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Case for evolving the “adapt globally, integrate locally” paradigm

It was a familiar scene with yet another full-blown complex emergency at our doorsteps. The meeting participants anxiously took seats around the conference room table in the United Nations compound. An atmosphere of dignity, of importance, of profound expertise filled the room: Executive Directors, Special and Country Representatives, presidents of award-winning non-governmental organizations… one could not help but be sucked into the visual impressiveness. Men and women alike from all over the world with the highest of professional and educational pedigrees sharing their knowledge to help people in need. This was our raison d’être.

Except that there was one key component missing. It too was a familiar scene – the notable absence of the representatives from this country’s institutions, local organizations, and citizens. How could we, the outsiders, actually know the needs of these people in need?

Right about now you can start pointing out: time is precious in a crisis; seeking inputs more often than not turns into endless discussions; we have decades of experience about the basic needs in a crisis; we represent neutrality and nonpartisanship… All very valid! Nonetheless there remains a gnawing sense that this attitude of “we know what works” can too often blind us, render us inflexible.

Neither is this attitude limited to humanitarian interventions. We can each look around our conference rooms around the world, no matter the topic - multinational companies, policy, development, preparedness, mergers, strategic planning…

I say with certainty that we ALL know to listen to our target audience, customers, clients, beneficiaries, yet I must question how effectively do we master this common-sense approach (or plainly and simply good business).

A recent insightful study by Jose F.P. Santos and Peter J. Williamson for MIT Sloan Management Review entitled “The New Mission for Multinationals” paints a poignant picture by stating large companies – and I zealously add any organizations with global interests – must evolve beyond the dominant global strategies. Along with example of success, they call for flipping the old “integrate globally, adapt locally” to “integrate locally and adapt globally”. They propose going a few steps further than simply adapting your services and products to the local markets or environments. Further than recreating what worked elsewhere by adapting clever public relations campaigns and corporate social responsibility initiatives to yet another country.

What they suggest is what I advocate to my clients consistently – integrate locally through more meaningful engagement, deeper interactions with society, the local economy and politics. Make more targeted investment in people, networks and business, as well as in policies and institutions that can help shape the country’s development. In other words, go beyond assuming the needs and likes of who you are targeting – even if these are based on extensive research and experience. Get involved and help shape their needs and likes.

Now is the perfect time and place. I firmly believe that globalization is well into its 3.0 version. Our customers/supporters/users/beneficiaries want to feel they are making a difference. They want to be part of important changes that affect not only them, but also communities around the world. Companies and organizations can utilize and deliver on these desires. We easily use globalization to share knowledge and information, transfer goods and services, source production etc. We rush to help societies in need. We generously offer our roads to development. But just because we have the access and the successful records, does not always mean we know best.

This is well demonstrated by the rapidly growing local competition in all areas – local companies dominate domestic market shares against large multinationals, local organizations and civil societies outperform international NGOs and gain invaluable support and trust of their communities. In addition, many governments appear to be looking more closely at policies protective of their citizens, natural resources and the environment.

The key is to leverage our expertise and advantages (capital, established channels, technology etc.) with the expertise, advantages and above all the aspirations of the country in which we want to operate. Any company or organization can become a part of the broader society and help shape its evolution. Not out of altruism (although nothing wrong with that!) but by wanting to create more value that is economically and socially proven to increase benefits across the board – well-being, growth, influence and yes, profits.

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