Conflicts arise from unconscious biases. Overcoming these requires intercultural skills and respect toward our differences. How does that work? Ilka Horstmeier says: by taking a curious look at our differences.
Although intercultural teamwork has long been part of everyday life for many people, it sometimes comes with tensions and misunderstandings. From social psychology, we know that people and cultures still define themselves by demarcating themselves from 'the other'. We need to be conscious of this and therefore learn to treat each other with respect. We need to see the unfamiliar as a benefit for our society as well as each individual.
We talked with Ilka Horstmeier about this: She is a member of the Board of Management of BMW AG and, as Labour Relations Director, responsible for Human Resources. Ms Horstmeier knows what is important when it comes to change: She transformed BMW Group’s traditional Bavarian plant in Dingolfing into a centre of excellence for e-drive production. Under her leadership, the BMW Group launched the most profound qualification offensive in the company’s history. In 2021 in Germany alone, BMW Group trained around 75,000 participants in future technologies, such as electromobility and data analytics.
Author: Dr. Elmer Lenzen (Editor in Chief, UmweltDialog)
All COVID hygienic measures were followed.
Ms Horstmeier, what led an automotive company to come up with the idea of striving for intercultural learning?
Ilka Horstmeier: We are a company that is now active in 140 markets. 120,000 employees from 110 nations work at BMW. Interculturality and exchange across countries therefore shape our everyday life. How else could we develop a common global understanding of what needs to be done and where we want to go, both as a company and as a society?
What tangible benefits does this cooperation bring BMW?
Horstmeier: The exchange between countries and cultures is crucial to our business success. BMW – like any other global company – is a reflection of society. We must find a way to use our diversity and bring differences together to achieve the best possible result. Take our Munich plant as an example: people from 50 nations work side by side here on a production line. Each individual must be able to deal well with cultural differences in those around them to produce the best product together.
Do you also work with people or organisations outside BMW to strengthen your intercultural skills?
Horstmeier: Yes, intensively and successfully at that. For example, we launched the Intercultural Innovation Award ten years ago together with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations to promote these skills, especially among young people. We have supported 61 organisations in 116 countries so far. Together, they have reached around five million people globally. These award-winning organisations contribute to overcoming polarisation between societies and cultures both through raising awareness and educational projects around the world. For example, they educate schoolchildren about different religions, offer workshops on political education, and support educators in the fight against extremism among the youth. As fear and anxiety of some people about the interconnectedness of the world grows, this engagement becomes even more important. This award is an important lever, and that is why we will be continuing our work with the United Nations.
What do 'intercultural skills' mean to you personally?
Horstmeier: They have shaped my life for many years. In my early student days, I worked for the international student organisation AIESEC. This has profoundly shaped my understanding of interculturality. We spent lots of time discussing the Second World War with students from other countries and other cultures. We discussed how it all happened and, above all, why it happened. The conclusion was that this must never happen again. No group of people must be stigmatised ever again. I believe that many conflicts in the world arise from trying to attribute traits to certain cultures, nationalities and people that is simply not there. This gives rise to unconscious biases and stigmatisation.
What specific actions can we take against this?
Horstmeier: It’s important that we educate young people about the differences between cultures, just as I was when I was a student. We have to teach them to see the world through a different lens than just their own and to appreciate the value of diversity. I have gained a lot of international experience, including in China, when I was responsible for BMW’s drive production. It was fascinating to experience how – despite all the differences – we intelligently lever each other’s unique strengths to reach a common goal. I have learned an incredible amount from my Chinese colleagues.
What impact is the coronavirus pandemic having on intercultural interaction? We see each other less often at work, meet fewer friends, can travel less. Hasn’t a lot been lost here – permanently?
Horstmeier: I am convinced that global cooperation will continue at whatever level – whether at the state level, company level or with non-governmental organisations. We need this global cooperation. The world is far too interconnected now, and the pandemic can’t turn the clock back on that. That means we have to deal with the fact that some people are rather open and others perhaps afraid of it. For that, personal interaction, joint projects and shared successes continue to be important.
