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Business Across Cultures: Levels of Intercultural Contact

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For newly arrived foreign professionals in Indonesia, there is often one general but important question: How am I going to work with my Indonesian colleagues to achieve the goals of the company? The foreign professional is moving into a new culture. A culture where the ground rules and expectations are quite different from the society in which he learned to function. The speed in which one can learn the basic assumptions and expectations found in Indonesian business, will determine the effectiveness or even the very success of an overseas posting.

The question of how to best interact with Indonesian managers is, of course, a very complex subject that needs to be addressed on several levels. One of the factors that determines the kind and degree of cultural awareness required is the type and level of contact that a foreign professional has with Indonesian executives and managers.

Some foreign professionals working here may have little interaction with traditional Indonesian business culture. Personnel living in western compounds in the Oil & Gas sectors, for instance, may have little opportunity to even learn about what business is like for others working on the front line in Jakarta, Surabaya or Medan. Some top executives may be so surrounded by western-trained staff that they observe little difference in actual office operations. However, every foreign professional working in Indonesia has some level of contact with Indonesian executives and managers at sometime or another.

It is possible to break the level of contact down into three broad categories. First are the Indonesian employees who work for the foreign professional. For an engineer this may be his technical staff, while for a general manager this may include fairly senior Indonesian employees. Second are the co-workers and other personnel roughly the same level of status as the foreign professional. This is particularly important if someone is expected to work as a member of a team with other employees. And third are the Indonesian Bapak in the foreign professional's company and in other companies or departments with which he has to interface. The amount of contact one has with each of these categories determines the degree of adaptation the foreign professional must make to be effective in his position.

In the first category, the foreign professional should concentrate on building effective intercultural office management skills. Here he will have to address all the cultural situations that can arise in an office setting including the issues of bad news, punctuality, efficiency and performance appraisals. The foreign professional in this situation may have a bit of an advantage. If he is regarded as the boss, he can use his authority to order things done no matter how damaging it is to the relationships in the office.

Foreign professionals who are in a group working situation have the often difficult task of trying to build and fit into a multi-cultural team. Unless both sides of the team understand the cultural backgrounds of the other, there are bound to be problems. Because there are different cultures and personalities in contact, a lengthy learning process is usually required. Sensitivity to one another's cultural traits is essential. Employees on both sides of this type of working arrangement should focus on developing their cross-cultural communication and team-building skills.

The third category is usually encountered by top executives and business development personnel. Here the situation involves representing your company or department to Bapak in other departments or offices. In this case, a thorough understanding of Indonesian meeting and negotiation techniques is required. The Western stereotypes of showing negative emotion, giving deadlines or displaying rude behavior will probably end your meeting or negotiation quickly. Foreign professionals in this situation need to increase their understanding of the importance and ways of showing respect while trying to understand what the Bapak on the other side is really saying.

Because the level of contact varies, each foreign professional has to concentrate on what cultural aspects are needed to increase his personal job efficiency. Developing multi-culturalism, the ability to function easily in more that one culture, takes time and effort. The more information and experience that the foreign professional has, the more effective he will be.

No matter what the level of contact there is between foreign professionals and Indonesian co-workers, the chances of developing successful, efficient working relationships increases dramatically when there is cultural knowledge, understanding and sensitivity on both sides.


This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.

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