IBM managers, it is said, never forget to check this as a rule before leaving on an overseas business trip. It happens to be their culture barometer ‘when in Rome’. Being forewarned about what is to come certainly helps.

Gauging their own profile and its global fit on the Country Navigator gives them a sense of what could happen in foreign business environs — how they fit into the client country’s business milieu; where the rough edges are; the to-dos and the ‘no-no’s’.

The Country Navigator, a licensed online tool that IBMers use to assess and overcome their global biases, has been around for a while. Its use is only increasing, its executives said, emphasising that it is only one hue of Big Blue’s spectrum of culture-related initiatives.

Called Shades of Blue, the pan-IBM cultural diversity programme is a business bulwark of a company that works across 170-plus countries. The simple cultural sensitivities helped its business leaders bag projects and deals — such as when they poured water for touchy Korean VVIP clients; or when they hosted a business meeting with a nature-hungry Dutch team at a waterfront restaurant. Like the Navigator, IBM’s numerous trainers also push those culture clinchers.

Multi-cultural awareness is a business imperative, said Dr Chandrasekhar Sripada, Vice-President and Head (HR), India & South Asia.

An IBMer spends at least 30-40 per cent of a day interacting with people of other cultures.“In IBM there is a strong recognition that we are a globally integrated enterprise,”he said, adding that for operating across different countries and cultures “we need to function on some standard and common protocols — where people respect each other’s time, processes.”

“Years back I would never have thought it could hurt me in India if something went wrong in Greece. Suddenly it is happening. The world is flat.” The global interconnectedness, he said, is here to stay.

Ms Anita Guha, who roves across the country as one of IBM’s nine Shades leaders running the diversity program, said, “I am living it (diversity) as my team is multi-cultural and virtual.” Besides the Navigator, which is the employee’s aid to avoid cultural clashes, there are regular training sessions, online video modules, FAQs and e-learning packages put in place free of cost for IBMers, she said.

Under a Leadership Development Facilitators programme, employees go through one-day training with Ms Guha, while managers on the global ascendant take a two-day orientation. Now, they have multi-geography teams, that jointly lead global projects.

So, how do teams handle themselves culturally and how do they manage clients from different places?

Like an iceberg, culture mostly includes the hidden 90 per cent of us and it goes beyond food and clothes. So, along with diversity, employees are sensitised about language and behavioural nuances, and differences in work values and styles.

Cultural diversity training helps employees overcome prejudices, avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings. “When we don’t do it, productivity suffers.” An employee may feel left out, or a client be put off or projects may falter due to cultural faux-pas.

madhu@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on July 26, 2012)
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