Everybody's doing it. Going global, that is. It will soon be a requirement for most successful businesses. But getting there won't be that easy.

Congressman Ray LaHood did central Illinois a major favor recently by hosting a group of us for several days of briefings–from both the media and congressional speakers. One of their messages was strikingly similar. Globalization is something we'll all want to do (in business and in government), but there are obstacles to achieving it.

A primary obstacle, the group said, is the cultural differences between countries. Much more than just language and political differences, these are distinct variations in the way we conduct ourselves. Things like what we think is important, what our compensation expectations are, how and why we learn, etc. For instance, a wildly successful trainer in this country, thought of by Americans as "entertaining", might be viewed by the Japanese very differently (and with much less respect.) Caterpillar Chairman Glen Barton reinforced this thought process in his recent remarks to a Bradley University CEO Breakfast: "We have to develop global managers with real world experience through travel and knowing at least one other language. Cultural sharing must exist and continual learning is necessary."

The senior vice president of Development Dimensions International (DDI) Rich Wellins, said, "it takes more than just using the same computer software to standardize the corporate culture of a global organization." Borders don't go away that easily. There are different employment laws from country to country, different government regulations, varying job security and much more. That's not to say those differences can't be overcome. As Glen Barton has indicated, being reassigned to other countries–learning another country's way of doing things firsthand–is the sort of continual learning that must take place for a company to succeed.

How have some made the grade? Whirlpool put together a leadership development program that was not only comprehensive but also culturally sensitive. Fluor Corporation elected not to force a corporate culture on its local offices worldwide, but rather focused on gaining acceptance of the corporate culture's underlying values and principles. Other companies have provided management education, established common systems, or like Caterpillar, have ensured that its top people have a wealth of international experiences before they're promoted to bigger and better things. At Caterpillar, that kind of assignment usually has a significant impact on future promotions. But, according to DDI, about a third of global companies indicate that foreign assignments have little or impact on person's career. "Globalization" has a ways to go.

A good example of "globalization" gone haywire was Sony's mishandling of the Hollywood scene when it bought Columbia Pictures. It forgot all the practices and disciplines that had made it so successful in Japan, and got swept into behaving erratically. Had the film office been located in Japan, it might have avoided the $2.7 billion in losses that were written off in the mid-90s.

Even the "dot.coms" are faced with a global challenge. But you ask, don't they automatically qualify as "global" because of their very nature? As it turns out, not really. A Wall Street Journal article reports that some American Internet firms, including eBay, have alienated those in other countries by pricing everything in dollars. Or, closer to home, part of the seating fiasco in the Peoria Civic Center Arena boiled down to an Italian manufacturer who had printed all the accompanying literature only in Italian.

The bottom line is this: globalization means changing the way we think about doing business. And that means, as U.S. Chamber President Thomas J. Donahue told our group in Washington, it will be more important than ever to make sure we have elected the right people to office. We must "get out the right vote." In other words, not only will businesses be required to change their modus operandi to fit into the global nature of things, they'll also want their voice to be heard. That's where we've all got to start.

That's a tall order–but it's an order we've got to fill if we expect to be "global." Businesses that expect to be global (and the truly successful ones will be global) will not be required to make themselves un-American–just on-American. In their language. In their social customs. In their currency. In the way they do business. But it's important that they develop and maintain a strong corporate culture, not internationally, but within the bounds of a given country. Strong corporate international cultures fail because they try to cross a country's boundaries, where everything may be very different. The solution–develop a corporate culture, adhering to whatever the social, political and economic norms exist in the specific country–and make sure they don't deviate too far from the base corporate culture. It won't be easy–but it will be worth it. IBI