What international communication exchange can do for you

Jennifer Barlas
Business Development Specialist
Foth & Van Dyke and Associates
Green Bay, Wisconsin
Chair, APWA/IPWEA Task Force

There is general consensus that communication is vital to day-to-day operations both in the public and private sectors, and there are benefits to sharing information about public works issues. We are becoming a more global society and communication is the key that controls the information that can be shared not only locally and regionally, but worldwide as well.

International communication exchange is the sharing of ideas, knowledge and experience among people that transcends borders, walls or bodies of water. It provides participants the ability to expand and learn about new systems, policies, and programs that have applications in more than one region or country. Successful exchange has been enhanced in recent years by the collaborative efforts of geographically dispersed people making use of communication technology that can provide immediate feedback to widely circulate ideas.

"We can learn from others just as they from us." — Steve Masters, Public Utilities Administrator, City of Lincoln, Nebraska, USA

The American Public Works Association (APWA) has been encouraging the effort to promote international communication exchange by partnering with international public works agencies. The Strategic Plan, approved in 2000, outlined objectives by which APWA can expand the international network of partnerships, coalitions, and alliances that currently exist. Our annual conference is now known as the "International" Congress and Exposition. For several years, APWA has had partnership agreements with public works professionals in Australia, Slovakia and Mexico. Their thoughts, viewpoints and input, as well as input from others, were solicited in the preparation of this article.

Why is communication about public works issues important at an international level?
Let's face it, we are all providing public services and infrastructure that are common everywhere. People throughout the world need some of the same basic services: water supply, wastewater collection and treatment, stormwater management, garbage removal and reliable transportation systems.

The closing keynote speaker at the 2001 Congress—Dan Burden, Executive Director of Walkable Communities, Inc.—described the seemingly parallel advances in transportation planning in the U.S. and Australia. His opinion is that the Americans have been trailing the Australians for over a decade in terms of transportation planning application. The Australians, according to Burden, are more advanced because they actively pursue expanding their knowledge of engineering and public works solutions through international communication, networking and global travel. "Where commitment is strong and the information exchange is two-way, the environment will exist to maximize leverage in the advancement of public works on an international scale," says Ross Moody, President, Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia (IPWEA).

We struggle worldwide with many of the same problems and issues that exist in every society and have probably been dealt with by someone before us. Public works officials in the U.S. tend to overlook foreign experience even though some countries have a wealth of knowledge due to having dealt previously with the problems. Alternatively, we have a responsibility to share our expertise as public works officials of one of the most prosperous nations in the world. For that matter, this association and others should be credited for the diligent efforts to bridge the gap in communication exchange on public works issues nationally and internationally.

Jerry Fay, National Program Director for Public Works, HDR Engineering, Inc. and APWA Past President, points to global sustainable development as an important reason for international communication exchange. "If we are to deal successfully with meeting the infrastructure needs of future population growth internationally while maintaining our environment, we will need to take a more international perspective," Fay says. "The interests of the U.S. are important to other counties just as their interests are important to us."

Geoff Greenough, APWA Past President and Commissioner of Engineering and Public Works, City of Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, has traveled to developing nations including former communist countries and observes, "We share in the world's resources but also suffer from one another's inappropriate use of them."

Benefits of international communication exchange to public works
Exchanging information about mutual issues and successful solutions benefits all who engage in the process. Additionally, we can benefit from international communication exchange and study tours because they provide the opportunity to increase our awareness of the global village, other cultures, and ourselves. Public works operations can also realize benefits in recognizing that many of our employees and customers are immigrants in the U.S. This recognition will improve understanding and appreciation for diversity within our departments and the customers we serve.

