Culture at work: the value of intercultural skills in an international workplace

As many students face their final year of studies, either in matric or tertiary education the question on many minds is what does the South African job market hold for them when they enter it? While formal qualifications are the cornerstone on which many successful careers are built for many employers of first time candidates the ‘soft skills’ required are just as important a consideration. Recent research by British Council surveyed employers working in public, private, and non-profit organisations in nine countries found that employers recognise a clear business value in employing staff who can work effectively with individuals and organisations from cultural backgrounds different from their own. Conversely, organisations whose employees lack these intercultural skills are more exposed to risk.

The research, undertaken with IPSOS and Booz-Allen Hamilton, asked employers to define ‘intercultural’ skills. One of the key outcomes of the research was the belief that intercultural skills include the ability to understand different cultural contexts and viewpoints; demonstrating respect for others; and knowledge of a foreign language making the learners truly part of an international workforce. Employers reported that employees with these skills are more likely to bring in new clients, work well in diverse teams, and positively support their organisation’s brand and reputation. Employees who lack intercultural skills leave their organisation susceptible to risks including loss of clients, damage to reputation, and conflict within teams.

“As a British and international organisation, we have seen a clear trend in in the young people coming from the UK that we work with. Through time the confidence of young people in the UK has been eroded, and although many are very bright academically, their core soft skills, such as confidence, team-work, ability to work independently, self-initiative and the ability to over-come challenges, has been eroded,” explains Tyronne Bennett, Global Vision International (GVI) Programme Manager. “In our search for national and international staff, we turned increasingly to the graduates of our programs, and moved to build an academic curriculum around our work based learning programs. Now, 58 % of our staff are our own graduates, so it’s evident that we believe in the work we are doing to help young people acquire the skills they need, and we have seen many of our alumni go on to enjoy some great careers outside of GVI, with alumni working for organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Natural England.”

South African employers identified that their most pressing business challenge are finding qualified candidates with more than a quarter of organisations’ surveyed being concerned about a loss of clients and damage to brand and reputation because of cultural insensitivity and project mistakes. With this in mind GVI has partnered with British Council to harness its 80-year track record to develop unique intercultural training, coaching and consultancy to corporate and business, education, government and non-government markets in South Africa with the first Intercultural Fluency course being offered in July in Cape Town.

One of the core skills that GVI’s offers its students is inter-cultural fluency. GVI is small UK social enterprise, which increasingly works internationally in partnership with British Council. “We need our staff to have an international outlook, to be engaged global citizens and to have the skills required to work internationally.” As the UK decides its future, be that within the EU or outside of it, internationalism is a huge topic and very relevant either way. “As the world becomes increasingly inter-connected, those students equipped with international understanding and fluency, have a huge advantage over those that do not. We are seeing the same conversations around the world, in Far East, Asia, Africa, in the Middle East, and the US, the topics are the same, although framed somewhat differently.“ At a recent higher education conference we attended in the US, we saw many universities looking beyond their cities and states and national borders, following the routes taken by our partners, Universities such as Duke University and Stanford university, who have international programs available to their students to help build their global engagement and competency.

GVI has hence developed a new range of programs which are academically robust, with clear learning outcomes, offering hands-on experience, alongside local experts. This concept takes classroom curriculum learning outside and into the real world. “The programs are designed to challenge the students, to make them laugh and make them cry and force them to overcome both personal and professional challenges. We wish to equip and force the students to start thinking critically, and to come to their own conclusions and thoughts about the world, rather than purely believing what they are told.”