Keynote Address: “Intercultural Competence as a Cornerstone of Innovation”


I was honored to be invited to give the keynote address at the recent annual Conference of Business Innovation, organized by the FPT Leadership Institute.

First, a word about the parent company.  FPT, Vietnam’s leading technology company, was founded in 1988 as The Food Processing Technology Company.  Its first contract was  to provide computers for the Russian Academy of Sciences in partnership with Olivetti in 1989, which laid the groundwork for its IT department.  A year later, the company was renamed The Corporation for Financing and Promoting Technology and the rest, as they say, is history.  In addition to its dominant market position within Vietnam, FPT’s operations are global in scope, with clients or rep offices and companies in 16 foreign countries, including Laos, Cambodia, America, Japan, Singapore, Germany, Myanmar, France, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand, United Kingdom, the Philippines, Kuwait, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Keynote Address

Since my topic was Intercultural Competence (IC) as a Cornerstone of Innovation (Mối giao thoa văn hóa là nền móng cho sự sáng tạo), I started off with some comments about innovation, which is a hot topic in Vietnam.  Just in the past week or so, I’ve seen media references such as “Vietnam Needs More Innovation:  Experts” and “Vietnam Needs to Foster Innovation to Sustain Growth, Report Says.”  I added that Vietnam needs innovation to foster sustainable development, which is more far important than growth in the long-term and for quality of life.  While there are many examples of innovation occurring in Vietnam, including at FPT, a copy and paste mentality is still prevalent, including in my industry.

conference graphic

During the remainder of my allotted time, i.e, one-hour, including 20 minutes for Q&A, which turned into a half hour, I briefly defined the concepts of innovation, culture, intercultural sensitivity (a mindset) and intercultural competence (a skill set), introduced the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), a framework that describes the different ways in which people can react to cultural differences organized into six “stages” of increasing sensitivity to difference, and offered an overview of a related tool that measures intercultural competence, the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI).  I also mentioned foreign language proficiency as an integral component of IC, discussed ways in which people can develop IC, referred to some recent research that proves overseas experience makes us more flexible, creative and complex thinkers, pointed out some ways in which the US and Vietnam differ within this context (i.e., to Vietnam’s credit and advantage) and shared some useful resources.

The US and Vietnam:  A Study in Cultural Contrast

handbook of ic competenceIn discussing the contrast between Vietnam and the US, I drew from a co-authored book chapter entitled “Developing Globally Competent Citizens – The Contrasting Cases of the United States and Vietnam” (with Dương Thị Hoàng Oanh), which was published in 2009 in The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence (Darla Deardorff, editor).  One of the points we make is that nationalism, which is predominant in the US, is a cognitive and affective barrier to developing intercultural competence and global citizenship.  In Vietnam, where national identity is rooted in patriotism, it is easier to create globally competent citizens.  In general, young people here are more open, interested and curious about the world beyond their country’s borders and are not burdened by a nationalist worldview, or ideology, which exalts one country above all.

A Great Leader of a Global Project with a Multinational Team

A “bonus” was an overview of a case study about Sir Ernest Shackleton, a Anglo-Irish explorer, who participated in four expeditions to Antarctica in the early 20th century, of which he led three:  A Great Leader of a Global Project with a Multinational Team.  The story is as much about leadership as it is about leading a multinational team.  While Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914–17 failed, he succeeded in that he and his entire team survived the tragedy. (Source:  “Intercultural Competence in Business:  Leading Global Projects,” Robert T. Moran, William E. Youngdahl, and Sarah V. Moran; The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence, ed., Darla Deardorff).

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Making a point. Photo: Hoàng Anh Tuấn

In Conclusion

Among the conclusions were:

  • IC gives you the ability to work successfully with clients around the world
  • IC can play a valuable role as a catalyst for innovation, including with multinational teams
  • IC can give you a competitive advantage in working with foreign clients and partners

Participants ask a number of excellent questions, including some of my impressions of Vietnam after living here for nearly 10 years, ways in which Capstone Vietnam been innovative, some related to IC, others not.  I was gratified to see so much interest in IC on the part of FPT.  It’s not surprising, given the company’s international operations and its focus on innovation.  Just as FPT has been a trailblazer as Vietnam’s leading ITC company, it’s exciting to think that perhaps it will be a trendsetter in this area as well.

Article in Vietnamese:  ‘Giao thoa văn hóa thúc đẩy sự sáng tạo’ (29.11.14)  If you don’t read Vietnamese, just use a service like Google Translate to get the gist.



