The economic and technological forces driving globalization have blurred borders and changed the context of our lives, both at and outside of the workplace. We used to live in a comfort zone of personal, local and national perspectives; we now live eyeball-to-eyeball with everyone on Earth.
Life is complicated. For an organization to effectively pursue its interests, it must fit into the world as it is — not as its leaders wish it were.
Globalization has changed the world. We need to change, too.
It takes global agility to meet the constant challenge of relating to people from different cultures. As humans, we define our similarities and differences in dozens of cultural dimensions. Globally agile people:
- Know about these dimensions.
- Are aware of their take on each dimension.
- Discern the takes typical of other cultures.
- Interact effectively despite or even because of these differences.
Put simply, global agility is about meeting other cultures well.
In a recent global agility assessment, fewer than 40% of respondents who had traveled extensively scored low on global agility. It’s like they traveled in a cultural spacesuit and came back the same person who left. Did they really travel? Many respondents who had not traveled abroad but who came from bicultural homes scored high on global agility. In effect, they’ve spent their lives traveling daily from their grandparents’ or parents’ “old country” to their friends’ “country” at school and then work.
The modern world of 7 billion people, transnational companies, economic integration, airplanes, ocean freighters, the mass migration of jobs and people, and the World Wide Web has revolutionized the borders among the global, the national, the local and the personal. We have installed circuitry to connect people to each other on top of all the walls we previously built to exclude strangers.
In fact, globalization has radically redefined proximity. It’s no longer about distance but boundless digital networking and curating your “here.” You can introduce yourself to someone from any of over 5,000 cultures in the time it takes you to compose an email, plus the seconds it takes to send that email across the planet.
Being globally agile may not guarantee that you will flourish in today’s world as it is, but being globally inept will guarantee that you will not. In our domestic past, we needed hard skills, creativity and emotional intelligence to succeed. In today’s global world, we need these skills — but also global agility.
Developing Global Agility
As described earlier, we humans define our similarities and differences in terms of cultural dimensions. Our take on each dimension becomes an aspect of our identity, and these “ID aspects” are best thought of as our lenses, our windows on the world. Through them, we see and reflect on what is happening. If, for instance, we set an alarm clock for 5:00 a.m. instead of waking up with the sunrise, we will be proud of our punctuality — but we may frown at people who have pets to tend to that make them late for a meeting.
We become globally agile by broadening our outlook in each ID aspect as we journey through six accumulative levels or perspectives of experience:
- We take form inside a cultural shell.
- We hatch.
- We travel outward.
- We travel inward.
- We travel back.
- We become globally agile abroad and at home.
By focusing on our ID aspects within this global experiential framework, we can become consciously competent in our new context of global diversity. We can learn to represent ourselves consistently, whether we are speaking with someone we meet overseas, relating to a traveling companion who is more of a tourist, reconnecting with a less well-traveled person when we are back home, talking honestly about who we’ve become with the people who know us best or narrating our lives from our first memories.
Global agility is necessary for success in the globalized sectors of our economy and society, where we can come across many cultures on any given day. Global agility is not knowledge-based; it is “knowing-based.” We cannot be experts in every culture we meet, but we can be experts in encountering cultures and in building transcultural relationships. We can learn to be aware, self-aware, discerning and culturally adept. By thus fitting in the world as it is, we stand a chance of effectively pursuing our interests both here and abroad.