EBS doctoral student Liisi Karindi: multicultural teams are the norm of modern society

Liisi Karindi
"I've been asked if I have any Chinese friends. I never think of my close people in these terms – that he is Chinese, or she is German or Estonian. Not as a male or female friend either. In the international community, I have learned to evaluate people based on completely different criteria," says Liisi Karindi, an Asian expert, PhD student, and Research Fellow at EBS, whose study focuses on how to benefit the company through the development of intercultural competence.

Estonian Business School's doctoral studies have two directions - academic and applied. "I wouldn't have come to the EBS doctoral programme if here wasn't an applied direction," notes Karindi. "My goal is to complete something practical and tangible, to turn a very soft topic into a serious technically well-thought-out and scientifically researched product that companies can really benefit from."


Liisi Karindi completed her master's studies at Heidelberg University in the field of modern Chinese studies. Her thesis dealt with labour contract law in China and related lobbying, using the example of international and local corporate offices. "My main focus has been on large national systems and the application side that goes with it." She emphasizes that the national system must always be looked all the way down to the companies: after all, the governmental decisions are eventually implemented by companies that actually deal with trade, tourism, risk management, etc. 


Irresponsible business began to take its toll


Karindi notes that the legislation in China after opening was like the Wild West – anything was possible, but around 2008, when she wrote her master's thesis, a profound shift took place. Legislation was supplemented and modernised. The systems monitoring the implementation of laws were significantly strengthened, and the judicial system was made more professional and independent. China had begun to realise that what took them to the growth so far, was not taking them any further. Environmental pollution was rampant and began to bring significantly higher costs than the irresponsible business brought in.


However, not everyone was happy about the new winds. In China, many foreign companies had made good money thanks to cheap labour and poor environmental protection, and wanted to continue doing business in the old way. "Many admitted that they had moved their businesses to China because there were no "difficult" laws, everything could be done more conveniently and cheaper, without saving the environment and even using child labour among other things," notes Karindi.


After her studies, she moved into the field of international cooperation. "I worked for the German company GIZ (German Agency for International Cooperation) in Beijing and later in Mongolia. I participated in an international cooperation project that focused on cross-border economic cooperation and integration. It’s aim was to create new economic spaces, opportunities for environmental cooperation, trade, tourism, energy cooperation. So that borders would unite, not separate."


She also worked on China's economic reforms and economic restructuring, which GIZ did in cooperation with the Chinese government. "We dealt with topics such as rapid urbanization and the challenges that come with it, the transformation of cities based on the extraction of mineral resources, etc.," says Karindi. This took her to Mongolia. "The mining industry is a very big topic there. I moved from the larger economic picture to the industrial direction. I participated in a joint project between Germany, Switzerland, and Australia, which focused on the mediation of construction know-how in the mining sector."


Estonian entrepreneurs’ interest in Asia is great  


Karindi returned to Estonia in 2014 and opened the Asia Information Center in EAS. She later also offered consulting services through her own company. "I wanted our entrepreneurs to receive the same service as it works elsewhere internationally. I offered a full-service package: background check of partners, market analysis, seminars, and trainings with foreign experts from Asia etc."

Karindi notes that the interest of Estonian entrepreneurs in Asia was great and is still growing. "After all, we had an economic crisis, sanctions were imposed on Russia. Those who had previously operated in the Russian market were looking for new outlets. China-related security issues and geopolitics reached Estonia later."


The Asian expert does not see a particular security risk for Estonia in from China. "Our trade and investment numbers are too small. In the field of infrastructure, there are approximately 300 companies that are important for Estonia's security and whose investors and influencers must be known to us. In addition, Estonia is one of the countries least dependent on Chinese vendors in the field of 4G and 5G in Europe. As far as people and information flow are concerned, there are only a few dozen Chinese in Estonia who are engaged in science and innovation at a level that would give them the opportunity to gain access to sensitive topics. It's not a volume that can't be tracked."


Doing business with Asia requires a lot of on-the-spot visits. "I have a two-year-old son, I didn't want to be away from him all the time. That's how I took a new direction," says Karindi. "I like working with people. At the same time, I wanted to do things that are measurable on a technical level." She decided to start doctoral studies at the Estonian Business School, where from last autumn she is writing her doctoral thesis on the topic "Intercultural competence development as an employee retention strategy in the ICT sector".

People don’t live only in the dimension of national culture


Karindi points out that the development and conceptualization of intercultural competence, even though it has been studied for 70 years, is behind the times – especially in the case of multi-national field-specific teams working remotely. "I see that there is a need to focus on a specific target group. Intercultural communication has long been the norm in many sectors. For example, in the IT sector, where there are predominantly international teams."


The doctoral student explains that the research, models, and products currently in use are based on the vision that there is one culture from which people are taken into another culture. For example, a German who goes to work and live in China. However, today's patterns are much more multifaceted. "People do not live, think and act only according to Hofstede's dimensions of national culture or Lewis' cultural typicality. They also have their own sector, field, and group-based culture, which has a strong impact."


There is also room for development in Estonia regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) topics. Karindi notes that while the main dimension of equality in Estonia is still men-women, in other parts of the world it is understood on a much broader scale. "The issue of DEI is not only based on gender or ethnicity. I have been asked if I have any Chinese friends. I never think of my close people in these terms – that he is Chinese or she is German or Estonian. Not as a male or female friend either. In the international community, I have learned to see and perceive people based on completely different criteria."


Karindi's research is based on multinational teams in companies in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector. "I want to create a training programme that is different from anything that is already available on the market. The programme must have a real benefit to the company, not just the knowledge that we increased competence. We have a very big problem, how to attract and keep good employees – my work focuses on how to achieve employee satisfaction and loyalty through the development of intercultural competence."


Karindi notes that there are still many loose ends. "There are so many different aspects to explore. I don't know yet where this journey will take me. But that's what a PhD is for, to gain clarity."