Real-World Impact Through Cross-Cultural Research

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Real-World Impact Through Cross-Cultural Research

When you think of ‘South America’ what comes to mind? For many people, visions of iconic cities like Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro appear. For others, it may be elements of popular culture such as soccer or vibrant music and dance traditions. Those who travel will be quick to add in language. Spanish, in its various dialects, is commonly associated with South America along with Portuguese in Brazil. However, unless you are particularly well traveled in that part of the world or an aficionado of history or geography, there are three countries that tend to be overlooked: Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. These neighboring countries are situated in the northeast corner of South America, above Brazil. Apart from sharing a continent, these countries have little in common with the rest of South America. All three differ in terms of language, ethnicities and cultural practices. They may be small, but they have a great deal to teach us about diversity and cross-cultural interactions. In this blog post, I will briefly share how cross-cultural research in Suriname helped one multinational company create a stronger and more humanistic relationship with its employees. It is important for all of us in academia, students, staff and faculty alike, to remember that our research activities are not merely academic exercises; they have the power to transform lives in meaningful ways.

In 2014, I was asked to find out why there were poor employee engagement survey results for a multinational company in Suriname. I was contacted due to my expertise in both human resources management and cross-cultural leadership. For two years, the company had used a leading employee engagement consulting company to deploy their surveys and provide recommendations for improvement. Yet, the primarily Surinamese employee population continued to indicate that they were dissatisfied in virtually all areas of their employment. Both the company itself and the consultants were highly skilled at developing leadership and fostering engagement within companies, so why weren’t their approaches working this time? It was an intriguing question that I was excited to explore further.

In order to provide a proper critical analysis and recommendations, I needed to understand the situation from all angles. When working cross-culturally, this means going deeper than what is being openly communicated and beyond observation of actions. It means understanding the cultural values and expectations from all cultures involved. Suriname is tremendously diverse, with five major ethnic groups—all with their own languages and cultural nuances. The more prevalent ethic groups include Creoles (mixed Afro-Surinamese descent), Maroons (African descent), Hindustani (Indian descent), Javanese (Indonesian descent), and White Surinamese (Dutch descent). There are also significant communities of Chinese, Amerindians, Libyans and Syrians, along with growing immigrant populations from Brazil and Haiti. The operation I was analyzing included all of the major populations. Since there are few publications or research on Surinamese society, much of the research I was doing was novel and required in-depth interviews and observations, not just on the business culture on site but also on cultural values and working preferences.

The research revealed a plethora of insights about cross-cultural disconnects between the foreign company and the Surinamese workers. These insights were not easily discernable from the employee engagement survey results. However, once revealed they provided a number of ‘ah-ha’ moments for the company that helped them understand why their employees were so dissatisfied. For example, they learned that ‘poor communication’ wasn’t for lack of trying to communicate. It was centered on a significant number of employees not being able to read in the language that was being used or to read at all, in some cases.

Dutch is the official language in Suriname (as it is a former Dutch colony). However, people in lower socio-economic strata, like many of these employees, did not have either sufficient access to education or exposure to Dutch being spoken in their daily lives within their ethnic communities. Among those, some were not able to read even in their own languages, due to educational barriers. The company understandably thought the official language was widely known and that written communication was appropriate. In order to effectively communicate with employees, the company had to make some major changes. Some of these changes included a shift to oral communication via gatherings and video presentations in the break area. They also began promoting translation in other languages.

Imagine going to work every day and not understanding what was going on within your own work environment--reporting to a supervisor who you didn’t fully understand or your performance being measured by categories you couldn’t read on your performance review. Naturally, many employees did not feel engaged. Along with improving on basic communication and management approaches, the company was also able to improve on their inclusion efforts. This is because the research revealed power dynamics within Surinamese society that were in play in the workplace and marginalizing some employee groups. Suriname has a long history of enslavement and indentured servitude. While laws have changed, elements of discrimination still do exist in ways both subtle and overt. Once this was uncovered, the company was then able to actively address issues of concern. The result? By the next annual employee engagement survey, workers reported a 25% improvement in the work environment. An increase of this size is unusual in such a short span of time, illustrating the power of cross-cultural understanding.

Whether my students are actively engaged in empirical research or writing a scholarly paper, I emphasize the importance of these activities to produce new insights. It is personally rewarding to acquire new knowledge, but it is our ability as researchers and scholars to share that knowledge with others that can effect meaningful change in our own communities and those of others.

-Dr. Jennie Walker, University of the Rockies Lead Faculty

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