French Naval Group and the Australians: Working the Cultural Challenges


By Pierre Tran


Naval Group (NG) is implementing a change in employee communications and behavior, in a bid to smooth out cultural differences between French and Australian staff working on a US $34 billion (A $50 billion) program to build submarines for the Australian Navy, senior executives said.

That drive to improve “intercultural” relations stems from Australians’ difficulties in understanding the French way of work soon after NG won a three-way competition in 2016 to build 12 ocean-going boats, dubbed the Attack submarine class.

These undersea vessels for Australia’s Sea 1000 Future Submarine Project will be a diesel-electric adaptation of the Barracuda, a nuclear-powered submarine NG is building for the French Navy.

The French company has sold Scorpene submarines and Gowind corvettes around the world, with a transfer of technology to allow local assembly. Among these, Brazil and India are building their Scorpene boats, while Egypt has assembled its first of four Gowind warships.

But this is the first time the company has been asked to rethink its cultural approach, as Australian-French teams were formed and problems of communications unfolded.

Reshaping a Work Culture

The aim is to develop a common working culture built from Australia and France, allowing these submarines to be built on time and on budget.

“Not everyone thinks like the French,” said Jean-Michel Billig, NG program director for the Attack submarine.

“We have to make a necessary effort to understand that an Australian does not think like a French person, and that it’s not better or worse, it’s just Australian.”

There is a need to organize the Attack program accordingly, he said. That includes translating French not just into English but Australian English.

There is need to go beyond that, “to speak a common language in cultural terms,” he added.

The importance of Australia as a distinct and important region can be seen by The Guardian, a British daily, publishing UK, US, International and Australia editions of its news website.

“Based on discussions, there is a willingness to know the qualities and faults of each other, not to use them but to converge, to find common points so we can work together, so we can deliver.” said Yvan Goalou, NG institutional relationship manager.

“There is search for openness and sharing.”

There is need for listening and humility, he said. Goalou is a former French Navy commander of both the nuclear-missile and nuclear-powered attack submarine.

Australian Barbecue as Cultural Signifier

An example of Australian culture is the barbecue, an important part of fostering good work relations, Billig said.

There is a reciprocal need for Australians to understand the French sanctity of the lunch break, not just a sandwich snatched at the screen.

Another bid by NG to boost its openness to “Anglo-Saxon culture” is publishing its inhouse magazine in French and English, seen internally as a radical move.

Big companies such as Airbus and Thales may have long published inhouse magazines in English and French, but an NG executive said those firms lack a 400-year history as a state arsenal.

Another need to bridge a cultural gap could be seen in the letter to staff from CEO  Hervé Guillou, who referred to initiatives to be adopted after “la rentrée.”

It had to be explained to Australians la rentrée that refers to staff going back to work in September after the company closed down for the month of August for the traditional French holiday. A one-month holiday stunned Australians who thought of a short “summer break.”

On the French side, there was surprise to see an Australian insistence on punctuality, that a meeting scheduled for an hour meant just that, not an extra 15 minutes. So when Australians got up and left a meeting whether an agreement had been reached or not, that startled French counterparts.

In France, there is the concept of a “diplomatic 15 minutes,” indicating that one is not considered to be late if the tardiness is a quarter of an hour.

NG pursues a “multidomestic” approach as it seeks deals with countries with distinct cultural difference such as Malaysia, Brazil or India, said Arnaud Génin, strategic communications director.

“One would think  Australia would be relatively easy because of ease of language, but the cultural difference goes deeper,” he said. “We have to work on that.”

Preparing French Staff

NG is training some 20 Australians on design and manufacture of the Attack boat at Cherbourg, northern France, and that is due to rise to more than 150 key staff. Some personnel are accompanied by their family and those Australians need to adapt to life in France.

Meanwhile, French staff are preparing to fly to the other side of the world and work in the Australian subsidiary in Adelaide, south Australia, where the boats will be built.

There are some 350 staff working on the program in France, with 100 in Australia.

