Human resource destruction

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Indian companies are clueless about local cultures and the social mores that prevail in their associates, joint ventures and subsidiaries abroad.

V. K. Madhav Mohan

Like our ancestors we are now crossing the seven seas and establishing outposts in foreign lands. Indian companies are going global as never before! The excitement and can-do attitude of the corporates is palpable. Strategies, business plans, budgets, travel schedules and manpower in Indian companies are increasingly international. Boundaries are being erased not just on maps but in minds.

Key asset ignored

Many companies are however unaware of the cultural nuances involved in global business. Most of the time the acquisition programme is confined to “hard” business due-diligence. The information processing about a new business possibility is restricted to number crunching, contingency planning and future opportunities. The assets most central to the entire opportunity, people and personal networks, are entirely ignored!

The acquisition team is mostly led and populated by hard-headed finance, marketing and IT professionals who can barely see beyond their noses as far as people are concerned. Consequently, companies shoot themselves in the foot during and after mega acquisitions by making entry level people-related mistakes!

That’s because no effort is expended on understanding the social environment within target companies and its larger relationship with society in the country concerned. Indian companies are clueless about local cultures and the social mores that prevail in their associates, joint ventures and subsidiaries abroad. Few, if any, Indian companies allocate resources to cross-cultural training and integration. Even simple initiatives such as training Indian managers on international table manners are conspicuous by their absence.

The results are entirely predictable. Angst, frustration and helplessness pepper the interactions that occur daily between Indian and overseas components of the business. Top management is entangled in unravelling the interpersonal and intercultural issues that tie the business in knots. Focus is dissipated from the delivery of numbers that make the acquisition worthwhile. CEOs and COOs are dragged down into the trenches of people-to-people conflict, misunderstanding and mistrust on a global scale.

Work-life balance

Indian professionals are burning the candle at both ends with a vengeance. In many companies the concept of work-life balance is as out of place as tropical vegetation in the Gobi dessert. They are taking health, families and relationships for granted. The workaholism figures prominently in the list of Indian exports!

Culturally clueless brash Indian managers compose emails that raise hackles at the other end. They make demands for information and action without understanding the importance of intervening weekends and national holidays for counterparts in the other country. Perhaps they don’t even care that subsidiaries and joint ventures abroad comprise people with feelings, emotions, concerns and aspirations.

For example, one Indian manager insisted that his American counterparts work through the Thanksgiving weekend in the US to deliver a series of actions and reports.

That’s the equivalent of ordering Indian managers to forego their Diwali celebrations and work in the office! You couldn’t get more insensitive than that. No wonder the American reportees are a resentful and angry lot. That’s what I call Human Resource Destruction (HRD)!

Cultural understanding

It’s much easier and far more cost effective to obtain cooperation, compliance, commitment and results by investing in cultural understanding and working with it. I would rate this as a top priority for CEOs. Without it they are frittering away the benefits of global acquisition and incurring huge opportunity costs. Integration workshops, training in cross cultural communication, assimilation of best practices from subsidiaries and creating global teams led by managers from subsidiaries are all tools that pay rich dividends.

Direct, face-to-face interactions are vital. The level of cultural understanding determines the depth of personal relationships. The more face-to-face interactions, the greater is the depth of relationships (at least in the early stages). Otherwise, the old Chinese adage “the mountains are high and the Emperor is far away” comes into play and each subsidiary will simply do its own thing.

Global sensitivities

Any leader worth his salt knows in his bones that eventually, no matter what business models are employed, relationships deliver results. CEOs would therefore do well to invest their effort in building cultural understanding across their global operations.

The Ugly Indian is now rampaging through global sensitivities. It’s time for him to be replaced with the True Global Indian who pursues results through assimilation, adaptation and affection while established in work-life balance. After all, didn’t Krishna say in the Gita that “samatvam yoga uchyate: yoga is equipoise?”


(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 7, 2008)
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