From the Mailbag: Advice on Working with Foreign (ex-US) Experts

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Last week, I tapped into the Wisdom of the Working with SMEs Crowd for advice on how to work with experts who are non-US natives and non-English native speakers. Several of you stepped up to serve! In our first-ever guest blog post, Mr. Martin E. Gilligan Jr. generously shares a wealth of international experience with us. Should you care to contact Mr. Gilligan directly, his contact information is below his blog.

Thanks to all of you for your readership and engagement.

Guest Blogger: Martin E. Gilligan, Jr.

Since I got my first foreign sales assignment purely by unfortunate circumstances (for me, the company, and the CEO) – I didn’t even have a Passport, only spoke “pigeon Spanish,”  and only had US/Canada sales experience. BUT, I ended up getting 102 country pins on my travel map and setting sales records in the ten+ years I was responsible for sales/marketing of boilers, HVAC, and Alternative Fuel systems – this was selling capital goods w/ value of $250,000 to $5,000,000 each. Following that, as a consultant, I used to do two to four US / Foreign licenses and/or strategic relationship agreements per year and still do one or two a year for my long-term clients.

In dealing with foreign training, selling, and technical support I learned (the hard way) the following – do it or you’ll pay for it later.

1. Research the country – music, food, culture, customs. Luckily, I was so terrified of my first trip (to Peru for the fish meal industry) I did this without having to be told. Absolutely mandatory for anyone traveling to do the actual teaching/service work and/or supervising such effort – whether or not he/she is on the trip or does it by text/e-mail or Skype from the home office. It can avoid a LOT of “foot-in-mouth” problems. The goal for each of your team members is to come out of the meeting or training session with at least one good personal relationship on the other side. You do that by eating, drinking, socializing with people on their terms, not yours. I always stayed in a local business hotel (not a big US chain) that usually didn’t speak English, but my host (customer, sales rep, distributor) took care of me. You don’t have to speak the language to enjoy a great meal, listen to good music, or watch local happenings or a game with the other person’s kids. These experiences create “bonding” connections which may save the day when you are in deep-doo-doo and need a favor, or when someone is being stubborn or thick-headed and you need advice on how to break the logjam. The other person realizes that it works that way for him/her too so it is not unfair to either party.

2. If you have access to a native language speaker in your industry for that specific country, use them to the hilt. If you don’t, do the research to find a good, competent (in your industry) professional translator. The American Embassy and your Industry Trade Journals that publish in that country are good places to start looking.  Set your schedule so that you have more than a couple of hours alone with the translator to go over what you intend to present and the key points you want to make. It may cost you extra dollars, but you can’t imagine the cost and lost sales and implementation problems a wrong translation can cause, which will usually come back to your account – regardless of what your English Terms & Conditions say. DO NOT use university professors, relatives, or foreign customer employees unless you are sure that they understand the business or subject matter you are going to present. Company employees and professors will “color” their translation with their own opinions and prejudices (especially if they know that you don’t have a clue what they are saying). These comments are especially true of printed or recorded “leave-behind” materials. They should be vetted by someone who will understand something that will come across as “wrong,” “stupid,” “prejudiced,” or “insulting.” The classic example is Chevrolet naming their South American export car NOVA which roughly translates into “no go” or “does not go.” Or the Mexican Restaurant Chi-Chis  which is a crude slang term for breasts in Mexico and Central America.

3. The English as a second language audience is a separate (and often more difficult) case. Many times the so-called English speaking person does not dare to admit that he/she did not understand what was presented due to their status within the company as knowing English. The answer here is the same as # 5 below. Secondly, the English as a second language person understands English in a very specific, exact “dictionary” manner so avoid slang or technical jargon and use simple terms.

4. When scheduling the program, double or triple your normal presentation and break time. After each topic change, stop for questions and to repeat segments that were difficult to understand.  Unless you have been the recipient of an incomprehensible briefing or program in a foreign language with English subtitles or through a translator, you can’t imaging how exhausting it can be – particularly when someone’s company or department or personal success depends on getting it right. Plan on at least one “pure” follow-up session to make sure that the basics “took” and monitor implementation on at least twice the normal frequency as in an English-speaking country.

5. When preparing written documents or brochures/posters,  OR briefing charts/slides, OR scripts for spoken presentation (and there should ALWAYS be a script or detail notes for any spoken briefing in case you have to go back and repeat – prove you made – a specific point) always use very basic and simple English language and sentence construction. Make it easy to translate and/or be understood by the second language person. Many times, to make an important point, you need to repeat it several times using different words and/or illustrations to make the point. NEVER use slang or highly technical jargon without multiple explanations about what it means.

