Wednesday, January 24, 2007

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 !

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Oops, I Forgot I Am Carrying A Gun On This Flight

Two months ago, I had an interesting encounter with Mumbai airport security. I was flying from Mumbai to London and carrying, among other, non-violent items, a small tube of pain relieving gel for my back. The brand is well-known and you can find it in any medical store in the nation.

I walked through the frisking counter to discover my haversack had been ominously laid on the table. The guy came over and asked me to open it up. He looked at the man facing the screen with the X-Ray images. “There is a tube in it,” the scanner said. The Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) officer asked me to open my bag and take it out. I didn’t argue or anything, just said it was a pain relieving gel for my back. And it was a small tube, I demonstrated.

“No,” he said. “I need it,” I said. “Do you have a prescription then ?” he asked. "No," I said. And that was it, the tube went into the dustbin hopefully to be picked up and used by some baggage handler with a sprained back or shoulder, or at least I hope. London these days was on high alert - just after the big bomb attack in the sky scare and security was tight. And yet, despite my discomfiture, I was impressed with the sharpness of the Mumbai airport personnel.

Do You Know Who I Am ?

Well, the airport chaps (technically, the chaps who scan check-in baggage work for the airlines so it may not be the same) let a man with a revolver and 30 live cartridges go through Mumbai airport on January 13. By the way, we've had at least a dozen high alerts at the airports in the last six months. High alert, presumably, means you look for weapons and the like and not pain relieving gel. Anyway, the firearm was discovered in Dubai when the passenger landed. The authorities there must have called up the authorities here (this was an Air-India flight which itself answers a few unasked questions) and hell must have broken loose. Till it was all wonderfully covered up .

The possibilities of what and how are staggering. Lets look at them one by one. First, the man in question, businessman Nusli Wadia of the Bombay Dyeing Group, did not even put his baggage through security check. Second, his baggage whent through security check but the guys missed the gun and the bullets.

Third, they found the gun, discovered the bullets and asked for an explanation. However, when the passenger posed the big Indian question, “Do you know who I am ?”, they decided to let go. After all, he is a big businessman or a VIP. Frankly, I don’t what’s the most worrying or scary. Whether they knew there was a gun or they did not. Thankfully, the Dubai chaps were more alert or at least were not bought off.

Its My Servant's Fault, Catch Him

It gets worse. In Dubai, Nusli Wadia reportedly said he did not know the gun was in his bag because his servant packed it. So ? Well, we let go. After all, its not the poor man’s fault that his servant who packs his bags usually slips in a gun or two. And its only you and me who are asked every time when checking in whether we packed our own bags and whether anything untoward might have crept in.

And the best part is this. In Dubai, when challenged, Wadia apparently fished out an arms permit and said he had a license to carry the gun. Sure. So, we are now to believe the servant inadvertently packed the gun but Mr Wadia advertently carried the license. How convenient ! Lets assume the license arrived later and the servant did indeed slip in a gun. Wow ! What kind of `domestic help' does that ?

Okay, Ramu, I might need a gun on this trip because I have a few business deals to crack so pack my gun. Or, sir, would you like to pack the gun and the shaving kit together or seperately ? Amazingly, you can blame the servant and get away. At least, as it appears, a businessman of some repute can. What do you think would have happened to any of us were we to be caught with a gun in the check-in baggage ?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Indians' fuzzy outlook on citizenship

During World War II, in 1942 to be precise, US President Franklin D Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing some 116,000 Japanese Americans (of which over 60 per cent were US citizens) to relocate or move from the west coast to `war relocation centers’ in the country’s interior.

The reason was this. Post Pearl Harbor, many Americans believed Japan was about to launch another full scale attack, this time on the west coast. To quote an American Lieutenant General who administered the `internment’ program, "There is no way to determine their loyalty...It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty..."

It took four decades to right the slight. In 1988, President Reagan signed an apologetic legislation which said the government actions then were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

Help Us Stay Home, In Britain !

The Japanese American Internment is a prominent 20th century case study in the fundamental issue of citizenship and patriotism. And it often reminds me about Indians and our own fuzzy sense of citizenship and everything that goes with it.

Here is an instance. Some 30,000 Indians in Britain are requesting the Indian authorities to protest a British government move that affects their status under the Highly Skilled Migrants Programme (HSMP). The UK move may be unfair but it baffles me (if I were to believe the reports) that these chaps expect our PM to request Tony Blair to give them safe haven and potentially, citizenship, in the the UK !!

I would divide my America bound acquaintances, friends and relatives into roughly two categories. First are those who seek specific opportunity, find it at a location that is not pre-determined and then `settle’ down. Their return is always open-ended, so to speak. These are a minority. The second are those for whom countries like America are fixated, pre-programmed destinations regardless of what they do in India and how.

What About Patriotism ?

For many first generation settlers in the US, the 80s and 90s have been kind. Having acquired a two-car garage house, lawn mower and a sound understanding of local baseball, they ponder about what to do next. Should one stay on ? Will the children adapt back in India ? Will there be opportunity ? What about bureaucracy, bad roads, cheating taxi drivers and pollution ?

Ah, in passing, they might ask of themselves: should we become US citizens ? If we do, then what does it really mean? Should we give up Indian nationality just like that, just because we are getting citizenship here ? What about patriotism ? Or is it, in any case, restricted to cheering when Rahul Dravid scores a century ?

Okay, how many folks do you think really understand the following: ""I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the USA against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law.."

How Many Even Ask ?

I would like to guess but will pass. I don’t know whats more worrying, whether they do or they do not. Actually, it is my submission that only 5 per cent of self-exiles actually ask questions. To the credit of this 5 per cent, as I have seen in some cases, they can go through considerable heartburn. The other 90 per cent I would argue, do not even pose these questions. Of course there are many who steadfastly maintain Indian citizenship. We would all know some of them.

