How Do You Measure Success in International Business?: Effective Communication

Guest blogger Greg Stoller is an entrepreneur and a senior lecturer on entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business in Boston. 

With the increase in globalization and China’s move to effectively integrate their Belt and Road Initiative, consistent, international communication will become more important than ever. However, despite advances in technology, there will still be no substitute for effective, face-to-face meetings. 

I have been fortunate to be running an international consulting MBA program that partners with a boutique strategy-consulting firm that’s based in China, for over 15 years. Every summer we receive new project specifications and our graduate students from across Boston University complete six months of analytical work around them. This includes sending interim reports to the consulting firm, vetting them with their clients and then presenting our final recommendations in Beijing, at the beginning of each calendar year.

This week, as a new planning experiment for the 2018 class, the consulting firm sent one of its senior representatives to Boston. Not only did this executive attend my class to meet with all of the students, but the graduate students also found time in their respective, busy schedules to set up follow-up meetings with her. Together, everyone further discussed projects hypotheses, research strategies and began formulating strategic conclusions. 

Reviewing everything in person, as opposed to over phone, Skype, or WeChat is nothing novel. But it never fails to surprise me each and every time we do this, how much more ground we can cover. Our live productivity pales in comparison to the legions of emails, bilingual translations and texts we usually rely upon. In many ways it’s the only way to consistently define and measure, success… unless the game changes and its rules become obsolete. 

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is extremely exciting, as the Government is planning on joining investment and developmental infrastructure projects that will connect Europe, Asia and Africa. It is a project on a massive scale, and even if the Chinese Government is only, say, 80 percent effective in meeting its goals, the positive results will pay literal and figurative dividends for years to come.

Domestically, and after nearly 25 years of doing business with mainland China, these days I’m most impressed with how effectively businesses and people conduct commerce throughout the People’s Republic. Very quietly, millions of Renminbi have also been invested in domestic infrastructure. Trips that formerly required nearly an entire day to complete have been reduced to hours. And that is precisely the irony of this unique development conundrum: On a similar path to the government’s physical infrastructure investments, electronic communications have become more advanced, too, and work seamlessly through platforms like WeChat. Yet across nearly all walks of business life in China, people still prefer traveling to their customer sites to get work done in person.

The Belt and Road Initiative will join multiple continents together, rather than just uniting people in a single country. Given the strong and positive, cultural overtones that still currently support face-to-face communications amongst the Chinese, how will the Belt and Road Initiative connect everyone else? Additionally, how will international implementation of this initiative ultimately be measured, and which parties across the world will be responsible for directly shouldering those costs? It will be a new game, with new rules, but without any hardcopy, or electronic, instruction manual anywhere in sight.

In traditional, international business interactions, success often costs twice as much as originally budgeted and takes three times longer to implement. But that logic usually only involves a couple of countries or companies that are working together. How might the same logic apply concurrently across the world? It won’t. China usually takes a long-term view, but this will challenge even the most patient of stakeholders. Success will instead have to be viewed exponentially, through a lens of reliable connections, network strengthening and logistical improvement; many of the same metrics China used in the late 80s. But conspicuously absent from the decade of the 10s will be its financial return on investment. 

The more things change, the more they’ll stay the same. Effective, face-to-face communications will take on even more significance, given the multitude of time zones and travel distances involved. And a new rulebook will be created, but this time with replaceable, and temporary, pages.  

Photo caption: An executive from a Beijing-based strategy consultancy recently travel to Boston to meet with Boston University MBA students about their various projects. The students will travel to China in January 2019 to share the results of their research and make recommendations to the firm and its clients.