To sell and what to sell:
Interculturalists’ ethical struggle

by Laurence Romani and Betina Szkudlarek

If I don’t sell training, I can’t survive as an interculturalist. But then, what training am I expected to sell? A two-hour seminar on ‘how to do business in China’? What kind of training is that?

This comment encapsulates the spirit of countless discussions we have had and heard within the SIETAR communities in Europe and the USA; discussions about the challenges of making a business as an interculturalist, and the challenges of doing it in line with the quality standards we aspire to. For us, this comment points to the ethical dilemma that tears many interculturalists apart: either to sell an imperfect product, or not to sell at all. With this piece, we want to pinpoint that this dilemma holds in tension two dominant ways of thinking about cross-cultural training, but foremost, we would like to start a reflection on this dilemma that may in fact be the involuntary product of our community’s weak commercial positioning.

A recent study shows that more than 50% of SIETAR members own their own businesses.  The majority of these businesses work within a context of corporate world, serving commercial enterprises that are said to operate under the conditions of proven efficacy and increased performance. In contrast to those arguing for the shaping of intercultural training as an organizational instrument are those who see the trainings foremost as personal development tools that encourage personal growth of the participants. We believe that interculturalists’ opinion on the matter is partly influenced by their range of experience and the kind of clients they have (private or public, large or small organisations, located within the domains of management or social justice, for example). Some denounce the commercial logic that treats people as resources and leads to selling suboptimal trainings. Others defend it, and reason that any access to corporate world and possibility of having an impact is better than having no access at all.

Could it be that this debate emerges recurrently within SIETAR because we tend to believe that commercial and profitability conditions are the only way to enter the corporate context? Interestingly, during workshops, forums or conferences, it is us, and not so much corporate practitioners, who tend to present organisations as entities demanding return on investment. Why do we tend to promote such a discourse on organisations?  During discussions addressing this dilemma of selling an imperfect product versus not selling at all, many of us say that they don’t have a choice: they must accept the conditions of their clients. Is it really so? Or is it that some of us lack the arguments and the tools to go beyond this accepted discourse on profitability? Could we promote in our community resources, arguments and influence to enforce our own standards of what we believe cross-cultural trainings should be about? What consequences would an unconditional obedience to an instrumental approach have for the future of the intercultural profession and its services? Could it ultimately lead to establishing standards which deny the core of intercultural work? Indeed, if we only follow a commercial and profitability logic, our training should be as short and as impactful as possible. Can we do so without falling in the trap of a ‘doing business in China’ two-hour session - and perpetuating what most of us fight against: clichés and over-generalised, stereotypical knowledge? 

We believe that the dilemma of selling a compromised training or not selling at all is linked to the weak commercial positioning of our profession, rather than to a corporate reality imposing profitability. We do not want to deny corporate demands, but we wonder to what extent we, interculturalists, are not also responsible for the imposition of this demand. If we believe that profitability is the only bottom line of organisations and if we train ourselves in ways to comply with it, we do not grow stronger in presenting trainings also as developmental tools for better cross-cultural interactions, and we might be compromising both the credibility and the future of our profession. 


Laurence Romani
Laurence Romani (Stockholm, Sweden) and Betina Szkudlarek (Sydney, Australia) are researchers in cross-cultural management. They have independently investigated intercultural trainers and realised that some struggles in the interculturalist community can be linked to the perceived HRM dominant discourse. Do you share their opinion? Please start a conversation by participating in the forum. You can also send your reactions and comments to Laurence.romani@hhs.se or B.Szkudlarek@econ.usyd.edu.au.

Thank you in advance.
Betina Szkudlarek
Betina Szkudlarek



















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