Bisnis Asia

A senior Asia business executive on cultural competency

27 February 2020 | By Helen Brown

Former head of the LINE social app company in Indonesia on cultural competence 

Helen Brown

We all operate in the culture that we know, and so it is not surprise that people in business go into a deal or partnership with the expectation that their way is the best way to improve the bottom line. But as business leader Dale Kim explains, ignoring cultural differences is costly, and unproductive. 

Born in South Korea, growing up in both New York and Seoul, working for major consulting firms on cross-border deals with Asia, and now the Indonesia head of communications app company LINE, it’s fair to say that Dale Kim has seen the impact that cultural difference has on business.

Especially when those cultural differences are not managed well. 

Despite companies and people now operating in an increasingly globalised world, Dale Kim says that business has yet to realise how a lack of cultural competence can affect the bottom line. 

“Culture is one of the most crucial elements and components of the success the people always talk about. But in the actual execution side of the story, there are so many failures.”

In charge of more than hundred people in a country with a dynamic start-up scene and tens of millions of fickle consumers means that a company like LINE needs to keep its staff motivated. The competition for skilled workers is strong, and the culture of Indonesia is unique, even for another Asian company.

“Right now I have team coming from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand. I also have a local team in Indonesia.  Obviously, there are a lot of untold conflicts and differences that you need to manage on a daily basis.”

“I’m always making sure that the team always has essential respect for both sides to work together as a one team.”

Cultural competency is recognised as a vital skill for business going into 2020.  

The Institute for Future Skills identified six key drivers of change and one of those is an increasingly  globally connected world. And this world requires people who have the ability to adapt to others with a different background, and a different perspective, and find a way to work together in common. 

As the world becomes more internationalised and inter-connected, including in business, being able to value and work with people from different cultural backgrounds will become a skill that sets companies apart. 

This is especially so as business as it moves more of its attention to the parts of the world which are becoming the major centres of economic growth and technological advancement. And for many that means operating in new and different parts of Asia. 

For Dale Kim, taking the time to understand how culture affects behaviour, and being willing to respect what is considered important is critical to the success of his team.

And as the head of LINE Indonesia has seen, all people want respect, but they are less willing to give it. 

“Often people say that respect is very important when it comes to cultural differences to be aligned … to be able to be like a one team. But often, people do not show respect first. They want to be respected first. That’s a kind of thing they need to really fix, but often it’s not really done properly.”  

And when things do go wrong, a lack of cultural competence is rarely singled out as part of the problem.

“It always hurts the bottom line, but people always try to find a reason from other aspects.”

Doing business is not easy, especially in some of the still developing economies. And it seems that when it comes to the crunch, business will fall back onto its tried and tested formulas for how it believes it can create an outcome. 

“When you are doing business transactions and with business operations, you are so much focused on efficiency and the process improvement that these things (cultural factors) are sometimes underestimated.”

Aside from cultural competency, Dale Kim says there is another important attitude to adopt when doing business in Indonesia – patience. 

“The reason why companies are here, including LINE, is because we have a long shot, long term bet in this country, right. You need to have patience.”

In October this year, LINE introduced a new feature to scan and split a restaurant bill in after a survey found that a large number of people spent time working out their personal cost after dining out.