6. If at all possible, especially under license implementation situations, bring a key person from the receiving group to a good example situation in the US or some other English-speaking country so that you have someone in the room who understands most of what you are trying to get across to the others, but don’t let them make the briefing unless he/she has actually run your operation in the US.

This sounds like a lot of work and expense, and it is; but it pales to insignificance when compared with re-doing, repairing, re-training, undoing and re-doing stuff with a 10,000+ mile one-way trip for each session that is not going to be paid by the licensee or customer. As the saying goes: “You can pay now or you can pay later, but you will pay!!”

 

Martin E. Gilligan, Jr., is the Owner & Principal Consultant at MARTIN & ASSOCIATES “Who you SHOULD see before you HAVE TO SEE an attorney”. Mr. Gilligan can be reached directly at martinejr@comcast.net. For more information, visit his website at http://www.martingilliganconsulting.com

Looking for Your Advice and Opinions on Working with Foreign (ex-US) Experts

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The topics for this blog often come from you. Usually a conversation or an email results in ideas, and commonly the same issue will surface a few times within a week or so. This week, several American colleagues mentioned challenges in working with foreign experts who speak a primary language other than English.

As a result, I am going to try something new and start a discussion around the challenges in these situations by creating two hypothetical case studies for you to consider. The readers here have similar interests, so please share your advice, recommendations and opinions with others. Sometimes you respond with comments on the website, other times I hear back personally from you responding to me in email. Either way, if you’d like me to share your comments with other readers, let me know. Hopefully, we’ll all benefit as we learn from the wisdom of the Working With SMEs crowd.

Case Studies To Consider

Case #1: An American English-speaking training company is dealing with Japanese experts in Japan and working remotely with them using Zoom, so they are seeing each other and sharing slides. The training company has a team consisting of a designer and writer both on the calls. The Japanese experts have English skills and the American training team has no Japanese. The trainers are having difficulty understanding the experts’ accents, and the experts present their slides written in Japanese.

Consider: Taking the situation’s perspective from either the training company or the Japanese company, what would be your next move and how would you salvage this relationship so it results in an effective training outcome?

Case #2: An English speaking training company based in the UK with offices in the US has been contracted to build a series of training modules for a company of 150,000 employees located in 75 countries. Many of the employees speak English as a second language. The training company has been hired due to their strength in visual training modalities. They are excited at the opportunity to work with this global corporation and to explore the potential of their cutting edge technology.

Consider: What are some of the first steps you would take to ensure a smooth process? Who should be at the table from the training company and its client company? What kind of safeguards and procedures would you put in place so language and cultural sensitivity is built into the process at each phase?

General Questions to Consider

When an English-speaking American is working with foreign-speaking experts, whether within the U.S. or in another country, how do you build cultural and language supports into your training development?

Do you:

Hire cultural competency experts to ensure sensitivity and eliminate cultural bias?

Hire foreign language or translation experts to assist with non-native English speakers?

Provide cultural or language education for your English-speaking, Western-based training team?

Prefer to work in person as often as possible to develop and strengthen relationships?

Explore the issues openly with clients at the beginning of your relationship, looking for places where you can establish processes and provide additional supports to reduce cultural and language differences or misunderstandings?

Specialize in working with non-native English speakers or outsource your work to training companies that do?

Wisdom of the Working with SMEs Crowd

Instead of our usual offering of advice and opinion, we are turning the tables on you this week. We have a lot of questions. If you have opinions or experiences to share – or even other related questions and issues – we look forward to hearing from you.

Episode 11: The Most Dangerous Assumption about Your Internal Expertise

Welcome to the Working with SMEs Podcast. This week our cohost Nathan Eckel leads a discussion about why all your corporate expert knowledge is not equal. Nathan says that this is the “fun-est” episode we’ve done, and he gets a bit PG-rated but as it turns out, kids can stay in the room.

In our conversation, we talk about the most dangerous assumption that you can make about your corporate knowledge – and that is to decide nothing is important enough to capture. The second most dangerous assumption  is that everything is equally important. Takeaway: Make sure you know what’s important, specific to your organization, and spend your finite resources to codify that.

“Not all your corporate knowledge is equal…capture the things you can’t replicate.”

Thank you for listening! We encourage your comments below.

 

The Disease of Experts

Ronald Reagan is credited with saying the problem with a certain group of people is that so much of what they know isn’t true.

In the interest of bipartisanship, I’ll refrain from mentioning the group he targeted in his remark. But the essence of the remark is pointed: so much of what we think we know ain’t so. Experts aren’t immune to this disease. In fact due to the mantle of infallibility draped on some experts,  they may be more susceptible to error than other mere humans.

“The disease of experts” is a term coined by Malcolm Gladwell.  This morning, leadership guru Michael Hyatt called attention to Gladwell’s phenomenon in his blog as it relates to leadership, and it bears discussion here, as well.

