Case studies from real business life are always the most powerful of ways to highlight the importance of local knowledge and cultural awareness for those operating in foreign countries. Often ignored or undervalued, this lack of sensitivity can sometimes have messy outcomes.
Whether it’s localzing your website or sending people to conduct business abroad, being aware of things like cultural, religious, moral, behavioural and linguist differences is crucial.
What’s the worst that can happen?
Well, if you’re lucky maybe loss of investment, poor sales or a slogan that means something rude in one of your target markets. However, if you’re unlucky, it really can become a costly mess.
And it’s in this context that I wanted to highlight an incident which happened in Iraq last month.
Angry local Iraqis, made up of workers and tribesmen, stormed a Schlumberger Ltd camp at one of Iraq's main oilfields in Rumaila and wrecked the offices as well as beating a British man so badly he ended up in hospital.
It all started essentially due to complete ignorance over local cultural and especially religious sensitivities. Prior to the major Shia holy day of Ashura, a British employee of G4S decided to try and remove a flag with the name of Imam Hussain and posters with images of Imam Ali.
When I first heard this I was shocked. Totally shocked. It showed a complete and utter ignorance to the massive ramifications it would have. He clearly had no idea what he was doing; the only other explanation would be that he was consciously provoking them – which is even worse!
Let me keep it simple. For the Shia , Ashura, is holier than holy. For Sunnis it is also a day of special significance where fasting takes place. But it is also the day when Imam Hussain (the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and son of Imam Ali) was martyred; killed along with his family by a tyrant wanting to take power from the Ahle Bayt (the descendants of the Prophet). It is a story which literally makes millions cry every year as they remember the slain. Processions take place, extra prayers, and gatherings of lamentations and a time of deep, deep reflection.
What the security guard did was essentially insult the descendants of the Prophet, the day of Ashura and the locals.
This led to the poor man being beaten by a mob, the offices of the firm being ransacked, the police to intervene and for it to become a diplomatic incident with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki weighing in to demand answers.
A costly mess, no?
So next time you hear someone question “why do we need to learn about their religion or culture?” please remember what could happen and has happened.