In France, that staff tally will climb to a peak of 700 around 2021/22 before falling to 200 by 2030, as the work moves to Adelaide, Billig said. In Australia, the staff will rise “smoothly” to 1,500 in five to six years when the manufacturing hits full pace.

The company is developing tools for the intercultural courses, which include two-hour seminars and one-day workshops, Marion Accary, global human resources business partner said.

These aim to prepare French expatriates and their families “how to behave, how to understand and decode,” she said. “The staff will learn how to communicate, hold meetings and work in French-Australian teams. Personnel will also be encouraged to take distance from situations which might seem to be conflictual due to misunderstanding.”

There is also work in Australia to develop training and communications.

Separate seminars for French NG staff and Australians started last May in Cherbourg. The former includes the history of Australia as a way to explain the behavior of Australians, importance of defense, and strategic significance of the South Pacific for the Commonwealth of Australia.

In France, there is strong staff demand for English language courses. There is interest in learning French in Australia but it is harder to find teachers.

The willingness of French teams to take part in the intercultural program is an indirect indicator of a keenness to overcome cultural problems, Billig said. If there were an “evaporation” of that readiness, that would undermine the program.

Cultural play of Three Nations

NG will work with Lockheed Martin, which will supply the combat management system for the Attack boat. NG does not expect problems in working with the US company, as the French firm has worked with partners on other vessels.

“We will learn by working with Lockheed Martin on this program,” he said. “It will be a three-way process of cultural learning.”

NG will work with its local partner, state-owned ASC, formerly known as Australian Submarine Corporation, as well as working with the Australian authorities.

Asked if there is a change of business culture, Billig said the Australian program “has pushed Naval Group’s ambition a couple of ranks higher in the drive for a multidomestic approach.”

That intercultural approach is part of the technology transfer, as Australians want to extend know-how to know-why.

That requires a great deal more than handing over a sheet of paper and say, “Voilà, I have transferred technology,” Billig said. It is about explaining the French approach to building a submarine. The French way is not the German or Japanese way.

Current French Submarine Building Approach

The cultural factor is the French intellectual approach to building the submarine, he said. That reasoning led the French to adopt certain methods, allowing the French Navy to deploy a submarine permanently at sea for 47 years.

“That French method is a concentration of history,  competence, training, and the French ecosystem,” he said. “Part of the technology transfer baggage is having to explain what we do, why we do it this way, and it is not good enough to say you have to do it this way. If you said that, part of the know-how would have evaporated.”

That approach is offered to explain why the French aim to use water rather than laser to cut steel and use French rather than Australian steel.

“The French have a welding method, Americans have their own,” he said.

NG’s dedication to the Attack program reflects the company’s need to win — and retain — foreign deals, as the company cannot rely solely on the domestic market.  Australia picked the French firm in a competition which drew rival offers from German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which led a Japanese group, backed by the Japanese government.

It is clear NG intends to deliver on the intercultural approach as the Commonwealth of Australia, buyer of the Attack submarine, saw the need to improve communications.

“The client asked for this effort,” Billig said.

“This is a key factor for success. It is not for us to be Australian, for them to become French. We keep our roots. We learn the culture of the other.”

Editor’s Note: This is the initial look at this dynamic between France and Australia. 

To be clear, this is not a technology transfer program of an existing submarine.

This is a co-development of a new build submarine.

As such, the opportunity on the French side is to redo, even significantly, how they build new classes of submarines going forward.

And at the heart of the challenge of working through the program is that the Australians intend in this program and in the frigate to build a manufacturing line around digital production of the sort that Naval Group does not currently do.

Different work styles are also at work, whereby the French follow an approach significantly different from the Australians, and there is likely not just to be cross-learning, but the possibility of significant change on the French side as well.

There is a very signifiant opportunity for Naval Group to expand its concepts of operations and production technologies and work appraoch through the program, something useful not just in Australia but in France and globally.

For example, an interesting question in play: What is the nature of the Barracuda being offered to the Dutch Navy and how does it relate to the Australian program?