Tero International, Inc. Your Elite Training Team

Restructure...or Structure

by Deborah Rinner, Vice President, Tero International


Unfortunately many businesses have to restructure under the eye of a watching public. Probably none more vividly than Korean Air. In the 1990s Korean Air had a series of traumatic events. By far the worst of 12 serious accidents that occurred in this time frame was the loss of a Boeing 747, which crash landed in Guam in 1997, killing 227 people.

Although there were some external conditions that could have contributed to the crash, none of them were enough to merit a catastrophe of this size. During investigation it was found that in flight, the major errors occurred in the cockpit, and were directly caused by the relationship the pilots had to each other and to cultural expectations.

Culture is an interesting phenomenon. We are so close to our own, we are blinded many times to how it makes us act and react. We are often so blind to it, we do not see it as a factor that operates 24/7 in our minds, the minds of those we work with, and in business itself. Even someone as technically skilled as a pilot can succumb to the effects of national culture on the job, to the point where they do not operate with a totally unbiased capacity, and the product, in this case a safe trip for the passengers, is jeopardized. In fact they say for an employee, national culture, its expectations and values, will trump organizational culture.

Culture counts. Yet we fail to take a look at what it may reveal to us, how it may be affecting us, and learn what may be helpful in leveraging it as a benefit. We too often do not even consider it a potential factor until problems that could have been addressed occur.

In the case of Korean Air, the problem was devastating. "We realized we needed to concentrate more on 'how' we fly and less on 'where' we are flying to" This, a quote from a top official for the owners of Korean Airlines, after the fact. Unfortunately this quote is a metaphor for how we often operate in business. All too often we are looking forward to where we are going, forgetting that how we are proceeding is going to eventually win out in determining our success. Knowledge of cultural difference and worldview directly affect the "how" and the "where" will only matter if we proceed with all the expertise we can to recognize and deal with cultural difference.

What happened in the cockpit that could have been avoided? One known generalization concerning Korean culture is that life is characterized by hierarchy, respect for elders and rank. So much so that the crew might defer to the highest ranking pilot. In this case, the pilot was reported to be confused as to communications, did not follow safety protocol, and was reportedly sleepy. What should have been a team approach of the crew with respect to aviation protocol, which may have compensated for this problem, became an ill fated mistake due to people acting and reacting based on cultural values.

Deaths and crashes are vivid reminders of something gone wrong. Wouldn't it have been fortunate if instead of restructuring due to devastating problems, structuring could have been done prior? How might this story have read if they had been able to create a knowledge base and dialogue about cultural values, so that culture could operate in a way that it brought gain instead of loss?

To their credit, Korean Air, and Boeing, whose plane was involved, both acknowledged the need for and embraced an attention to cultural communication. This has carried them forward bringing cultural training to the forefront. Keeping the attention on the "how" of their business, they set out to prevent culture from being a hindrance and to harness the good it can bring if understood.

Although your work may not have such vivid examples of the need to attend to culture, there most likely are some albeit less traumatic effects of culture operating in your daily efforts, and there will only be more as we become increasingly more global. Are you "structuring" by gaining the knowledge and skills that are available, so you won't have to publicly "restructure" when it comes to culture?


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