Working on Those Soft Skills: Hashkey Group Head of Ecosystems Ben El-Baz on How to Manage Cultural Differences in Blockchain

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Ben El-Baz shares his detailed framework on how to manage cultural differences when teams from the East and West come together. Ben is currently the Head of Ecosystems from Hashkey Group, one of the largest and reputable investors in blockchain in China, often known to be behind the Wanxiang Blockchain Week aka Shanghai Blockchain Week.


Quick Background on Ben El-Baz

Ben moved to China after graduating from undergraduate in 2007, and now he has almost 13 years of work experience in China. He previously served in product development and business development departments in various large Chinese technology companies, and then went back to the US to pursue a Ph.D. at Stanford Business school. After school ended, he joined Hashkey Group as the Head of Ecosystems.

Managing Cultural Differences in Blockchain Development Projects

Ben shares experiences on how to manage cultural differences, especially in blockchain development projects. In his opinion, this also can be interpreted as an additional “soft skill”.

There are already many books on the differences between Chinese and foreign cultures in the market, but this topic focuses on the cultural differences that people usually encounter when cooperation takes place between a Chinese and foreign technology project.

This post extracts the highlights from a recent workshop given by Ben in Chinese on the topic of how to manage cultural differences in blockchain. While this workshop was originally intended to address a Chinese audience with the goal of teaching them how to better collaborate with foreign teams, we think the lessons are equally valuable for foreign teams to learn about how to work with Chinese projects.

Key Takeaways

First, managing cross-cultural projects is difficult. You may think that everyone has laid out and have aligned on the process and all the deliverables such as communication approaches, business conditions, timelines, etc. However, it is very easy to have communication problems, and it is difficult to manage these problems.

Secondly, for foreign projects, native Chinese speakers are the key support for the team. If there are a small number of native Chinese speakers on the team, they can be used as key support in specific dialogues. This is the reverse for Chinese teams – native English speakers, in this case, would be the key support.

Third, when the Chinese and foreign teams encounter problems, one can first consider the factors of the below cultural differences to avoid misunderstanding each other.

Fourth, unlike Chinese projects, foreign blockchain projects tend to treat their community not just as a marketing channel, but more importantly, as part of their product development process. They tend to be very open when communicating with their community.

We’ll go into more detail about each aforementioned points below.

Breaking Up the Problem

Ben separates the typical collaboration challenges into two parts:

  • Language barriers, including small details in words of expression, formality/business etiquette.
  • Working styles differences: including regional differences, organizational structure differences, cultural differences, and community building differences. 

Language barriers-little details lead to large impacts 

It is easy to misinterpret small details when communicating. For example, when you write an email, you typically are asking for something. Pay special attention to the tone to avoid making the other party uncomfortable. Ben’s suggestion is- If the company and team have the capacity, try to make the ask in the projects’ native language to reconfirm the content and avoid unnecessary misunderstandings.

Language barriers-formality/business etiquette

Formality and common business etiquette are very important in spoken language. It’s difficult to learn these expressions from textbooks. Ben learned Chinese business etiquette/formal language through local colleagues. For non-native speakers, if you want to improve the relationship with your foreign partner, Ben’s suggestion is to listen more to spoken programs, or read more authentic business emails in the native language, and pay more attention to formalized “buffer” words.

Work style-regional differences

Ben believes that Americans and Chinese technology teams are the most similar in terms of work and ways of expression and collaboration.

He suggests that whenever one tries to collaborate with a foreign partner, try to do background research on the working culture of your partner first. The best way is to directly ask friends from abroad. Different foreign regions have different working styles. You can learn more from your local friends first.

Work style-organizational structure

Many technical teams in Silicon Valley adopt a flat organizational structure, but this is only limited to technical teams, and regulators and large companies will be different. The difference between a flat organizational structure and a hierarchical structure can be seen in the figure. Figure B is the flat structure.

HashKey Group's Chief Ecological Officer on Blockchain Project Transnational Cooperation and Cultural Difference Management

Chinese teams typically are organized in figure A style. As a result, they will typically think that the feedback must be directed to the boss. Nevertheless, the structure of the foreign technical team is relatively flat, so everyone in the team has the right to speak and the ability to influence the lead manager.

Work style-documentation

Ben thinks that having complete and thorough documentation is one of the primary success factors for cross-cultural collaboration. When conducting business transnationally, across-time, and across-language barriers, it is likely for either or both parties to encounter problems with the interpretation of collaboration details. So if the teams write out the details, both parties can be as comprehensive as possible. Nevertheless, often in China or abroad, many technical teams are not necessarily good at writing external requirements documents.

Ben’s suggestion to teams is not afraid to ask the other party to optimize any product and API documentation. Whether it is a community project or a company business cooperation project, if you think that some documents are not written sufficiently and clearly, you should raise the issue to them.

Work style-community building

According to Ben, in blockchain communities, successful western blockchain projects share a common recognition that community development falls under product development. In Asia, community development typically falls under marketing.

While in Asia, forming a community often can be about having more people to sign up for your marketing activities, many successful western projects engage their community as a source in their product development process. For example, Ethereum often relies on the community for governance methods, code development, and foundation discussions.

For teams that are not very familiar with these product-led communities, here are several examples:

1. A public Github push is typically a part of the product development process, not the endpoint.

2. Western projects are not too afraid to propose projects and ideas in open forums, and we can see that the topics that everyone discusses are very diverse. For example, the Riot / Discord / Slack / Telegram groups can discuss a variety of topics.

3. Product-led community projects will have very detailed online documentation, and the sample code will also be very detailed, such as node configuration instructions.

4. Clear open source software licensing policy- The development of community-based projects requires a clear policy on the right to use open-source code.

In Ben’s eyes, openness and having a transparent dialogue with your community is a key feature in the western blockchain product development process.

Sometimes sensitive information may be involved. In this case, Ben encourages one to ask for the project incentive, background and reasons behind such behavior, and learn more about the purpose, how can the community help, etc.


Ben’s 2020 Outlook on Blockchain Applications

When asked about his outlook on cryptocurrency and blockchain in 2020, and the differences between the outcome in China and the US, Ben says it depends on several factors.

“Whether blockchain applications can succeed and see adoption depends on whether it can accumulate enough users. Whether it can accumulate enough users depends on the underlying speed and scalability, whether it can bear hundreds or tens of millions of users. At present, the most widely used blockchain application in the world is on Ethereum, but Ethereum cannot support a large-scale user base. 

For this year’s trend, I am still optimistic about the application of supply chain finance. I think that financial payment applications in the US and Europe will develop well, including financial applications in the capital market.”


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