FIU Business Now Magazine
The International Business Mindset: Navigating a Changed World

The International Business Mindset: Navigating a Changed World

By Lauren Comander

Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought world travel to a standstill, Richie Sookhai (MIB '20) would regularly hop on planes to far-flung places like Germany and Brazil. As the CEO of D.I. Engineering Inc., a company that provides downstream services to the oil and gas sector in Barbados, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago, Sookhai met with colleagues and clients wherever in the world they happened to be.

Now, a year-plus into navigating the post-pandemic landscape, international business executives like Sookhai have taken to virtual work and other strategies they find so useful that many expect them to outlast the crisis. These, and an acceleration of business realities taking shape in the years before the pandemic, will open up new potential – and new pitfalls.

That's why, experts say, successful businesses in the "new" international climate must look to strengthening digital strategies, choosing supportive environments, nurturing startups and entrepreneurial thinking, and embracing new technologies.

"It cannot be business as usual," said Sumit Kundu, holder of the James K. Batten Eminent Scholar Chair in International Business, associate dean of international programs and professor of international business at FIU Business. "There have to be new business models to deal with the challenges, and companies need to define a new normal."

As international businesses scramble to define best new practices, it is most important that they remain patient and maintain a long-term perspective, said William Newburry, Ryder Eminent Scholar of Global Business and chair and professor of international business. There is a silver lining, he said: "Disruptive times create opportunities for countries and companies to move forward."

Strengthen technology and digital strategies

The centerpiece of any global company's plan, Kundu said, is to develop and strengthen digital strategies. Indeed, international business leaders quickly pivoted to technology when faced with a globe beset by lockdowns. They learned in part, Kundu said, from the education sector that already had established overcoming distance with technology. And, as entering countries became far more difficult, Sookhai said, "Zoom meetings have played a huge part in terms of keeping things going. It has to work because it's the only way we can survive and maintain our relationships with other companies."

In fact, the turn toward meeting virtually has proven so successful that leaders like Sookhai don't see virtual meetings disappearing with the virus. His business has realized increased productivity and decreased expenses – two upshots that make for an appealing strategy even in the post-pandemic world. Through livestreaming, Sookhai can show clients what is happening at a site and explain next steps. "Clients can make decisions immediately without wasting time to travel," he said.


Sumit Kundu

Stav Fainshmidt, Knight Ridder Eminent Scholar and associate professor of international business, has seen advanced virtual conferences where participants are represented by avatars, engaging in a 3D virtual world. And while he sees a resumption of some level of business travel, he believes that great strides are possible using avatars in a well-planned virtual experience.

"Imagine how well we could learn in something that is intelligent and adaptive," Fainshmidt said. "You enter into the matrix, walk around the office, have conversations, and your virtual world adapts to the decisions you make," he said. "It's the ultimate experiential learning."

Yet virtual work is the tip of the iceberg, Kundu said. Cloud computing, robotics, artificial intelligence and fintech – all will be vitally important. Marshalling data insights will be key. Automating a factory, understanding financial challenges – all will be increasingly dependent on technology investments.

"Clearly, this is the next thing that is going to happen," Kundu said. "It's up to us whether we are prepared to embrace those changes. If not, then we are out of business."

Locate supportive environments

Businesses need supportive governments in the post-pandemic world. "The pandemic reinforces the role of the country in international business," Newburry said. "For companies, their country's institutional development is particularly important when you need to engage in trade. If your country doesn't have strong ties and trade agreements with other countries, it will be more difficult."

Countries can build trade relationships and promote policies that encourage investment in their country, Newburry said. They can develop stable financial systems so businesses can borrow money and governments can fund development. They can train entrepreneurs on how to create trade agreements and write business plans, and they can help them attend trade fairs to learn about new opportunities for selling their products. That's why companies should consider the geopolitical atmosphere when choosing where they conduct business, the experts agreed.


William Newburry

"It is very important to understand how the governments in different countries view the policies in place: how they're handling the pandemic to support their local industries, and what they're doing to make sure businesses survive during this time," Sookhai said. "Governments need to understand exactly what they're dealing with because each country is unique. They need to tweak policies from before the pandemic and not necessarily be so stringent so they can stimulate economic activity."

Business leaders have a role to play in garnering such support. "You definitely need to lobby different institutions like the Chamber of Commerce and NGOs for policy changes that support businesses," Sookhai said. "Governments need to speak with financial institutions to help support companies during these times. Everyone needs to be on board – financial institutions, governments, unions and the businesses – to see us through this pandemic."

Nurture entrepreneurial thinking, startups and soft skills

Companies doing international business should work with local governments in developing countries to create public-private partnerships and foster entrepreneurship, Kundu said. After all, when governments incentivize businesses with the right climate and resources, entrepreneurs start companies and, in turn, create jobs. "Trade and investment can only help up to a certain point," Kundu said. "The bulk of economic growth takes place when more startups start to interface within the local environment."

Fainshmidt sees promising opportunities for entrepreneurs who can move quickly and boldly, especially in the digital space.

"Now everyone is questioning assumptions," he said. "A lot of the solutions to the problems we're facing as a society are likely to come from entrepreneurs, people with new ideas and new business models."

Companies may also need to look toward additional training for their workforces.

"What works in a company's home market may or may not work in another market, especially in emerging markets," Newburry said. "In the home market, everything they do is much more intuitive. In another place, you assume it's the same, but it's really not."


Richie Sookhai

A robust program of international visitation once helped bridge those gaps. But as international travel becomes less frequent, Fainshmidt sees soft skills – the ability to pick up subtle cues to understand and communicate across cultures – as increasingly important.

"When you don't have physical contact with people where you can learn about culture on the ground, you'll have to learn this differently, which is very difficult," he said. The most valuable skills will be those that can help professionals use data-driven insights to understand international markets and cultures they're not familiar with.

"Interpreting data in a context-sensitive manner is something machines can't do well yet," Fainshmidt said. "Consumer data won't be able to tell you the underlying values in a society that explain patterns in a deep, contextually sensitive manner."

Well-trained human capital, Kundu said, is the key to monitoring the global business world and innovating accordingly. To facilitate this, companies can partner with universities to explore and test out strategies before they make real-world investments, he added.

Move forward with caution and hope

As companies scramble to regain their economic footing, they must realize that they are operating in a fundamentally reshaped and very difficult environment, he said. "Income inequality has increased tremendously," he noted, and U.S.-based companies must understand that economic pain hasn't been spread around equally.

Developing and emerging markets have been hit harder than countries with greater resources. "Their infrastructure and healthcare systems are not as developed," Newburry said. "It's also going to take a lot longer to fully implement the vaccine in the developing world."

International businesses will struggle through the next decade, Kundu predicted. "It will be a very slow, subdued recovery," he said. "It is a dire state of affairs in the world. Any way you want to slice the data, at the end of the day, we have a very tough road ahead of us."

But, he added, "It's doable, and we have to make it work."