US business finds cultural chauvinism doesn't pay
As an undergraduate at Amherst College in Massachusetts in the late '60s, Lewis Griggs campaigned to rid the school of its foreign-language requirements. Any effort to help understand the outside world seemed superfluous to him.Skip to next paragraph
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Fifteen years later, Mr. Griggs says that that ''myopia'' was a mistaken view. Moreover, too many Americans, particularly those in business, continue to hold it, he says.
An alumnus also of the Stanford Graduate Business School, Griggs is today producer and chief promoter of a series of films designed to help prepare Americans for the different world they enter when they do their business overseas.
Called ''Going International,'' the four-part series produced by Copeland Griggs Productions of San Francisco alerts viewers to the kinds of differences in culture and custom they can expect to encounter, as well as to the difficulties families often face in living overseas - and once they return.
Mr. Griggs appears to have struck a chord. After a year on the market, the films - which feature recognized consultants and former expatriates and their families - have been purchased by more than 1,000 companies, schools, and government agencies.
There is no question that American companies are confronting a ''tougher sell'' in an increasingly international marketplace. In 1983, Americans took more than 4 million business trips overseas, almost double the number of five years earlier. ''Within the past few years, the odds have grown much greater that a plant manager in Louisville will have dealings with people overseas,'' says Stephen Kobrin, associate professor of international business at New York University.
Despite the growth in overseas-orientation services, a number of international business observers say they detect no widespread effort by American companies to educate employees on the pitfalls they face in trading overseas. Griggs's own statistics show that less than 10 percent of the 35,000 American companies with international connections provide orientation to employees traveling abroad.
Touting a promotional packet for his films which lists such companies as the Bechtel Group, Levi-Strauss, and IBM as buyers, Griggs says, ''We realize that the first companies to buy were those who have a perceived need. It's the smaller companies who are new to the international scene that are going to be less sure about spending the $2,000 (for the films).''
That figure - as well as the consultants' fee of $30 or more per hour to provide orientation services - seems minuscule compared with the cost of an unsuccessful international business trip or a long-term overseas assignment cut short because of an unhappy spouse. With the annual cost of keeping a family overseas easily surpassing $250,000, repeated ''early returns'' can become a major blot on a company's ledger sheet.
Nessa Loewenthal, an Orinda, Calif., specialist in preparing employees and their families for overseas assignments, notes that simply moving a chair in a German office can violate a German's sense of order. But she and other consultants say that different conceptions of time - and especially the Americans' accelerated work pace - are the major obstacle to smooth international dealings.
And there are indications that much of the misunderstanding, confusion, and lack of adaptability that can hamper overseas assignments is preventable. According to Griggs, Bechtel cut its ''early return'' rate by almost 90 percent with orientation programs.
Griggs says he sees his films primarily as ''tools'' to be used in conjunction with more in-depth preparation. ''If the films can encourage viewers to read a book about the country they're visiting, then they've accomplished something,'' he says. The Commerce Department uses the films in seminars on export promotion, and in preparing its own employees for overseas work. In addition, colleges (which, like other nonprofit organizations, can purchase the films at a 40 percent discount) make the films part of orientation for study-abroad programs.