To quote Hyatt’s blog, “Gladwell called overconfidence ‘the disease of experts.’  They think they know more than they actually do. In fact, they make mistakes precisely because they have knowledge.”

Overcoming Overconfidence

Experts are often accustomed to being the smartest person in the room, and this can lead to overconfidence. Certainly expertise in any field by definition requires extensive study. Some say it equates to 10,000 hours of study in one area, which translates to about five years in a full-time job or the years put into gaining a PhD. That kind of work lays the foundation for earned credibility and respect in your field.

Hyatt often talks about the value of humility, and this subject is one that gave him an opportunity to remind his readers, “What we really need are leaders who are humble and willing to listen.”

Beyond that prescription for leaders, I would like to add some advice for experts in any field who are called upon to transfer their knowledge to others.

  1. Question everything. Yesterday’s truth is tomorrow’s myth. See “flat earth meets Galileo.”
  2. Stay current in your field. Some say we now collect as much knowledge in two years as we had from the beginning of human history until today. People around the world are always building on each others’ knowledge. Remain tapped in to other experts in your field so you are aware of the latest developments.
  3. Remember your humble beginnings and treat learners’ questions with respect. Honor the next generation who will build upon your work. They will carry your hard work forward and create the next great leaps in science, technology, education, the arts, business and industry.

After all, it is that student with the perplexing question who leads to the next great leap in your field. Honor the learners and leave a foundation that you have helped build so they can move your field forward to the next levels of innovation.

Answer learners simply and sincerely. Tell them the truth as best you know it, so what they know is so.

Preserving Corporate Expertise is a Risk Management Issue

Risk Management

If you hear something twice, pay attention. In this case, I heard the same comment three times in as many weeks. That comment was about the importance of preserving corporate expertise as a risk management issue. Yes, it is.

Expertise by definition takes time to acquire, is rare and is not easily replaced, which translates into expensive. The experts in your organization are holding some valuable cards, and losing your experts and their knowledge could cost you delays, customers, sales and even the competitive advantage you hold within your industry.

To find your knowledge vulnerabilities, make an assessment of your critical assets by stratifying them according to whatever criteria points to your most acute assets. Not all information is important but if you analyze your company by people, products and divisions you are unlikely to overlook anything.  You may not know all the information you need to retain without a fairly thorough organizational analysis, so it is worthwhile to do a periodic assessment of your potential losses.

Any internal knowledge assessment is strengthened by doing an external scan to give you a strong grasp of the state of your industry and what your competitors are doing as well as a grasp of how your business and your industry fits into the larger global economy. You may have cornered the market on dial telephones but you needed to understand the impact of mobile phone technology to understand where your business was headed. That kind of information will tell you what to keep and what new kinds of expertise you need to begin to acquire to stay in your game.

Because knowledge management is (or should be) an integral part of your corporate strategic plan, it argues for making sure your training department remains close to your C-suite to align missions. Such alignment will help prevent wasting scarce training dollars on short-sighted training efforts.

Especially with the pace of change both technologically and geopolitically, you can’t afford to ignore a thorough analysis of your knowledge management needs that considers your company’s vulnerabilities now and into the future. That is why your knowledge management plan should be an integral part of your corporate risk assessment.

Episode 8: Make Sure Your Knowledge Capture Supports Your Succession Plan

In this episode of the Working with SMEs podcast, cohost Nathan Eckel leads a discussion about the importance of doing a thorough knowledge scan and capture in your organization to support succession planning efforts.

While it is likely that any new leadership is going to make some changes, a thorough assessment of the important knowledge assets in your organization can help new leaders make critical decisions and support their efforts to move the enterprise forward. As Nathan points out, often it is the soft, coded or unarticulated knowledge that is the special sauce that makes your company successful.

So it is important as you plan for the future of your organization that you do a thorough assessment of your assets today,  and that you make sure you retain that information that you can’t afford to lose.

We welcome your comments and feedback. Thanks for listening.

Podcast Episode 7: Small and Medium Business Survival Planning

In this episode of the Working with SMEs podcast, co-host Nathan Eckel leads a discussion about the importance of finding your critical corporate advantages especially in small and family businesses where succession planning can be even more sensitive than in larger, publicly-held corporations.

You can leave behind a sustainable organization by putting supports around new leadership.

Find out your most critical assets by building a map of your competitive advantages that explore your most valuable products, processes and people.

We welcome your feedback in the comment section below. Thanks for listening!

 

Podcast 2: Capturing the Right Knowledge at the Right Time

Welcome to Episode 2 of the Working with SMEs Podcast. Today, Nathan Eckel and I talk about 4 questions that commonly arise when we talk to corporate executives about managing the knowledge of their internal experts. (Listening time: 16:25)

Listen as Nathan and I drill down into these four questions:

1. Are we talking to the right experts?

2. What knowledge should we capture that is most important to the business going forward?

3. What knowledge needs to be captured immediately as opposed to eventually?

4. If we have limited resources or limited time, which experts should we speak with first?

Are you using your valuable, finite resources to capture the right experts?  Please comment below!

