A bridge across cultures

A bridge across cultures

Indian pharma companies are going global and making their mark in almost every country. However, with expansions come complications in terms of cross-cultural issues which require adopting local cultural nuances, discovers Katya Naidu.

2007013116-3437079Long back in biblical times, the entire human race got together to build the Tower of Babel in an attempt to reach the sky. This angered the Almighty and he cursed humans to exist in different languages, different cultures and stay drifted apart. Though the curse has succeeded in creating many worlds within the world, it has not stopped people from dreaming big, with many companies trying to expand their horizons beyond borders. Nevertheless, multinational corporations still struggle with cultures which are specific to each country.

Culture matters

When a company sets shop in a particular country, the focus of the multinational is the market and capabilities. And one might wonder how culture could make any difference to a company? The culture of a country might not make much difference to a company but it makes a difference for an organisation which is made of people. And not even a multinational Goliath can afford to source entire workforce required for its subsidiary from the headquarters. “Companies start feeling the difference when they recruit a sizeable local population and they start interacting with different knowledge bases and cultural issues. That’s when culture starts coming into place and people start looking into multicultural issues,” says Tanmay Kapoor, Senior Manager-Human Capital, Ernst & Young.

When the style of work differs, it matters since it is proportional to production levels which vary accordingly. However, the variation is not huge enough to slow down or stop work flow, or even creates hiccups, but there is a possibility of the same making culture an issue of significance. “Culture creates the context in which an individual works. When cultural backgrounds are different, individual perceptions about what is to be done and personal frames of reference are different,” says Nina E Woodard, SPHR, GPHR, Director-Business Development, Strategic Human Resource Management India.

In the US, many team building activities and business communications references are drawn from popular American sports activities like football, baseball and basketball. When used by a manager as a “tool” to motivate team behaviour, these clearly leave half of the world in confusion. Some of these phrases include—”be sure you cover all the bases”; “you have to stand together to protect the line”; “together we can make that extra effort and get the point after”. These phrases do not mean much if the audience have no idea of the US versions of football or baseball.

Poles apart

In US, a lot of importance is given to deadlines whereas the not so action driven processes are popular in India

The culture of a country makes its way into a company and makes a stark difference in the styles of working which needs to be given due attention. Likewise in US a lot of importance is given to punctuality and meeting deadlines whereas the not so action or driven delivery processes are popular in India.

In terms of conduct at the work place, there are many countries where it is not deemed fit to be very loud or aggressive. But that is a common occurrence in the US culture. There are different styles in giving feedback as well. “If you look at Germany, they tend to give very straight and direct feedback. In the UK, they say it in a very straight manner maybe with some humour in it,” says Kapoor. In the US too, they are straight about negative feedback but they will not be as straight as Germans and they try to give it a business rationale. However, the practices in India are more skewed towards diplomacy. “The Indian approach is more of conflict avoidance and unlike the straight speaking Western approach. An Indian will always want to get out of a tight spot where one has to confront an individual. Again a Japanese person will be extra polished in stating the facts,” observes Deependra Singh Sengar, CEO, TMI First.

There are other areas too where country cultures come into play. An Indian will say yes to a task even if he/she has just the basic knowledge. In contrast, an American will flatly say no to something he/she are not experts in. In terms of work hours, different countries have different practices. In Spain and Mexico there is the practice of siesta where the employees take a nap in between work hours and resume work later than what are called normal business hours in the US. In India, napping amidst is strictly considered unprofessional. Even in terms of days of work, Saturday and Sunday are considered holidays in most places except in the Middle East where Friday is the day off.

Different or uniform?

2007013117-2347814Diversity amongst subsidiaries in global company hence calls for real time planning and the evolution of consistent frames of reference for all those involved in an activity. “In the global work place, it is extremely important for managers and organisations to understand all these differences. If they are not recognised and if the system does not have the flexibility to address these differences, projects, operations and the like can fail,” says Woodard.

One such American practice which can become hazardous in the Indian environment is the practice of encouraging an employee’s family and friends to work for the organisation when they meet the requirements of recruitment. “There are certain MNC corporations, back home they like to encourage employees to get their own family or friends to work for their organisation. It is because they want to create a sort of brotherhood in the organisation as well as they find it difficult to recruit people outside in the US,” explains Kapoor. However, these same companies were strictly advised against this practice when they came into India. They have modified this practice to an employee referring a suitable candidate while avoiding anyone to whom the employee is related to.

Respecting the diversity across cultures can be advantageous to the company which plants to step ahead. “We need to see the differences in dress codes, punctuality and work ethics in contrasting cultures to be able to appreciate the differences,” says Sengar. In Japan, being formally dressed is considered professional and it is very common to see office-goers in suit and tie all through the year. In terms of choice of colours too, there is some degree of conservative approach. A loud tie (bright colour) is avoided in Japan. On the other hand, the US culture may not have this kind of dress code. India would lie somewhere in the middle for dress code where formal dressing would be more suited for the sales kind of roles. “From my observations the dress code affects women more than men. Women’s attire around the world is usually more beautiful and colourful then their male counterparts in the corporate arena. I know this is a generalisation, but usually men will abandon ethnic clothing in favour of business suits,” avers Woodard.

Opening minds

2007013118-1690862As an attempt to manage the diversity, some companies especially the big brands have come up with a universal style of working which is pertinent to the company everywhere in the world. “If a company has a very recognisable culture and employee brand, it is likely that the culture will be more uniform and a new global player may want to aspire to that. It will take work, time and effort to build that global brand but companies have successfully done it,” says Woodward. This method requires extensive planning and strategy behind it. One way to achieve this is by using a cultural team to build communications campaigns and activities, listening to the cross cultural advice that comes in from employees and observing the resistance to change.

Also, this method should be subtle enough and should take into account the practices of different countries. Otherwise, it simply becomes imposing the headquarter culture which can result in disaster. “Imposing culture without understanding the local culture can be done at company’s own peril. The best of the companies who have survived in different markets have understood this and try and blend the two,” says Sengar. According to him, organisational culture is best decided by the local leadership of the company. Agrees Kapoor, “People are more open now while setting up operations in a different country and understand the significance of adopting the local culture. There is no mandate as such to equalise or globalise but to get the output in whatever way is accepted by the locals there.”

Culture itself is an ever-evolving process and is a mixture of acceptance of popular and convenient practices. And the best organisational culture is the one which is open to all cultures!