There is a good reason why I love moving from country to country: I want to understand the world. I know it’s impossible. Nobody could ever understand everything. But still, I think experiencing the world is the key to coming as far as one possibly can. Wherever you go you will see unique perspectives on the world. Now, of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to move around, you could also get new perspectives by meeting different people where you are, but moving around forces you to do just that. Everybody around you is in many ways different than you are.
But we all know the problem here: one can move somewhere, yet be completely blind to the values, ideas, and perspectives of the local people. I guess we also all agree that this is the problem that all cross-cultural trainers tackle. So why does it often fail? Because instead of empowering expats to learn how to understand a culture, we often try to explain it to them. Yet we can’t understand a culture just by reading about it or hearing about it from other people, we need to experience it, live it. It’s tacit knowledge – something that can’t be shared. That’s why cross-cultural trainers need a framework that teaches expats how to make sense of the world, instead of trying to explain to them how it works.
And this is where Harold Jarche comes into play. Interestingly, he has absolutely nothing to do with cross-cultural training. He is an advocate of what he calls personal knowledge management.
“Personal knowledge management is a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world and work more effectively”.
What he developed is the seek, sense and share model. While the model below is used to create a connection between personal knowledge management and innovation, it works just as well for helping expatriates to understand the local culture. And hey, in a way that is innovation, too. When you combine your own perspective with that of people different from you, you develop a completely new way of seeing things. Is that much different of the innovation process where you combine two old ideas into a new one? Not at all.
So, how does this work? Well, the first step is seek. Harold says that “seeking is finding things out and keeping up to date”. We do that by observing. Whether or not this is in real life, the internet, a television show, or a book doesn’t matter at all. The point here is that we seek out new information about how people from our host-culture see things.
Sense-making is where you take the information that you got and reflect on it based on your own experience. This is where you question; not only the other person’s behavior, thoughts, ideas, perspectives, but also your own. Questions to ask here are: why are they doing/thinking what they are doing/thinking? Why am I seeing it differently and in what way? Are there any places in which our points of view overlap? Then, after questioning an idea, it is time to experiment. Play around with it. Use it in your own life. See how people react and how you feel after you have tried doing things the local way. Try to combine your old behavior with the local way – create something new.
Then share what you have learned with those around you. Meet people and discuss your observations with them. Who knows? Maybe they can add a different perspective to your interpretation of the “local way”. And with that, the whole process starts from the beginning. Ehh, wait. That was wrong. It is, of course, not a step-by-step process, but you can easily seek, sense and share at the same time.
Well, what I should share with you in this context is that what Harold meant with sharing was a bit different than this, of course. It was more related with knowledge management systems, either intra-organizational or through the internet. People gather information, reflect on it and then share their thoughts through the internet. By writing, for instance, a blog post, we force ourselves to reflect on what we have learned more deeply instead of just “saving” the information in our brains never to be used. We also make the information available to other people, who then comment on it and, in turn, contribute to our own understanding. And I think it is obvious that in the field of intercultural communication, we can easily do the same. Yes, we need to share in reality, but we can also learn from the experiences of other expats through the web and other media. Just like what I’m trying to do through this blog.