International business today is characterised by global organisations seeking new markets and opportunities across national boundaries, setting up subsidiaries, and managing people, processes, and resources in foreign countries. Employees of such companies increasingly take on expatriate/inpatriate assignments in foreign climes, jetset around the world on business assignments as frequent flyers, or simply play host to foreign managers and business partners in parent companies. Another important phenomenon is the growing multicultural workforce within organisations, as employees from different cultural backgrounds migrate to foreign countries and seek employment there. In all these instances, employees inevitably come into contact with people with cultural values, customs, and practices foreign to their own way of life. In such environments one skill that comes in most handy is “cultural intelligence”.
Cultural intelligence refers to “a set of skills and traits that allow one to more effectively interact with novel cultural settings”. Cultural intelligence enables a person to “adapt effectively to new cultural contexts”. Given the increasing trend in the globalisation of business activities and interaction with a multitude of cultural groups, employees need cross-cultural training that develops their capacities and skills in “cultural knowledge, self-awareness and behavioural aspects”. This case study examines the cross-cultural training strategy of International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), a company that has penetrated national boundaries and established itself as a truly international company.
IBM: the international company
IBM is a well-liked household name that represents state-of-the-art computers and technology. Established in the early part of the 20th century in the United States, the company started as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, producing commercial scales, time clocks, and a primitive assortment of punch card tabulators. However, it was in the 1950s under the judicious guidance of Thomas J. Watson Jr that the company moved on to its present business operations – that is, development and commercialisation of electronic computer technologies. Since then the company has progressed into a formidable global presence, spanning nine time zones in more than 170 countries and employing 412,000 employees worldwide. IBM was ranked at number 71 in Fortune's Global 500 list and at number 24 in its World's Most Admired Company list in 2014. Today the company specialises in technology and innovation, inventing and providing software and hardware, engaging in business consultation and the provision of technology services that enable people and organisations to solve complex problems.