Q & A: GWSB Professor on the Importance of Diversity in International Business

Heather Berry, who won the 2019 Trachtenberg Prize for Teaching Excellence, will deliver a lecture Oct. 3 on the role differences and distance play in international business.

Heather Berry
Professor Heather Berry (Photo courtesy GWSB)
September 27, 2019

By Briahnna Brown

George Washington University professor Heather Berry wants international business practitioners to look at  country differences in a new light.

As a professor of international business and international affairs at the School of Business, Dr. Berry has researched the impact that institutional differences have  on multinational corporations, and she uses her research in the courses she teaches at GW. Dr. Berry is also the winner of the 2019 Trachtenberg Prize for Teaching Excellence, which is awarded annually to outstanding undergraduate professors.

Dr. Berry said that she is honored to be selected for this award, and she is touched that her students nominated her for it.

“I enjoy teaching, and I try to make my course engaging, current, demanding and useful,” Dr. Berry said. “I am thrilled when I can see that I am having an impact on my students.”

On Thursday, Dr. Berry will deliver the Trachtenberg Teaching Award Distinguished Lecture, titled “The Fundamental Role That Differences and Distance Play in International Business.”

She said that her research on the subject aims to encourage researchers and students to embrace the different types of distances—such as economic, financial, political, demographic and knowledge—that exist across countries in international business relations. These distances impact firms’ decisions to expand abroad and the success these firms have in foreign markets, she said.

Dr. Berry shared some of the perspectives she will focus on in her lecture on distance and differences in international business with GW Today:

Q: What is one key role that cultural differences play in international business?

A: Differences across countries play a key role in international business both because they introduce complexity and because they provide opportunities. Cultural differences have been shown to make it more difficult to communicate, coordinate and integrate firm operations across countries. 

However, several of the other dimensions I have studied provide opportunities to firms in terms of access to resources, inputs and ideas that may not be available in a firm’s home country.  While differences in labor costs (and economic distance) may be one of the more familiar differences that is highlighted in economics, if a firm wants to tap into diverse knowledge in foreign countries, knowledge differences play a key role in providing such an opportunity. By broadening the dimensions of distance, I try to focus on how multiple types of country differences work together to influence firm choices and foreign investment outcomes.

Q: Are there industries in which these differences are more visible than others?

A: Cultural differences tend to be more visible in industries with products that require more local responsiveness to consumer preferences, and there are certainly many examples of marketing blunders firms have made because of language differences. But many of the other dimensions of distance that I study have a more subtle impact on a broad range of industries. For example, continuing with the knowledge difference example, innovation systems differ across countries. Although knowledge opportunities may be less visible, they certainly have an impact on the location decisions of firms for their foreign R&D operations.   

Q: How can practitioners approach international business relationships to be considerate of these differences?

A: I try to encourage managers and individuals to pay more attention to the positive and negative consequences of multiple types of differences. If a firm or an individual wants to benefit from diverse knowledge and approaches, then that firm or individual may need to figure out how to communicate and share information with individuals who come from different cultures and have different approaches, backgrounds and belief systems. 

There are many studies that have documented benefits from diversity (including improved creativity, engagement and productivity benefits within firms, for example), but many of us are drawn to people who are similar to us. I hope that I convey the importance of paying more attention to the positive and negative consequences of multiple types of differences in both my research and my courses.    

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