Can you give us an example of where this cooperation has worked particularly well during the pandemic?
Horstmeier: After the first lockdown in March 2020, it would have been impossible for us to start up our productions sites again without masks. And of course, masks were extremely rare at that time. That’s why we set up our own mask production within six weeks. How did we do that? We did not ask who was highest in the hierarchy or who was supposed to look at this problem. Instead, we sought out colleagues who had the particular expertise to solve this precise problem. And they did it within six weeks. This has nothing to do with the ‘new work’ phrase of ‘flat hierarchies’, but with the fact that we empower people according to their skill sets and put together teams configured to be able to solve tasks – using agile working methods – very quickly and with the best possible result.
But, at the risk of being flippant, do you really need intercultural skills in a home office? You sit in front of your screen in your own four walls...
Horstmeier: Yes, it is precisely because so much is shifting to the virtual world that we need these skills more than ever. Virtual working opens up even more opportunities for intercultural cooperation. And cooperation thrives on trust. If the trust is not there, it’s even more difficult to reach common goals in the virtual world. These robust, personal relationships at BMW helped us immensely during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Will virtual working become the ‘new normal’ – continuing after Covid?
Horstmeier: In the future, we will increasingly work in a virtual world, because there will certainly continue to be travel restrictions. We will also do without some business trips here and there – due to environmental concerns.
If much more happens online in the future, it will mean there are not as many personal encounters as before. How can we learn and practice our intercultural skills?
Horstmeier: It’s not going to happen with trainings alone. We need personal contact. We may have to stumble over pitfalls and put our foot in it on occasion, which each and every one of us experiences at some point in intercultural teamwork. But this is the only way to learn to overcome prejudices and do things better. BMW will not be a company where no one will ever travel. Neither will everyone disappear into a home office. Personal contact remains important to us. After all, people ultimately establish business relationships by exploring common ground and building trust. For that, you need to get to know the person you want to do business with. You cannot really do that exclusively virtually. There will be more and more hybrid formats in the future though. That’s why the time we spend on site must be used even more intensively to build up this network of personal relationships.
When young people start at BMW, they need to bring many skills with them. Which are the ones they need to keep a particular eye on?
Horstmeier: Curiosity and appreciation for others, and the will to succeed as a team. Approach others openly and be interested in diversity. What drives the other person? How can we achieve the best result together?
As I said earlier: we are active in 140 markets. We need different perspectives. Vehicles are a highly complex product. As trite as it may sound, the only constant is change. We need people who find continuous change exciting and enjoy challenging things and trying out new things.
You have been working at BMW for a long time. You have experienced a lot. To what extent has our current topic of interculturality changed everyday life at BMW?
Horstmeier: Of course, a lot has changed in the 27 years I’ve been with BMW. We have become much more international. We have grown enormously – especially in our foreign-based business. China is now our second-largest market. The complexity of our tasks and the dynamics of change have increased massively. Every day, something happens somewhere in the world that we need to respond to. And, of course, we need a completely different kind of collaboration to do that. Many things have remained significant over time, such as our understanding of ecological and social responsibility. To this end, we design our products sustainably, secure employment and make our contribution to society.
Ms Horstmeier, thank you very much for talking to us.
Intercultural Innovation Award
For ten years now, the UN Alliance of Civilisations has maintained a close partnership with the BMW Group. Together, they launched the Intercultural Innovation Award (https://interculturalinnovation.org). This award, which has been granted regularly since then, honours projects around the world that work for intercultural understanding and diverse, inclusive societies. The special thing about it is that the award winners not only receive financial support, but also project support in the form of coaching, workshops and networking. This year’s Intercultural Innovation Award ceremony took place on 18 November as part of the theme week on tolerance and inclusivity at EXPO2020 in Dubai. This year, the award is particularly aimed at projects that promote gender equality and advocate for women's rights, fight against violent extremism, hatred and prejudice, and seek to use art, culture and sport as enablers of social change.