There’s a famous and long-running divide between the people who design products and services and the people who use them. The designers and developers are often looking to solve some problem in their own lives or otherwise aiming to create something cool and unique, but the people who are expected to buy that product often find its intended usage at odds with what they actually need it to do.
Sometimes that disconnect comes from simple hubris, an instance of the creators feeling they know better than the people themselves what’s needed. To be fair, there are times where this is absolutely accurate. Innovation rarely happens when you’re just trying to meet today’s needs instead of anticipating those of tomorrow.
Other times, though, it’s the result of being out of touch with the marketplace. There’s a push, as recounted here, toward business leaders being more in touch with “cultural intelligence.” Put simply, it’s being aware of how people from another culture may respond differently to something you think of as commonplace.
That’s no doubt important, though the concept isn’t new. Even when I was growing up and becoming aware of the world around me in the 1980s I knew that corporate executives and politicians needed to be cognizant of traditions, habits and norms in other cultures and countries in order to effectively do business there.
Extrapolated out, though, the idea of “cultural intelligence” can be applied to how a company either creates or markets its products within different segments of the domestic market. Some of that knowledge can be achieved through research, either original work done in-house or what you’re able to find from companies like Pew, Forrester, Nielsen and other organizations.
I’d make the argument, though, that cultural awareness can be more fully-baked into a company’s mission and decision-making through the hiring of a more diverse and inclusive staff. Essentially, if you have a base of employees that looks like the market you’re trying to serve, you will be able to better design, develop and market a product that truly reaches the potential customer base where they live.
Having those kinds or resources available to you and making it clear they have the ability to call BS where warranted, sending up warnings and throwing flags on ideas that clearly contain problems, can save lots of headaches and issues down the road. The most common example is, of course, how if social network companies like Twitter and Facebook had more women and people of color internally then maybe protections against harassment and better “this account is a literal Nazi” reporting tools might have been native to the networks from the start, as would safeguards against other forms of misinformation.
I’ve heard people say that leadership is 90% picking the right people and getting out of the way. A big part of that can and should be the filling in of the gaps in a leader’s own cultural awareness to make sure what’s being produced isn’t insensitive or outright offensive to the customers he or she is trying to reach.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.