The cultural issues corporations now face are truly multidimensional.
How can you integrate corporate cultures in response to M&As? How do you enhance sensitivity to national differences in an era of exploding globalization?
How do you deal with the new realities of the post-9/11 world? There has never been a greater need to train employees on cultural awareness, and to diffuse potential cultural conflict in the broader social context.
Yet, while many global corporations have begun to offer "cultural diversity training for their employees, this training too often consists of no more than a short module tacked onto an existing program aimed at preventing discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
Large global companies now have resources to create their own cultures across the globe; a feeling of belonging to a community with shared interests; distinct hierarchical and organizational structures; a sense of mission and purpose; a distinct language; and so on. Out of these companies are arising new corporate identities - clusters of shared interests that take on their own unique cultural traits, with tentacles reaching well beyond corporate headquarters.
Similarly, as companies take positions on global issues - the environment, poverty and development, globalization, resource management, and other ethical and moral matters - some are emerging as opinion leaders and shapers.
Numerous corporations are now headed by so-called "thought leaders," often charismatic, high-profile individuals who attract significant media attention, and who have many followers and devotees.
But while new cultures and identities may be emerging among corporations, "traditional cultural divisions and tensions remain as entrenched as ever, as the events of 9/11 underscore. And while globalization continues, many are resorting to old cultural referents - race, religion, ethnicity, etc. - as international tensions heighten.
During the 1990s, US companies became locked into a specific diversity paradigm as major corporations integrated discrimination and diversity awareness into their overall employee training, including awareness of gender, age, race, sexual orientation, physical challenges, etc. Often, a vital element - awareness of cultural diversity - was missing. The challenge now is to expand diversity training beyond its pre-9/11 definitions.
To date, most companies haven't effectively met this challenge. For one, education in cultural diversity is not mandated in any state or federal law. In addition, measuring the bottom-line impact of cultural training is hard.
Large global companies that employ thousands of workers representing various national groups face another hard reality: they are operating in a time of "war - or at the least higher international tension. Moreover, the major source of this conflict isn't political or economic ideologies, as it was in the Cold War, but religious and national - in short, cultural - differences. Global corporations have been thrown into this new paradigm with little in the way of cultural awareness weaponry in their existing diversity arsenal.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that some governments have made little effort to promote cross-cultural understanding, to alleviate tensions between cultural groups, or even to actively reduce cultural stereotyping.
In fact, recent moves by the US government to screen new arrivals and visitors from selected countries and, in effect, to conduct ethnic and religious profiling, have only heightened tensions and feelings of animosity in some cultural groups.
What can corporations do? They must position themselves as leaders in promoting cultural diversity awareness, and instituting cultural diversity training. They must be seen actively sensitizing all their employees to the issues of cultural stereotyping, and be prepared to actively step in when cultural tensions arise.
Second, they have to state publicly and categorically where they stand on issues of cultural stereotyping, and how they are addressing issues of cross-cultural conflict at both the national and international levels of their operations.
Third, for better or worse, large corporations must realize that they may have to fill in gaps left by a poor education system when it comes to geographical and cultural awareness. Basic knowledge of the outside world is essential for all employees in whatever roles they are in, especially in companies that operate across international borders.
Fourth, companies need to avoid the temptation of cutting back on cultural awareness programs during times of downsizing and budget cuts. Although some corporations may view cultural training as a luxury, the medium- to long-term payoff will be huge. One can envisage, for example, a time when corporations are rated not only on governance and transparency, but also on cultural sensitivity and how they tackle cultural conflicts in the workplace.
Intercultural training is a vital element of employee communications in the modern world. The PR industry must do what it can to emphasize that to senior management.
Markus C. Matthews, Ph.D, is director of content and managing editor at AcrossFrontiers International, a leading-edge new media content developer and distributor, founded in 1998.