Bridging the cultural gap in global R&D projects

How is R&D management performed in Asia? What are the specifics of China’s innovation systems? How can Australian SMEs assess their innovation capability? How do Taiwanese universities manage their patent activities? Answers to these questions will be presented at the upcoming R&D Management Conference in Stuttgart, Germany in a special session entitled “R&D Management across Cultures”.

This session will focus on the (inter-) cultural aspects of innovation management with, within and across Asia-Pacific countries. The Fraunhofer Competence Center R&D Management is giving a presentation based on experience it gained while working on a consulting project with a local partner in South Australia. In the project, which was funded by the South Australian government, the Australian-German team developed a framework to measure the innovation capability and sustainability of SMEs. This framework meets the current state-of-the-art in Europe and leverages existing diagnosis tools.

The Fraunhofer researchers worked together with their local partner and several South Australian SMEs to design a new tool based on an existing business diagnostic tool. Project challenges included understanding the differences between Australian and German SMEs, identifying which are the most important items of European innovation audits for inclusion in the new tool, and developing a concept that fits the local conditions in Australia. Given the cultural differences between the nations, adapting the European frameworks to the Australian market was no easy feat for the team.

  • Australian SMEs are usually much smaller than German ones, i.e. closer in size to micro-enterprises (10-15 people).
  • In Germany, almost all SMEs are certified according to DIN/ISO 9001 or 16949 and therefore comprehensively document their organizational structure and core processes. This is not the case in Australia. As a result, Australian SMEs often develop their products and manage their business in a more spontaneous and sometimes unconventional way (from a German perspective).
  • Succession planning is another aspect that differs in both countries. In Australian family businesses, the junior boss usually collects his or her experiences within the senior’s company before taking over, whereas German companies expect their juniors to start their careers without parental control and support.

Besides the cultural challenges, there are also differences in regulations, laws and funding schemes to be considered when designing an assessment tool for foreign markets. The German-Australian project, for example, had to respect the fact that pricing policies and cost control mechanisms are not given the same importance in both economies.

The project’s success is not only due to the excellent combination of personal strengths and cultural backgrounds in the team, but also to its members’ respect for and interest in the culture of their overseas colleagues. Their willingness to learn from each other and the open exchange of knowledge and experiences within the team and with the local SMEs was crucial in helping them achieve their objectives.

We’d love to discuss any questions you have on cultural challenges in R&D projects and to hear about lessons you have learned. What are the challenges you’ve faced? What has proven essential for coping with them? And what are the issues you’re still struggling with?


Stephan Schüle (re-posted from

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