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To compete globally, you must know the soul of a nation

A mother helps her child pray after placing candles at a cathedral in India.

Gurinder Osan/The Associated Press

Over the past months, I have been citing numerous facts and figures to illustrate how Canada is a trading nation, but has considerable room to go still before becoming a nation of traders.

The point being, in a world that is being reshaped by technology, economic globalization, demographic shifts, ever-evolving labour markets, and the rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China and other emerging markets" on the world stage, Canadian enterprises - small, medium and large, and across industry - must possess the necessary knowledge and capacity to operate in an increasingly integrated and competitive global economy.

If they don't, our companies - whether they are domestically focused, outward oriented, or some combination of the two - will inevitably feel top and bottom line pressures, and with that, diminished or negative job- and wealth-creation prospects (think Research In Motion).

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Competing in the global economy, though, isn't just about sustainable revenue and profit growth or keeping costs in check to keep manufacturing jobs in Canada. These are the outcomes of effective competitiveness.

Becoming competitive is the first step in the process and that requires, among other elements, a solid understanding of the world around us. In the case of actual or would-be Canadian exporters, importers, and direct investors that means having a comprehensive understanding of each market in which they operate, including the economic, political, social and legal environments, the competitive landscape, and the country's cultural heritage and norms.

As we celebrate the best of the holiday season, it is this last item - cultural heritage and norms - that deserves particular attention. Ultimately, business is driven and influenced by individuals and the decisions they make, so a clear understanding of a country's cultural heritage and norms is critical in leading to commercial success in that market.

Let's take India for example, where I am currently on business/vacation. It is among 13 priority markets identified by the Government of Canada in its Global Commerce Strategy, but how much does the average Canadian business person (outside the Indian diaspora in Canada) really know about this very ancient and populous nation? If our bilateral trade and investment statistics are any indication, I would suggest not very much.

Yes, India has 1.2 billion citizens, is predominantly Hindu with a strong Muslim population, has 22 official languages, and is fraught with bureaucracy and corruption in its public institutions. But so what? This is basic and relatively well-known information around the world. To be effective in India, Canadian businesses must go well beyond these surface facts and dig into the cultural soul of the nation. This is what will lead to enhanced market knowledge and the establishment of personal relationships that are crucial in the sub-continent.

To give you an example of what I am referring to, I decided to spend part of Christmas Eve this year by going to St-Paul's Cathedral (constructed during British rule in the 19th century) for Christmas Mass. When I arrived (about 10:15 p.m.), there was a queue of 400-500 metres to get into the cathedral. By 11:30 p.m., the length of the line had doubled. What was particularly noteworthy about the line was not its size (although, by Canadian standards, it was impressive), rather the fact that so many people - Christians, Hindus and, very likely, other faiths - came together to celebrate Christmas.

It is this spirit of acceptance and celebration that is very much at the heart of the Indian culture. To understand India is to understand this dynamic, and to understand this dynamic is to understand, at least in part, the cultural norms of the country.

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