Exploring business cultures: Indian executives visit Hamburg

Every year, the Akademie International in Hamburg welcomes more than 80 executives from abroad. In March 2017, it was the turn of a group of 21 Indian visitors, first and second generation entrepreneurs, to embark on a journey of discovering the Hanseatic city according to the motto of “How to do business with Germany”.

The renowned cultural theorist, Geert Hofstede, likens culture to an onion with a multitude of layers. While outside observers may immediately notice external characteristics such as clothing, a city scene or an unfamiliar headshake, the inner layers of a culture often remain invisible to insiders. Indeed, the underlying values, assumptions and beliefs forming the essence of a culture and influencing cultural and social interactions are embedded very deep inside.

To uncover the inner layers of a culture, the outer layers of the metaphorical onion must first be peeled away. This proved a highly emotional process for the Indian executives, who compared the German business culture with their own during the intercultural training. They identified “god fearing”, “emotional attachment” and “equal weightage to relationship and business deal” as aspects central to Indian beliefs, which contrast with German rationality, directness, thoroughness and expertise. “Ambitious entrepreneurship” also lie at the core of the Indian onion as a powerful driver for building relationships and reliable common ground in international business.

In the three weeks that followed the initial week of training, the Indian executives were able to put the preliminary insights they had gained into practice during group company visits and individual meetings with potential German partners. They could moreover achieve the first positive outcomes for their own businesses. It already became clear during the intercultural training that two key questions preoccupied the entrepreneurs: firstly, how do German companies manage to make products “Made in Germany” the best in the world? And secondly, how can I become a reliable business partner for German companies and achieve international success with my business in India?

During their search for answers, the executives delved into the innermost layers of the cultural onion – into questions regarding the rules and behavioural codes such as how can quality be guaranteed in production? What could make me an attractive partner for German decision-makers? How can I make a good impression with my products and services? How do hierarchies and decision-making procedures work in Germany? What is the feedback culture like? Do they actually mean it when they say yes or no?

The Indian executives identified one very important value within their own culture: “We are adapters,” they determined. Remaining extremely flexible allows them to combine the familiar with the foreign and achieve success in new business environments. The onion model of culture was a constant companion for the MP participants during their visit to Germany. It ultimately led them to conclude that to understand a new culture, one must also understand one’s own.

By Julia Moritz
Akademie International, Hamburg