Skip to content
Thoughtfarmer intranet blog
Culture and Engagement

Five lessons learned about cross-cultural social networking

Five key lessons learned from an on-site visit to a ThoughtFarmer client's office in Asia.

6 minute read
You might also like…
Intranet use cases Thumbnail
Intranet use cases

Social networking theorists like to debate whether and how much cultural differences impact the way people respond to and interact with social networks.

The discussion turns starkly practical when multinational enterprises develop intranets or other social networking tools for internal use. Differences are real and sometimes critical, as we learned while helping an Asian-based company with offices in Canada, the U.S., Korea and Japan deploy a global ThoughtFarmer intranet

The good news is that most differences can be overcome with a little innovation and modification. Here are five key lessons we learned:

1. Design matters

Asian users said the original ThoughtFarmer pages, designed in Canada, “looked North American.” They enjoyed more muted pastel colors and anime-style emoticons, a look that seemed equally foreign to North American eyes.

This was not a trivial objection. One of the aims of the project was to make this highly distributed and multicultural organization more cohesive. The foreign-ness of the look and feel – on both sides – worked against that.

Solution? More branding and custom design. ThoughtFarmer’s allows for customization of intranets using themes and allows web designers to apply CSS designs on a section-by-section basis that suit the preferences of each region.

2. Language matters

You may be willing to exercise whatever language skills you have to glean vital information from the web written in a foreign tongue. But you’re much less likely to struggle with a language barrier for “merely” social communication.

ThoughtFarmer worked around this critical obstacle by incorporating Google Translate APIs. Users can now click a button to get an immediate machine translation of an intranet page, and then flip back and forth between original and translated page. They can also fill in an online form to order a more accurate human translation.

3. Language subtleties matter

We always use professional translators for translating program labels, tags and instructions into a new language. But we’ve found that professional translation on its own isn’t sufficient — only field testing with native speakers can verify accuracy. And minor mis-translations can have disproportionate effects.

For example, when ThoughtFarmer translated the program to Korean, it used a literal equivalent of the term “favorites”. But Koreans and Japanese use the term ‘scrap’ or ‘scrapping’ when they bookmark a web page – not a translation but the English words. ‘Favorites’ meant little or nothing to them. Result: many didn’t realize the feature was available so didn’t use it.

3405514956 C7f1511c37 O

4. Faces matter

Sometimes cultural differences are intractable – but that doesn’t mean fatal. For example, Korean and Japanese users were uncomfortable with posting pictures of themselves at their personal intranet pages, preferring to use avatars or pictures of pets. They could not state definite reasons for this preference. Expectations around privacy, perhaps, or a culturally-ingrained sense of personal modesty?

Some North American organizations require employees to post pictures as a way to promote cohesion by making even remote fellow employees seem more familiar and accessible. But the disinclination of the company’s Korean and Japanese employees to do this appeared deep rooted and it was decided not to press the issue. Did it undermine the project as a whole? By no means.

In North America and the UK, many people don’t hesitate to share photos of themselves on their profile. In Asia, it’s  common to use an avatar. Judging from some of the profile photos we see, avatars may be the way to go. 

ThoughtFarmer co-founder and president Darren Gibbons, who traveled to Korea to observe how the customer’s intranet was being used there, says, “We did find key differences. But there were also lots of things we found where we were on the right track. And people there were quite interested in being involved and definitely understood what we were trying to do.”

Cross-cultural differences do have an impact on the way people use social networking and clearly they must be taken into account in designing tools, but many, possibly most, can be worked around. As for the rest? Vive la difference.

If you like this blog, 

you’ll love our newsletter

From workbooks and whitepapers, to blog content and best practices, our monthly newsletter is full of great content, advice, and expert insight.