one another find strength by joining efforts to pursue common goals.

Many business experts attribute the emergence of this new business structure to the costly acquisitions and mergers of the 1990s that failed to achieve promised profitability or increase shareholder value without considerable restructuring.

Emergent technologies have increased global interaction, making it viable for US companies to enter into cooperative agreements with companies headquartered far across the Atlantic, Pacific or Indian oceans, enabling them to expand their markets and reach target consumers without launching new products. In our own industry, we have watched a number of acquisitions change the roster on the scorecard so much that you no longer need just a program, but an instant messaging system to tell you "who's who." Given such a trend, is it possible that the US orthotics and prosthetics industry will be isolated from global integration? Or will the emergence of super manufacturers force allegiances of smaller companies around the globe to stave off competitive forces?

In either of these scenarios, you may find yourself in the midst of meetings with individuals from another firm based in another country. So what are the "do's and don'ts" of cross-culture meetings and working environments when cooperation and mutual benefit are the primary objectives?

Generalizations about national behaviors run the obvious risk of stereotyping, but a working knowledge of basic cultural traits-ours as well as others'-can minimize surprises, provide advance insight, and improve interactions. For example, the French and American approaches to business have vast differences. First and foremost, the fundamental thought processes of the two groups are totally divergent. The French see truth as unequivocal-something to be discovered by deductive reasoning. If one side is right, the other is wrong. This approach is based on the teaching of René Descartes and is deeply ingrained in the French educational system.

Conversely, Americans tend to be inductive thinkers, following the English tradition of empiricism. Truth is found in the observation and understanding of empirical evidence. The typical American approach is to present data, offer a conclusion, and expect a decision, while the French will "back way up," look at the big picture, and engage in extensive reasoning to arrive at truth. The American desire to get on with the "what" of things runs counter to the French need to first understand the "why."

Americans tend to get to the point. We show the data, draw conclusions, and make recommendations for "next steps." The French will present the big picture first, skillfully move through a series of "therefores" until every detail is covered, and then present a logical conclusion.

As a result of their different views in this and other areas, the two nationalities can develop some unflattering stereotypes of each other. The French are formal, reserved, discreet, precise, technical, and quality-conscious. Americans appear to the French to be brash, informal, casual, loud, too talkative, and quantity-conscious.

However, situations involving such cultural differences are not insurmountable. Aware and open individuals who want a positive outcome can effect the desired result.