4 observations on leveraging local know-how

On a recent trip to Poland’s capital city, Warsaw, we decided that we wanted to discover a different side of Warsaw.  We discovered a fantastic little agency online, called Adventure Warsaw!, and in our 1/2 day trip, we discovered so many historical and fascinating pockets of Warsaw’s history, had lunch at one of the last authentic milk bars, Bar Mleczny Zabkowski and had a personal tour of the curious Muzeum życia Minionej Epoki, a museum dedicated to showing a snapshot of life in the Communist era.  It was fantastic discovering so many things that we’d never have uncovered without local know-how.  This got me thinking about how we can leverage local know-how every day at work, and what we might learn from it.

1. A central management function doesn’t always know best: During the internet boom years, many technology businesses were head-quartered in Silicon Valley.  It became the norm for the California “mothership” to issue guidance and procedures to the regional offices.  This made rolling out new locations quick and easy, using a “cookie cutter approach.  This had been very successful in the USA, allowing businesses to scale quickly.  The challenges arose when the “cookie cutter approach” resulted in delays to office roll-out.  In one business where I worked, the “mothership” dictated that all sites must be uniform, meaning that all supplies to fit out offices must come from the USA.  For the European offices, this meant power issues (110v from the US appliances versus 240v in Europe), wrong plug to fit European plug sockets, and delays in fitting out offices as deliveries were held up in Customs.  Despite the fact that it would have been cheaper, quicker and easier to source local supplies, the “mothership” edict was followed without question.  The logical approach would have been to provide a business case on local suppliers to our US colleagues, acknowledging that they probably weren’t aware of the practical differences overseas.  In this way, it would have been win-win: international standard,with appropriate local variance.

2. Disregard local know-how at your peril: A great example of this one is the minefield of employment contracts across Europe.  Despite the European Union’s attempt to standardise and harmonise, there is so much local variance that it has become impossible to have a common employment contract for an identical role in different European countries.  In my own experience, I found particular difficulty in the complexity of French Labour Law. The Code du Travail is a telephone directory of rules and regulations that must be complied with.  Due to its complexity, I was unable to employ women to work night shifts in the service team and was not able to enforce shift coverage during French public holidays.  Whilst this was very frustrating, ignoring the rules of the Code du Travail would have resulted in fines, or worse, the business being shut down.  I needed to accept the local wisdom and amend my operating model accordingly. The consequences of ignoring the local know-how would have had great financial and operational cost.

3. Local know is often built on solid learning: Why is it that dog & cat circle round and round before settling down to sleep?  Evolution has taught them that by facing the direction of the wind, they will be able to smell the approach of predators more quickly, thus giving them a better chance of survival.  My grandmother used to say “red sky at night, shepherds delight…”, meaning that if the sky was pink on an evening, the day after would most likely be sunny.  Years later, I learned that there’s a whole science behind this ancient wisdom, and far from being a quaint saying, it’s pretty factually accurate.  There will always be established local practices, and we can sometimes be too quick to disregard them as bad old habits, before we’ve understood the logic behind them.  If, when abroad, I see locals carrying an umbrella despite a clear blue sky, I know I’d better prepare for rain at some point in the day!

4. The fine line between embracing local know-how and creating a complexity with too much local variances: Respecting local knowledge and understanding why they do things the way they do things is key, but at the same time, keep a balance on how much complexity you build into your operation.  I’ve seen too many businesses where there are  regional procedural variances, legacies of take-overs or poor central management, creating complexity and a disjointed customer experience.  With globalisation, customers rightly expect the same experience with a brand wherever they go.  Businesses like Uber have nailed it, allowing you to use a single app in any country, paying in local currency but using the app in your native language.  The complexity of local and regional variances are hidden from the customer’s view.  If I need to download the app in each country I visit (to make it more simple for the local operation), I’d very quickly become bored and disengage from Uber.  So as you acknowledge the local know-how, make sure you also think about the consistency of your customer’s experience, and create a balance between local know-how and a global approach to create the perfect customer experience.

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