The Creative Kid Project – Build Your Dream School

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  (Lao-tzu, 604 BC-531 BC)

The Creative Kid Project is an inspiring and much-needed program being organized and implemented by Vietnamese students and colleagues from Brown University.  Below is the description in its entirety.  My company, Capstone Vietnam, is proud to be a sponsor of this visionary project.  

The Project

Kids are creative by nature, but they need to see that they can affect change and be taken seriously by adults in order to fully develop their ideas. The Creative Kid Project seeks to help secondary school students use their innate creativity to improve one of the institutions they know best: school.

Most kids spend the majority of their time in school learning from teachers and socializing with each other; however, they are rarely given the opportunity to contribute to or shape their learning environments. The Creative Kid Project will push students to think critically about their education, the ways in which it could be made better, and it will help students to develop the skills and confidence to start implementing their ideas.

The Plan

This July, we will partner with Thuc Nghiem Middle-School, Hanoi to pilot The Creative Kid Project (CKP). Thirty 13-15-year-old students, selected by application from Hanoi middle schools, will come together for a 6-day program focusing on creative problem-solving skills. We hope to form a core team of young students (high school or university students) that could work directly with the kids as well as a team of experienced adult advisors to further develop this plan. This project is meant to serve as a proof-of-concept that, if successful, could continue to develop or spread in Hanoi as well as other cities.

The daily program will be divided into morning and afternoon sessions and the content and structure will be loosely based on the Vietnam Youth Forum, TEDx Youth, and Camp Rising Sun (in the U.S. and Denmark).  In the mornings, through mini-presentations and small-group activities, students learn soft skills, such as how to brainstorm or effectively organize a group. In the afternoon, groups of students work to apply new skills towards building specific proposals for their school. On the final day, students will present their proposal to their teachers and school administrations.

The core skills are as follows:

  1. Identifying Issues – framing problem, asking questions (why/why not), brainstorming (think big, think small, “think wrong”)
  2. Collaborating and Organizing Groups — building a team, leading and following
  3. Developing Plans — systems thinking, research skills, design thinking
  4. Engaging with Decision-Makers — approaching and communicating with adults
  5. Preparing Presentations — making concise arguments, designing, drawing, modeling
  6. Pitching Proposals — public speaking, persuasive communication

 These project modes are intended as parts of a toolkit that students can practice within the program and take with them to be effective and creative problem-solvers afterwards. We hope that students will absorb these skills and build the self-confidence to further develop and apply them throughout the rest of school and life.

The Team

We are a group of students from universities in Vietnam and the U.S. with a strong interest in education, child development, and unconventional thinking. With the support from the Watson Institute of International Studies – Brown University and the Louise August Jonas Foundation , we hope to create a meaningful summer project for kids.

Linh Dao is an International Development major who loves kids, music and conversations. She is currently working with Dr. Martin Gardiner at Brown to research the influence of music education on the cognitive development of preschool children. Before Brown, she helped to organize the first Vietnam Youth Forum and studied at the Mahindra United World College of India, an international high school focused on teaching students to be global change-makers.

Evan Schwartz is studying Education and Political Economy and is a leader of a group called The Brown Conversation, which seeks to do the same for university students as The Creative Kid Project would do for younger students. He is from the U.S. and was a three-time participant in the Camp Rising Sun international summer leadership program and a visiting counselor during three other summers. As this is his first trip to Vietnam, Evan will serve primarily as an advisor while he tries to learn as much as he can about Vietnam’s history, culture, education system and, in particular, food.  (Here’s a 29 June post by Evan on Global Conversation entitled Maybe the Premises Are Wrong – Bustle, Bánh Mì, and Big Questions.) 

Suong Tran is a rising senior, economics major and mass communication minor at Washington and Lee University. She was a co-founder of the Fun Recycle project, which helped raise awareness of recycling to protect the environment through fun educational activities for kids.

Trang Nguyen is a junior at Foreign Trade University, majoring in International Economics and Business. She was an active member of English Club at Foreign Trade University and has many experiences in organizing events, including workshops and competitions for English learners. She has also worked with children on various occasions as teaching assistant and volunteer.

Hoa Nguyen is a rising sophomore, majoring in Applied Mathematics-Economics at Brown University. She loves interacting with children, and she has worked with children in a variety of tutoring schemes and projects. Before Brown, she was a recipient of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Scholarship and the founder of a creative fundraising scheme for autistic children called “Hands Up For Autism” in Singapore.