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November 2014

Last week I was in Malaysia, having lunch with the Belgian Trade Commissioner to discuss ideas about a forthcoming trade mission from his country to Malaysia.

He mentioned to me that he had been in his current posting in Kuala Lumpur for 6 months. Prior to this posting his last visit to Kuala Lumpur had actually been 30 years earlier as a foreign student. He revealed that when he received news that his posting was to be in Kuala Lumpur he was very excited at the prospect of living once again in Malaysia and for the opportunities it would afford him to revisit a place of his youth, where he had many happy memories. His expectation was that there would be some new challenges but that largely it would be a reasonably easy transition.

What he very quickly discovered was that the entire physical environment had transformed, there were many new buildings, new streetscapes, freeways, condominiums etc., it was a completely different landscape.  It was a landscape that for the most part was unrecognisable to him.

I asked him why that was surprising and his response was as follows: "In Europe, I can revisit a city after 30 years and the landscape is the same, the major buildings, streetscape, topography etc.; but in Kuala Lumpur it has completely transformed." On further conversation, we established that even though Kuala Lumpur had changed radically, there remained certain landmarks such as the river, eminent mosques, museum and the palace.

Following this conversation I began to reflect on what culture entails.  Culture is dynamic, constantly evolving and transforming yet there are certain values that remain constant.  In the case of Malaysia, although there are new landscapes and the physical environment has changed enormously over a 30- year period, the values of hierarchy and respect, communication patterns and the maintenance of harmony continue to have remained constant. It is the yin and the yang, it is both modern and traditional. Culture is similar to the elephant, it is large, moves slowly, has deep memories and moves in herds.

 Don't be fooled by superficial symbols that you see in a culture. Remember to appreciate and consider thoughtfully the underlying values (especially those that you can't easily observe) that influence thinking patterns and behaviours - these are present in all cultures.

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Best Wishes
Tom Verghese

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In his latest book Accelerate Kotter argues that organisations continue to  employ the same structure that has been in place for at least the past 100 years.  The problem is that it isn�t fast and agile and suited to the needs of todays business world where we need to think and act differently. If we don't think and act differently the real value is lost and we drift back toward the default status.

Kotter discusses how traditional organisational hierarchies evolved to meet the everyday demands placed on organisations. For most companies, the hierarchy is the singular operating system at the heart of the firm. But the reality is, this system simply is not built for an environment where change has become the norm.

He argues that organisational design has not one, but two 'operating systems.' One system conducts the everyday business of business, while the second agile system sits alongside to focus on the opportunities and demands of the future.

Kotter advocates a new system�a dual system.  One that is more agile, that is aligned with the hierarchy.  The dual system coordinates traditional, stable hierarchy with an entrepreneurial, dynamic network.

I particularly liked Kotter�s discussion around the recent work by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, who describes the brain as two coordinated systems, one more emotional, the other more rational. His claims that organisations must appeal to the heart as well as the head and that there needs to be greater leadership rather than management resonated with me.
Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World." By John Kotter (2014).

'Raising Your Cultural IQ - DVD and CD

'Raising Your Cultural IQ' explores the issues around culture, the challenges that culture can pose and provides some great strategies on how to leverage on cultural differences and similarities.


'The Invisible Elephant - Exploring Cultural Awareness'
2nd Edition by Tom Verghese

Many aspects of culture are invisible, yet culture has an enormous impact on our lives. Like an Invisible Elephant, if ignored these aspects can lead to misunderstanding, stress and conflict. Alternatively, if attention is given to the Invisible Elephant, it can enhance productivity, improve teamwork and create more joy in our lives.

Book testimonial by Asma Ghabshi
Learning And Development Manager, Shell Oman:

"The Invisible Elephant made my perspective of my national culture in comparison to my personal culture more visible. It has given me a deep insight into dealing with people of different cultural backgrounds."

'Pillars of Growth - Strategies for Leading Sustainable Growth' - Book by Tom Verghese, Kerry Larkan, Steven Howard and Brad Tonini
Written with the business leaders and entrepreneurs of Asia in mind, 'Pillars of Growth' provides a road map to assist you in thinking through four critical concerns that impact the sustainable growth of every business.