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It’s now generally accepted that Australia’s future is intimately bound up with Asia. There are economic, strategic and obvious geographic reasons why this is so. Consequently, the conversation has shifted from the out-dated, ‘Will you engage with Asia?’ to the current, ‘How can you engage to best advantage?’ It’s a reasonable question. While the Asia-Pacific region is rich with opportunity for Australia, it’s also fraught with complexity and cultural risk. Things can go wrong, and sometimes do. The challenges faced by Australian organisations in Asia are like complex and interwoven puzzles. The key that unlocks the solution to these puzzles is cultural competence.
While this new Asian century is certain to present Australia with significant economic, strategic and social opportunities, it is already bringing challenge and risk as well. Cultural differences run deeper and are more pervasive than many realise. For example, the obvious differences in communication patterns, soon encountered when you work in Asia, reflect deeper and subtler cultural differences in cognitive style. In addition, although cultures change, this happens slowly and in ways that tend to reflect a society’s particular historical traditions. All this means that Australia urgently needs to build greater cultural competence: an integrated set of attributes, insight and skills for effective collaboration with Asian colleagues and counterparts. Taken together, such skills support both individuals and organisations in addressing the challenges and mitigating the risks that are the inevitable companions of opportunity. If professionals across all sectors can succeed in this task, then Australia will possess a unique competitive advantage and a sound platform for future security and prosperity.