Some of the benefits include:

  • Sharing innovations, progress and experiences
  • Gaining a wider appreciation and better understanding of the rest of the world on a technical, social and political level
  • Avoid reinventing the wheel, identify best practices
  • Continuous improvement through learning from others
  • Professional and personal development via networking
Jose Gamboa, Superintendent of Solid Waste, City of Santa Cruz, California, USA, has seen the benefits of international communication and study tours abroad. "As a participant of these programs, it has allowed me to appreciate how people with limited resources attack problems that we, in the U.S., tend to take for granted," he says. "The appreciation of the creativity of these people has enhanced my professional experience and helped me grow as an individual."

Barriers to successful international communication exchange
Ethnocentricity is the one of the main barriers to communication exchange success, says Jimmy Foster, Director of Public Works, Plano, Texas, USA. "The world does not revolve around the U.S. nor are our western approaches to problem-solving fully adaptable to all cultural settings," he says. "We have much to learn from our international partners."

"Language barriers are a major obstacle to communication exchange." — Cathy Kinsey, Place Manager, Council of Camden, New South Wales, Australia

Some barriers are more obvious than others. Here are a few to consider:

  • Cost (time and dollars)
  • Resources and distance to attend conferences and study tours
  • Lack of support
  • Daily pressures limiting contributions or contact with others
  • Lack of sensitivity to communication styles in other regions and cultures
  • Ability to find the appropriate contact
  • Trust
The power of successful international communication exchange is growing and we need to increase our opportunities to experience it. Just last week a colleague at my firm shared an experience with me that demonstrated this power. He was recently invited to present an abstract at an international conference for an award-winning project designed by our firm (constructed wetlands treatment system for landfill leachate in cold climates). This project was worthy of presentation for innovative design but it also incorporated international communication exchange.

The customer had wanted a long-term, cost-effective solution. The design began with a review of the experience of other landfills throughout the world, focusing especially on the cold weather operational experience of the Esval Landfill in Norway. By happenstance another member of our design team mentioned this to a close friend. Amazingly, his close friend knew a Norwegian landfill operator from their days in the Peace Corps together who, in turn, knew the operator of the Esval Landfill. What a small world! Needless to say, my colleagues began corresponding with the fellows in Norway. They shared ideas, progress and experiences and—Bingo!—a solution to the customer's problem.

Suffice it to say that there is much more detail to this story, but the importance is that international communication was exchanged, innovations were shared, and the design concept was applicable. My colleague opened his eyes to the demonstrated success of others and avoided reinventing the wheel. Be open to opportunities for communication exchange whether it is on a local, national, or international level. Your customer and public works operation can benefit, and you will personally gain from the experience.

To reach Jennifer Barlas, call 920-497-2500 or send e-mail to

The APWA/IPWEA Task Force is currently investigating how an international member exchange program can operate between our two countries to provide additional opportunities for international communication exchange.


A Japanese thumbs-up
As a rule, the thumbs-up means "great job" or "it was a success." Do you know what it means in Japan?

In the U.S. this gesture is also used by hitchhikers. Hollywood gave us movies in which a thumbs up spared a person from being put to death.

In Japan, however, it designates the number five.

Handshakes around the world

  • Russia: The handshake is common. The Russian version is a firm grip with several quick shakes between two men. Between men and women or two women, however, the handshake is much softer. Men should wait until a woman extends her hand before reaching for it. Between women, the older woman extends her hand first.

  • Brazil: Brazilians usually greet each other with long handshakes and noticeable eye contact; close friends will often embrace.

  • Germany: Firm, brief handshakes at the time of arrival and departure are standard. Upon introductions and departures, take the time to shake hands with everyone individually in a group, since the simpler American "group wave" will not be appreciated.

  • Egypt: Westernized Egyptian men shake hands with other men. Some Egyptian men will shake hands with Western women. Western businesswomen should wait for an Egyptian man to offer his hand.
Cultural Proverbs:

"Talk doesn't cook rice." — Chinese Proverb

"He who builds by the roadside has many surveyors." — Italian Proverb

"Don't think there are no crocodiles because the water is calm." — Malayan Proverb