Consistent success in international business calls for consistent innovation in products, services and more. But global business innovation can also be more difficult than it is for companies that operate or serve markets in only one country.
Innovation gains added significance when a company throws itself into the fray of global competition, says Fariborz Ghadar, director of the Center for Global Business Studies at Penn State University's Smeal College of Business.
“It's always been important but it's now become critical because whatever innovation you have, it's going to be run of the mill very quickly," Ghadar says. “Your innovation has to be constant."
Challenges to Global Business Innovation
Among the factors that make global business innovation difficult, culture may be one of the most significant. And yet it often gets overlooked.
“Innovation is primarily technological," Ghadar says. “But if you're going to compete overseas, you have to be culturally sensitive. You have to be sure it's culturally compatible."
When Ghadar worked in a startup introducing technology for public stock exchanges to a number of countries, they included education to help participants in the new exchanges understand unfamiliar roles, such as stockbrokers. Without the cultural awareness to include this, the new exchanges might not have been as successful, Ghadar says.
—Doug Ringer, owner, Doug Ringer Consulting
Peter Gillett, founder and CEO of Zuant, a mobile lead capture platform company with facilities in the United Kingdom, New York and Los Angeles, says for global companies it is “massively important to convert your messages to the right sense of humor, dialect and culture."
Accurate and unfailing cultural competency is doubly important in a well-connected world. According to Gillett, failure to manage this conversion properly in a single country can cause problems in many others.
“One blemish in the U.K. spreads to the U.S. with one click," he says.
Innovation itself can be affected by cultural differences, including language, tradition and local customs. Doug Ringer, a Fort Collins, Colorado-based business consultant, says U.S.-based product development teams can hamper innovation if they try to hold meetings with developers in Asian countries during the U.S. workday.
“In Asia, my experience is they don't like to have night meetings, because they work such long hours anyway," he explains.
Distance and multiple time zones can also create logistical and communication obstacles to effective global business innovation.
“The biggest problem in any organization, whether it's regional, local or global is communication," Ringer says. “It's even worse the farther apart people are."
When teams are separated by half a world and one's day is the other's night, working together to innovate can be extraordinarily challenging. One key is flexibility, Ringer says. It helps when everyone is prepared to sacrifice on matters such as scheduling meetings at convenient times.
“They're usually the least inconvenient times for both sides," he says.
Solutions to Global Business Innovation Obstacles
Ringer says international businesses can overcome time and distance barriers with teleconference and videoconference services such as Skype, GoToMeeting and Zoom. Data file storage and exchange facilities (e.g. Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox and Google G Suite) can also be helpful, he says.
Translation software can help ease language differences that would otherwise hamper global business innovation, Ghadar adds.
“It is very easy now to get language translation so you'll know what the other person says," he says. “And you can also use the software to respond in the language."
Companies seeking to enhance global business innovation should probably not rely solely on videoconferencing, email or other technological solutions, however. Face-to-face meetings between people charged with innovating products and services can be essential to success. That means providing travel budgets so teams charged with innovation can confer in person.
Ringer says face-to-face meetings ideally occur regularly and often.
“If you're down in the trenches and developing, annually won't cut it," he says. “It's going to have to be more frequent. Quarterly is about right."
It's also worthwhile to consider including people who understand the cultures of the target market and headquarters on the innovation team. Ghadar says his stock exchange venture had employees who hailed from some of the countries they were selling to.
“When we went to Romania, we had a Romanian-American who spoke the language and knew what was up," he says.
In addition to cultural familiarity, companies concerned with global business innovation may want to have employees with experience in the field.
“The best way for a small to mid-sized firm to go global is to hire full-time or interim experts in each department who have done this work so they can get timely guidance and expertise," Ringer says. “Without this, the chances of success are slim."
Learning to inspire and sustain consistent innovation is steadily getting more critical for global businesses, Ghadar says.
“The competitive nature of the marketplace has increased substantially," he says. “Not only can you do it, but some competitor in Canada and Mexico and the Ukraine can do it. So whatever innovation you have, the lifecycle of that innovation is no longer as long as it used to be."
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