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How Multicultural Are We ?

My friend who heads marketing for a large US IT hardware multinational told me the other day his firm was swamped with applications for a mid level position they had advertised on the web.

While scanning the applications he found, unusually, that the applicants included two Americans, one Australian and one New Zealander. He asked HR to get back to them saying the job profile spanned Asia Pacific but was very much grounded in Bangalore. All four (none were of Indian origin) got back saying they were game.

Last week, I was speaking with a partner at a Big Four consulting firm. Remarkably, he said, more and more partners from around the world wanted to come and work in India. More so in the last six months, he said. "Once upon a time, people were `seconded’ to India, now they want to come here. Else, it was only Indians going overseas," he told me.

India Is Hot

That more and more foreigners want to work in India is not new. So why is it an issue today ? Because multi-cultural workplaces are exploding all over the place – the term denoting multi-national rather than just people from different parts of the country. My sense is that gearing up to receive and exploit talent from world over will be a big challenge and task for Indian companies. As many organizations have already realized or are in the process of doing so.

Indian organizations are not new to working with non-Indians. But, as a director with an IT MNC said to me recently. “in India, the only multi-cultural exposure has been really bi-cultural. So you had German, Swiss and American companies from the west and Korean, Japanese and now Chinese companies from the east setting up companies in India alone or with minority joint venture partners.”

According to him, in these cases, the management, because of the ownership pattern, hailed from the home country. So there was a managing director and maybe one more director who were either German or American. Everyone else was local or, in this case, Indian. So while there were some cultural issues, the onus on assimilation lay between one individual or two and the rest of the organization !

Challenge & Opportunity

But in the last few years, in industries like IT, telecom, retail, hospitality, among others, increasingly, expatriates are coming in at middle and even junior level positions. This creates an interesting challenge and opportunity for Indian organisations and managers. Challenge because Indian managers are yet not there when it comes to working in truly multi-cultural workplaces, here and overseas.

Opportunity because effectively addressing these issues will help not just companies achieve greater talent integration for the domestic marketplace but also help Indian mangers better tackle the the world. I recall Ratan Tata telling me in an interview four years ago that one of the biggest tasks and challenges for the Tata Group were going global and going multicultural, not necessarily in that order. At that time, Tetley was just about the only big global acquisition the Tata group had either concluded or attempted.

What has been the experience so far ? Largely good. The sense I get from talking around is that Indian organizations are working hard at truly multi-cultural environments. It helps that the India story attracts talent from world over. In many organizations, such environments have actually helped foster more thought leadership rather than, as one manager put it, cultural leadership.

High On EQ & Low On..!

The problems could be that the Indian weaknesses stand out. As the same manager told me, “Indian managers tend to be high on emotional quotient and low on professional quotient. This is sometimes difficult to comprehend for people from some other cultures.” This is of course a commonly mentioned point. And yet, he adds, Indians are extremely flexible and display a strong ability to change.

The bigger challenges lie ahead. If Indian workplaces and environments are to be truly welcoming to people from varying cultures, then we have to work hard to manage our own latent racism. Most managers will tell you that Indians tend to be more subservient to some cultures while displaying distinctly racist attitudes towards the other. This is not a generalization by any stretch. And good organizations have the systems to address this. But the external environment is another story. A mid level expat manager may not be able to live the cocooned lifestyle expat head honchos are used to.

Another challenge is ensuring young Indians are exposed to multi-cultural environments before they hit such workplaces. Colleges and schools being the most obvious interaction point. At the Indian School of Business (ISB) a few months ago, I noticed several non-Indian students in the classrooms. I was told they were here on long exchange programs. Obviously the ISB or other institutions like it are an exception.

Understanding A Plain Jane

As I see it, organizations and institutions should set out a few tasks. First, make multi-culturalism an objective rather than an outcome that they have to prepare for. Second, as a corollary, make the working in a multi-cultural environment a virtue and a necessity for personal growth. Third, work towards all of this by creating the systems and processes to handle the inevitable fall-outs.

If you look around you, the smart Indian companies, from the Tatas to Reliance are already doing it. As are the IT majors. It will only accelerate. My sense is that early multi-cultural exposure will make for better managers right here. Or at the very least help understand how a plain Jane thinks and reacts in foreign lands, within or outside a reality show.

This piece first appeared in Business Standard !

Comments

Anonymous said…
The answer is simple. The world is driven by numbers, and India is realising it late. Why do u think the VCs are all over the place in India?
Bcos they have seen some numbers that are mind boggling. Its as simple as that. An economy with a double digit growth rate and a democracy to boot, is something.

But thats not an excuse to leave the roads as they are.

- DrDoubt.
Tom said…
It is sad that people feel a need to leave their homes just to find a job.

By the way, where to the Westerners live while on the job? I would think it would be very uncomfortable (and likely unsafe) to be one white person among a crowd of Indians. Wouldn't that be just like having a target on your back? At the very least people would be staring at you all the time because you would stand out as being different.
ps said…
That's a great writeup but an issue that we lack the values to solve despite our so called grand culture and heritage.

A truly multicultural workplace (multi-national) won't happen in India for the next 10-15 years. And if it doesn't happen by then, it will not happen in the foreseeable future because our "high-flying" economy would have failed from the weight of our xenophobia and our now legendary mismanagement.

Those few foreigners who do come to India do it for a sense of adventure. They do not do it for long term reasons. They don't think of bringing up their families here or settling here like most Indians do when they leave for other countries. It's short-term curiosity. It will fade away unless we fix ourselves.

In India, we take xenophobia to alarming levels. Look at what's happening in Bangalore. The people of Karnataka want to drive out people from "outside". They consider people from other states in India aliens, parasites feeding off their land. And the "anti-outsider" noises are getting shriller by the day.

I'm sure the same problem exists in other states as well in varying degrees.

Now tell me, if we can't even accept people from our own country to work in each others states, how the hell are we going to accommodate people from other countries? I'm pretty sure people from other countries will have a very tough time. The previous comment from Tom hits the nail on the head.

And who would want to come from a developed country to face the atrocious infrastructure in this country? Who would want to come and pay the umpteen bribes to get around our system? Who would want to come a place where the risk of communal violence is real(remember how "peaceful" Bangalore was just last week)?

So before we get into any of these birds-eye-view discussions about multiculturalism, let's fix the worms-eye-view issues of our damn system and it's bag of divisive forces. We are just talking ahead of ourselves while corporations from around the world milk our soon short-lived "economic boom".
csm said…
i am with a non-profit and this year, we have 5 americans working with us for 1-2 years over various assignments.
thats almost 10% of our workforce.

and all from web postings.

the 'craze' extends beyond just the commercial space.
prince said…
Have you seen the new India search engine www.ByIndia.com they added all the cool features of popular products like
MySpace, YouTube, Ebay, Craigslist, etc. all for free to use and specifically for India. Anyone else try this yet?ByIndia.com First to Blend Search,
Social Network, Video Sharing and Auctions Into One Seamless Product for Indian Internet Users.
Shreyasi Deb said…
Very relevant post.
India is diverse but am not sure about our sensitivity towards diversity (our blocks to caste, religion, colour, language etc).This sensitivity will play a major role in attracting and retaining global talent. Organisations need to go out of their way to make the expats feel safe and secure, kind of hand holding in the beginning, for them to deal with cultural differences and ways of life both within and outside the workplace.
We have world class educatioonal institutes but am not sure how many of them encourage open admissions for foreigners except on exchange programs.Why don't we create those options?
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