The Expert’s Curse: You Need Patience and a Plan

Ignorance isn’t always bliss. For experts in any field, whether they have double PhDs  or have been operating a complex machine for 20 years, the curse is the fact that experts, by definition, know more than they can ever re-tell succinctly.

Abraham Maslow is credited with developing the levels of competence that has true experts at the pinnacle of competence. Maslow said experts are unconscious competents who know more than most people will ever be able to learn about their field. Often, experts are unconsciously competent because they love their field; they think about their work even when they aren’t at work. Their knowledge becomes part of their identity usually internally and often externally.

Expertise Challenges Corporate Knowledge Management Efforts

If experts could stay in one position forever, their job never changed, their company’s mission never changed, the market never changed and technology didn’t evolve, expertise would not be a curse. But in reality, some or all of those things are bound to change over time. And that is when it is important to be able to excavate the expert’s knowledge for preservation, modification and transfer. Change presents challenges to corporate knowledge management efforts.

If your experts are so immersed in their own knowledge that they can’t completely reconstruct it, how can your company manage the wealth of corporate intelligence?

First, companies need to get their arms around the body of knowledge, skills and attitudes that make them profitable and valuable to customers. Many companies today who are facing changing conditions – such as mass baby boomer retirements, corporate downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, competition from nimble startups – are putting plans in place to make sure they preserve critical information.

When preserving critical information, most companies start by working with their internal experts to ensure business continuity. And that is when they encounter “The Expert’s Curse”.

Patience and a Plan

Many companies are finding themselves stuck at the intersection where they have made the decision to catalogue critical corporate knowledge and the place where they decide how to collect it. They need to make decisions about how best to collect it based on what technology and skills sets they must employ to gather information in a logical framework and how best to organize it for effective transfer while overcoming the expert’s resistance to describing their knowledge.

Often the expert’s resistance is simply the result of too much work to do. But many times that resistance is accompanied by a true frustration about how to begin to deliver a stepwise description of their expertise whether it is intellectual capital, processes, procedures or physical actions. How do  you impart what is often a lifetime of study and application – the subtleties, hints, tricks and clues- that lead an expert to make decisions that those with less experience are not as equipped to make?

You can never replace an expert. But you can isolate the unique knowledge they bring to your organization and lead them to re-tell it in a way that allows it to be captured and preserved. You can help your experts overcome their brilliant blessing disguised as a curse. It just takes patience and a plan.

Replace Products with Outcomes in the New Economy

We touched on this idea in an earlier blog, and “this idea” is that to stay competitive in a rapidly changing industrial environment, you need to focus on the business you are really in. The example was Kodak, that once shining icon of great invention that lost its luster when it failed to identify its core mission. Read the Kodak blog here.

Why is this important in relation to your corporate expertise? Simply, you must make a clear-headed decision about whether today’s expertise is relevant tomorrow because you will have to dedicate your valuable, finite resources to capture and retain it. This important decision is cause for some crystal ball gazing, for sure, but it is important work as you decide to put energy, time and money into making training and talent development decisions in your organization.

I was reminded of this critical decision today when I stumbled on this article in strategy+business  titled “The End of Conventional Industry Sectors”.  Here’s the link.

The article discusses how basic industries, particularly in the manufacturing sector, are evolving their business models to respond to a different culture spurred in part by exponential leaps in technology. For example, car manufacturers are reimagining themselves as the providers of on-demand mobility which may – or may not – involve owning a personal mobility device (eg. a car, for those of you following along on the home game).

The call to action to remain competitive is to think of your company in terms of the outcomes that it provides to its customers which may or may not involve the current products and services you offer. Had Kodak expanded its awareness that it was providing memory capture, as opposed to film and chemicals, it might have soared in the age of digital cameras rather than ceding the field to companies that made cellular phones and photocopiers.

As you assess the knowledge that you must capture and retain, consider the gems that reside in departments focused on the customer, especially sales. What do they know about your customers’ needs that may elude the design department that is focused on the body design of the latest model year car? Download the information from your sales and marketing people, survey your boards of directors, ask your CFO what’s rising, what’s falling and do they know why?

Beyond R&D and manufacturing, think about your future customers when you determine the kinds of knowledge that you need to retain and (dare I say?) exploit to remain competitive.

I also want to thank the great team at AmpTech in Malvern PA for hosting our workshop. Thanks to Drew Ortyn, Simon Kassas, Summer Kumar and Natalie Haritonow for arranging everything. We hope to be back with more topics soon.