CULTURAL DIVERSITY AND INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION
The business case and the “expat cycle”
What exactly is an expatriate? And how does this term differ from “migrant”?
The term expatriate - derived from the Latin “ex-patriare” - means “to leave one’s country”. The
sometimes blurred distinction between the “expatriate” and the more common and
all encompassing “migrant” lies in the fact that the former is usually more skilled
and qualified and doesn’t plan to establish in the foreign country, while other
migrants move in order to settle in the new territory to improve their quality
of life, for example finding a job (economic migrants), a safe haven (asylum
seekers - refugees), or living in a country with a pleasant climate (lifestyle
migrants) . The numbers are pretty significant, with some 214 million estimated overall migrants in 2010.
In this article, we will focus on expatriates, whose number is steadily growing. There has been an increasing attention in
recent years to providing more support to them, in particular to those professionals
working for multinational companies and on a temporary assignment abroad. The focus on this type of support has historically been on a more practical
level: assistance with moving, accommodation, language lessons, etc.. However,
more recently, there has been a concentrated effort on assisting expatriates with
the more personal aspects of international mobility and giving them the knowledge, awareness and instruments
to be able to understand more about themselves therefore helping them to integrate more easily into their new environment.
Specific training programmes have been therefore developed by most far-sighted
multinational conglomerates - including Generali Group - specifically aimed at:
- Equipping participants with skills to live with, adapt to, make sense of and
- Building cross-cultural competence in order to ensure that individuals and the
Group create value from diversity
- Facilitating the speed and effectiveness of integration in a new job and new working environment
- Fostering the exchange of knowledge and experience from one country and company to another through a network of
internationally mobile managers: growing a set of change agents for the Group
- Reinforcing the perception of the Group as a distinctive and diverse whole and
build a sense of Group-wide identity
It is extremely common for an expatriate to go through a cultural adaptation
cycle. The “expat cycle” is a cycle that shows the various emotions that expatriates are likely to feel
at certain points in their transition:
- The initial “honeymoon period” immediately after arriving in the new country
- a dip over the next few months during which an expatriate may have difficulties with
the language, feeling home-sick, problems with country bureaucracy
- a period of recovery, where the difficulties appear less serious and even humorous
- the final phase where expatriates finally start to feel at home
If problems persist and expatriates do not get to the recovery stage they may
decide to terminate their assignment and return to their home country. Given this
well-known emotional roller-coaster an organisation who can support the expatriate through this cycle with tools
to navigate this period well is likely to have a more effective and satisfied
Cultural dimensions and the Trompenaars studies
The overall expatriate experience, however, needs to be properly evaluated within
the cross-cultural context, a very interesting field of study where Fons Trompenaars - and his company Trompenaars Hampden-Turner (THT) has emerged as one of the
culture gurus of contemporary society, in particular for his studies on the 7
dimension model of culture.
Research has shown that often when we work with people, we expect them to act
like us, to make similar decisions as us and to communicate in a similar way,
especially if they are of the same nationality. When people do not act in the
way that we expect there can be conflict. Trompenaars argues that this can happen because our culture influences our
value system and different cultures may have different value systems that are
different to our own.
This model of 7 dimensions provides insights into the differences in these value systems and therefore
helps to explain why cultures may react in the same, similar, or completely different
ways to our own.
Each of the 7 dimensions are composed of a dichotomy, with each culture (and
therefore country) demonstrating a lean towards one or the other opposite. Understanding
where a particular country sits within this model helps us to understand more
about them. The dimensions look at the following categories:
- Universalism vs particularism: the emphasis on rules or relationships
- Individualism vs Communitarianism: the emphasis on groups or individuals
- Specificity vs Diffuseness: to what extent and how cultures get involved
- Affectivity vs Neutrality: to what extent cultures display emotion
- Inner directed vs outer directed: levels of control of nature
- Achieved status vs ascribed status: how and what type of status is rewarded
- Sequential time vs synchronic time: approach to time
Each country will sit on one or the other side of this model and is therefore
likely to display certain norms and behaviours according to this placing.
So, what does this mean for business? For business this understanding becomes
important as elements of culture become part of (often nationally defined) ‘business systems’, i.e., the way that business activities are coordinated in different countries.
