This case study describes the impact that cultural differences can have on a very large multinational travel organization. It also covers the effect that cultural competence training can have to, ultimately, save time and money.

What Are The Key Take Aways?

After following a two-day workshop with me this is what came out:

  • Nobody is right or wrong, we are all just different, so we all need to be open and compromise.
  • We often “joke” about our differences, which really helps break down barriers & frustrations which we definitely didn’t know how to deal with before.
  • When I’m recommending your courses to others I often tell a story (a true one) of a conversation I had after I attended the course and a French colleague of mine attended the one in Belgium later in the week.
  • After discussing how much we had enjoyed and learned from the course, I then asked Laurent for some information.
  • His response was “But Irene, you now know that as I’m French I can’t just give you the information I must verify with my manager first!”
  • I responded, “ But Laurent you know I’m British so I need it NOW!
  • After much laughter, we did agree on a compromise date to suit both our needs.
  • The openness and the appreciation for each other’s culture certainly helps support our working relationship and mutually agree on an action plan.

The company name, numbers, and other specifics have been slightly modified to make it more suitable for describing this case.

Company Description

  • Name: Universal International Travel
  • British based, founded in 1932 with head-office in London
  • Number of employees: 76,000 mainly European based
  • Revenue: €23.000 million
  • Products: Chartered and scheduled flights; hotels; travel services

Change Management at its Best

Since the beginning of time, Universal International Travel had been run on a “per-country-basis“. The Germans took care of the Germans, the Dutch of the Dutch, the French of the French, the Belgians of the Belgians, and the Brits of the Brits. Oh, I forgot the Nordic region…

Each had their own management, staff, planes (the bigger the source market, the more planes of course), etc. But they all flew to the boeing dreamlinersame destinations:

  • Spain,
  • Greece,
  • Italy,
  • Asia,
  • Carribean
  • North America

In 2015, top management of the company decided that it was time for a major restructuring. This to make the company ready for the future of demanding business and leisure travelers and also to better deal with increasing (low-cost) competitors.

The French, Germans, Dutch, Belgians, Nordics, and the Brits all had to go and do things together

On paper, that sounds easy. Even if you take out language difficulties, because everyone spoke and speaks English, right?

But in practice, it turned out different…

The Biggest Surprise for Managment

In 2016 the HR department of Universal International Travel (UIT) distributed a questionnaire among its first three layers of management. From C-level management to Project management. This to find out what the specific skill-needs their management still needed in order to facilitate this cross-border integration.

Their initial expectation was that topics like:

  • Sales,
  • Communication,
  • Presentation skills,
  • Negotiation skills,

would be the outcome. But that was not the case. Much to their surprise, almost unanimously these three layers of management suggested the one skill that they were miss was… How to Deal With Other Cultures.

Most people were not so much against the new company structure. But they struggled with the different cultures they now had to deal with. For some reason colleagues from other companies acted strangely; replied in weird ways; didn’t work logically, where wasting time (yes, and money) by doing so.

And the trouble was that they all thought this of each other. Back and forth. Criss-cross…

Not Everyone Needs to Know Everything

Sandra, who worked in the London head-office, contacted me to see if I could be of help to them. I could. We discussed at length what the objectives should be:

  1. Awareness of one’s own culture.
  2. Understanding the other cultures.
  3. Being able to communicate effectively with each other.
  4. Specific management skills (like negotiations, teamwork, leadership).

But not for everyone. For some people, it would suffice just to be aware of one’s own culture and a better understanding of the other cultures. But for some, the level of knowledge should go deeper.

For that reason, I designed a one-day and a two-day workshop.

These workshops were promptly executed in three locations:

  • London
  • Berlin
  • Brussels

Some other workshops, shorter, where held in Spain, Turkey, Bangkok, Mexico, and Amsterdam.

On average, there were about 15 to 20 people per workshop. Enough to give each individual enough “air-time” but also to create the necessary group dynamics.

Did C-Level Management Get Involved?

Yes, they did. At one of the workshops in Berlin, Peter, COO based in London, sat in on the two-day workshop. He realized that his C-level colleagues also had to go through this for real change and cultural competence starts at the top.

So, that’s what happened. A couple of weeks later all the big shots (15 of them) had cleared their agenda to spend two days with me in Brussels.

We had good fun but also covered a lot of ground. Management finally realized that by wishing an integration to happen doesn’t make it so.

How Did It Trickle Down the Organization?

Something must have been right about the design and execution of the workshops because soon after the first batch of workshops were given, other departments (Aviation, Accounting, Destinations, and IT) started requesting their workshops as well.

I must have seen hundreds of people over the course of two years.

What Were the Main Pain Points?

Here are a couple of typical pain points that kept coming back. Throughout all organizational disciplines:

  • The Brits couldn’t deal with the detailed planning that the Germans wanted; they thought the Germans were far too rigid.
  • The Germans didn’t like that the Brits simply wanted to “get on with it” without really knowing what to get on with; there was no plan.
  • The Brits also couldn’t deal with the indecisiveness of the Nordics. They just kept on talking and talking and talking without ever reaching a decision.
  • The Nordics, as the Germans did, found the Brits just wanting to move and move and move. They didn’t involve anyone, which, according to them, they should.
  • The French and Belgians said that the Dutch were just law-less and didn’t listen to anyone, but simply did their own thing.
  • While at the same time the Dutch said about the French and the Belgians that they couldn’t make a decision if their boss wasn’t there.

And of course, there was a lot more that was covered.

What’s the outcome? Who benefitted?

The proof of the pudding is always in the eating. So, I did a little tour through the organization to see how they benefited from being better culturally competent.

Here’s what they had to say:

  • There’s a lot less frustration now when I work with my colleagues from other countries. It has become much more relaxed to communicate.
  • I managed to save quite some time because I now could approach my colleagues much more targeted; I would distribute certain tasks and project to colleagues who’s culture would better support that specific task.
  • And of course with the above, I managed to save time and therefore also money… the through-put time of certain projects got reduced, which of course means more cost-effective and less cost overall. Which would lead to people having more time to work on other projects, which would make things move faster. Well, you get the point.
  • Many people have also fedback that one of the biggest learnings they have from the course is how others view them and their culture. This makes you very mindful of how others see you and when appropriate impact the way to contribute to meetings and projects.
  • As a native English speaker, I’m very mindful of the words and phrases I use. I can no longer say “interesting” even if I do think something is really interesting! 

What Can You Do?netflix logo

This real case-study does not only pertain to the travel industry. Think about global regional companies like:

  • Netflix (American with its European head office in Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
  • Spotify (Swedish with a global audience)
  • Eurostar (UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands)
  • Hotel chains
  • Car manufacturers
  • Etc.

Realize that Culture Matters and that you can become culturally competent too.

Get in Touch With Me

If you want to read more read this article: 9 Signs You’re Not Getting It (It’s Culture Stupid!)

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Chris Smit

I'm passionate about Cultural Difference. I have been helping organizations save time and money when they work Internationally for the last 19 years. I have had the fortunate opportunity to hold lectures, workshops, and consulting projects on this subject World Wide. It has made me understand my own culture much better, and appreciate the differences around the world.
I have a Master's Degree in Organisational Psychology and have lived in the USA, the Netherlands and, currently, in Belgium.
Thank you!

Chris Smit

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