I always wonder why Indians (sure, maybe many Chinese do as well) find it so simple to switch nationalities ? Or is it that it does not matter when you are in the flow, student to H1B (or equivalent) to Green Card to citizen. Where is the time or energy to ponder where you really belong !

In which case what must be done about it ? Rather, should something be done or is it another issue best left to market forces ? I am not sure about this. Looking inward, I would argue that the case for patriotism is weak. What I am not sure is whether its getting weaker or with economic development, stronger ?

A Case For Patriotism

Why did I start with the example of the Japanese-American Internment ? Because the argument of economic good and meritocracy scoring over cultural diversity and ancestry can fade over time. Neither the host country or the immigrant can be sure that this sort of symbiotic relationship will stand the test of time, in the truest sense. No one is suggesting a repeat of the Intermnent. And yet we had the veil issue in Britain.

My fear is that young Indians with their fuzzy outlook on nationalism can be victims. Most don’t know (or care) what they sign up for. But for those still to do so, I would still make a strong case for patriotism. To be more appropriately inculcated, if possible. Not one that is necessarily borne out of economic soundness.

PS: This is another Business Standard instalment. Yes, I have been a little pre-occupied and perhaps lazy. I have been busy, among other things, fighting a fresh round of battles with our domestic airlines !

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Setting Expectations For 2007

Living in Mumbai, I am somehow bound to the “Will Mumbai become Shanghai?” phrase and all its connotations and interpretations. Before I come to my submission on our state of great expectations, a few words on the Shanghai syndrome.

First, Mumbai should look for a new phrase. That’s because, to my mind, Delhi has already become “Shanghai”. Sure, Delhi is not a port city or the commercial capital. But using the usual extrapolation of Shanghai to mean high-quality infrastructure, visible administrative determination (for whatever reasons) to clean up a mess and so on, Delhi scores.

Delhi is the only city in India where there are visible infrastructure improvements in short periods. Sure, Gurgaon residents are howling about the extra hour they spend on the approach to Delhi, but if you ask me, I see the men and machines working day and night to find some solutions. Unlike Mumbai, a city that took three decades to decide to build one bridge across a creek.

Just A 50% Chance..

Now to narrate two somewhat disparate examples. Remember Mumbai’s highway road signs (amidst crumbling or dug-up roads) requesting you to bear with the present for a better future? I don’t know about you but when I read them, I expected solutions that would fundamentally alter the road infrastructure in the island city. Far from it. As I see it, this high-decibel signage mostly meant that some roads or pavements would be re-layered. Yet, here I was thinking life was going to fundamentally change.

Allow me to shift gears. I happened to be in London the day Tata Steel announced its bid for Corus. It was interesting to see local media reactions. It was clearly a big thing. People wanted to know what would happen to Corus if the Tatas took it over. I didn’t know the answer. I still don’t, particularly now that it may not be the Tatas who will take over Corus.

Nevertheless, it struck me that ever since the Tatas threw their hat in the ring, their victory has been pretty much taken for granted by most of us—with the possible exception of Tata Steel brass and perhaps their investment bankers. Turns out as things stand they have only a 50 per cent chance, or is it less?

Expectation Overload

My point is this. We are in a constant state of expectation overload. In the case of Mumbai’s miseries, expectations appear so high that the outcome is laughable. Equally, albeit a little differently, in the case of a Tata-Corus, expectations have run ahead of reality. The Tatas may or may not be responsible for this but surely many others are.

And it goes on. From the unfinished Golden Quadrilateral highway project and government-sponsored advertisements which highlight announcements as achievements to erratic cricket performances and newspaper headlines that suggest something has already happened as opposed to “yet to”, we are in a perpetual race to declare conclusion or victory. The two are not necessarily congruous but the malady is common.

When the GQ project started, we were told to get ready to cover 1,000 km in 11 or 12 hours like on roads in the developed world. Guess what, thanks to litigation-induced blockages, we might actually take longer than what was planned. In any case, the gap between induced expectation and actual delivery runs into years, sometimes decades.

Where's The Word Gloom ?

Having said all of that, it’s still fine to over-expect in some areas, I mean you can keep expecting India to win at cricket or Sachin Tendulkar to score a century. It might happen (or won’t) but no one’s the wiser. It’s a little different when it comes to more fundamental issues of economy and infrastructure. We expect a Shanghai but fail to question the basic problems in civic infrastructure.

Now, a little digression. Exactly a year ago, I was sitting with Harvard Business School professor Das Narayandas at the HBS campus in Boston. Gazing at the falling snow outside, we were discussing, what else, India. “Is India Shining all over again?” the professor asked me. It was a rhetorical question, I realised.

Narayandas had this to say. The word gloom didn’t really exist in the Indian lexicon, referring more to those who were economically privileged and had benefited from the recent economic boom. As we go into 2007, I think of his words again. Whether it’s crumbling Mumbai or our global business aspirations. Or my concern, taking off from Narayandas’ posers, that our record GDP quarter growth numbers will make us believe we’ve cracked it all, already.

Plunging Ahead..

And so I ask, are we plunging into another new year overawed by the past, expecting miracles from the future ? Without rolling up our sleeves to solve the basic problems that still plague our existence? Are we assuming conclusion when we are far from even the beginning of the solution. If you ask me, my first thought for 2007 would be to set right expectations, individually and collectively. That way, we will achieve more and be less dissapointed when things don’t happen. Like realising how Mumbai will not become Shanghai. And accepting that even a Delhi can get its act together.

This article first appeared in Business Standard

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