One world— or is it?

Sep 28, 2009

It’s popular to say these days that “the world is flat” or we live in “one world.” While there is some truth to these statements (thanks largely to high-speed and high-bandwidth electronic communications), this kind of thinking can get A/E/P and environmental firms into a lot of trouble— especially when it comes to the lure of international work. Those who have been reading my writings for this business over the years in the pages of The Zweig Letter and elsewhere probably know that I am not easily seduced by the word “international.” I have worked with and met many people who are, however. There is something about an opportunity to do a project in another country that does something to them. It is as if their brains stop functioning and all of their critical thinking skills normally used to make go/no-go decisions for domestic projects go out the window. You’ll hear normally rational principals making statements such as: It’s “a project in Rio de Janeiro— let’s go!” Or “I’ve never been to Dubai— I hear it’s really cool!” Or “This is our opportunity to break into CHINA— the biggest potential market anywhere— let’s do it!” I’m not going to sit here and tell you that international work is not sometimes a good thing. There are some firms that I know would not exist today were it not for their international work— lots of it— that carried them through domestic recessionary periods. That said, I can tell you that none of these firms are Johnny-Come-Latelys to international work. They have a long history of doing projects in foreign countries and understand how to do it successfully. The problem, however, is risk. Neophytes to international work often cannot accurately assess the risks of working in a foreign country. Not understanding the culture is first and foremost. It really helps to have someone from the country you are thinking of trying to work in on your staff who can help you better understand the culture. We have all heard about GM trying to market the Chevy Nova in Latin America only to discover that Nova means “no-go!” A/E/P firms can make similar mistakes when they don’t understand the culture of the countries they are trying to work in. Or, how about the fact that in some countries, bribes are paid customarily to get things done? That could certainly pose ethical challenges for a U.S.-based company coming from an environment where they would never consider such a practice. Another risk factor is the legal environment. There are often laws in foreign countries that are quite different from our own. From it being illegal to chew gum in Singapore to employment laws in Spain that require two-year notice being provided to workers who are going to be let go, ignorance of the law is never an excuse to violate it. And, just imagine how difficult it can be if one of your people runs afoul of the law in a foreign country and you have the responsibility for getting him or her out of jail and home safely! There are so many more risk factors associated with foreign projects. From minor factors such as not really understanding the time and cost of travel, to big things such as risk of military coups, war, and currency fluctuation. You better know what you are doing before you leap into international work, or you can get into a heap of trouble, fast. Years ago, I knew of several U.S.-based A/E firms with offices in London. While one of them never made a penny there, they kept it because their principals enjoyed visiting London. That’s great if you can afford it, but most of us can’t. I say run a successful business and let the principals buy their own vacations to anywhere they want to go! Originally published 9/28/2009

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.