In a country which is used to doing business in a certain way the ‘interference’
of a new culture may be unwelcome. It is a well-known fact that one of the main
reasons that company mergers fail is contrasting cultures, where one business is used to doing things in
one way, and the other in its, different, way.
The Generali Group’s Innovation Academy: "e-learning" cultural diversity
Generali Group employs approximately 85.000 people and is present in more than
60 countries in Europe, the Americas and Asia. International Mobility has always
been a lever inside Generali Group, with a strong focus on the quality of the
moves and time devoted to processes such as selection, integration, and assistance
to the expatriates and their families.
The learning vehicle of the Generali Group is the Generali Group Innovation Academy (GGIA) which is located in Mogliano Veneto’s Generali Headquarters, close to Venice,
and since its foundation back in 2005 it has provided numerous hours of learning
to employees within and outside of Italy, at all levels, totalling some 1 million
classroom hours. In 2011 some 168.000 hours of training were delivered.
Around five years ago the GGIA developed a classroom –based training program
named Marco Polo targeted specifically at expatriate needs in regards to culture and working
with colleagues and other stakeholders in their new host country. With assistance
from the International Mobility Team based in the Corporate Centre of Generali
and a selection of Local Mobility Managers the group used their experience in
welcoming expatriates to build a learning intervention that would help expatriates
understand more about themselves, their cultural context, the cultural context
of others and also the practical processes that would accompany their assignment.
The content of the programme was a balance of the theory of culture, practice
and process and ensured that participants were set up for success for their international
Having realized the complexity of the challenge it was later decided to extend
the idea of the Marco Polo training, albeit in a different form, to a broader population. In late 2011 the GGIA began work on what was to be the sister programme of
Marco Polo, Pangea. The target audience was those managers and teams hosting the expatriates. Given that this target group would be much higher than actual expatriate numbers,
for reasons of economies of scale it was decided that an e-learning product would be much more effective as a learning intervention; significantly
lower costs per head, easy to access, comfort in accessibility, etc.
In order to understand the learning needs of this new programme, a focus group,
made up by expatriates and managers of expatriates, was invited to share their
experiences, the difficulties they encountered, examples of best-practice they
had seen, in order to build content for the e-learning that would be very relevant
to the users.
Pangea will focus on four key areas:
- The business case for diversity
- Generali in the world
- The theory of cultural dimensions
Whilst the focus of the e-learning is geared towards cultural diversity, the
programme has allowed the GGIA to introduce the concept of diversity as a whole. The theme of diversity is one that has possibly been more prevalent in North
American and Anglosaxon business cultures, where the introduction of equality
legislation in general (race, gender, religious, sexual orientation, age, disability,
etc) has encouraged a more speedy approach to integration, acceptance and inclusion
of minority groups within the workplace. Since studies on diversity began around
the 1980s the idea that the quality of decision-making within heterogeneous groups outperforms that of homogenous
groups has become a fairly accepted standard.
The course looks specifically at the relationship of Generali and culture and
how through the process of international mobility the Group can support its internationalisation,
promote an international mind-set, share knowledge across teams and countries,
increase intercultural awareness and maximise cross-cultural collaboration, create
a diverse workforce reflecting a diverse client base, create a “pool” of skilled
and talented managers for all international functions and aim to become an employer
of choice at a global level.
In addition, the course focuses on the skills required by managers and team members to help expatriates feel more integrated.
The intention is to create a set of managers who are emotionally intelligent and who feel the necessary responsibility for the welfare of the expatriates
assigned to the team. As the Generali workforce becomes increasingly more global
these skills will be required by everyone.
The theory of cultural dimensions is thoroughly covered, also thanks to the direct
collaboration with THT and Trompenaars.
Pangea is to be officially launched shortly and will be targeted at managers and teams
who already host/are due to host expatriates. Feedback will continue to be sought
from expatriates to see if the e-learning really has helped to create a more culturally
sensitive and emotionally intelligent workforce.
As Mr. Francesco Garello
– DGM Head of HR and GGIA – points out “For Generali, cultural diversity has been a key success factor in building our
international group. Cultural awareness must therefore be an integral part of
how we do business as we seek to consolidate our worldwide presence"
Generali Group Innovation Academy