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Bridging the Business Culture Gap with India
Anirban Dutta
Thursday, June 1, 2006
So you want to get on the India train? You read about India in magazines, listened to both sides of off-shoring argument, got your blood boiled hearing Lou Dobbs just in time to calm it by digesting Friedman’s analysis of India in “The World is Flat”. The point of this article is to provide a crash course that will help you avoid a lot of frustration in your own personal sojourn.

India is a testament of extreme cultural diversity. Although it is one country, the regional, religious, socio economic differences create very different behavior patterns among Indians. This article will focus on the segment of Indian society with whom you will mainly interact in the business setting. This group typically defines middle to upper class Indians that have white-collar jobs in IT, finance or other private sectors. Although this group of white-collar workers is increasingly working with westerners, they will accidentally push your wrong button, maybe in the worst possible time. If you are aware of what to expect, you will respond better.

Time is not money yet
I am often on “over the phone” business meetings with Indian counterparts who join in 10 to 15 minutes late. India has always had a laid back culture when it comes to matters of time. I constantly see the time aspect improving as the attitude towards time is changing. Besides the cultural factor, in all fairness to India, there are a few reasons for the delay in punctuality. First, the traffic in Indian big tech cities is horrendous especially during office hours. Often people get stuck and cannot make to the office in time to attend the meeting. Second, the telecommunications infrastructure is still not very developed in India. A lot of the Indian business organizations only have ‘so many’ active lines through which the employees can dial an American number. It is not uncommon that these lines are all being used at the same time and it is very difficult for the people to attend the meetings.

Don’t judge solely by initial quietness and lack of participation

In the heydays of the dot com boom, our organization used to get a lot of programmers from India who came to work on a work visa. One such member was Sri (real name not used). The guy was extremely reserved. People initially viewed his shyness and non-participation in team meetings as a lack of knowledge. Soon, we found that he was a true J2EE rock star. We also discovered his hidden sense of humor. Sri is not unique in showing this type of behavior. You will experience many Sri’s especially in technology or quantitative fields, who take time to open up at first.

Decipher through the noise
I have lot of clients in Texas. Unlike New Yorkers, who tend to be all business during business meetings, Texans do a lot of small talking before moving to business agenda. Indians, like Texans, tend to be very chatty once they know you. Don’t be surprised if you are asked personal questions. This is a process of trust building and it plays a major role in Indian business. Indians also love debate and heated discussions. There is a tendency to be verbose in business communications. You may see some disturbances during meetings like people attending other phone calls, talking to other people or multitasking. Although distractions are viewed as being rude in western culture, in India it is not viewed as such. Indians are true icons of polychromic people who love to multitask.

It is not uncommon to offer food and tea in business meetings, and you might be considered rude if you refuse the refreshments. The challenge is always trying to find the right balance, where you are deciphering through all the noise (small talk, non-work, discussion) and trying to focus on your mission. A very direct, all business approach may not work very well in India.

Govern globally but manage locally

IBM has transformed its culture from a rigid, buttoned down company to a very casual “work at home” culture in the Americas. When I am at the Indian office, I often notice traditional management best practices, with managers following the classic MBWA (Management by walking around) style. This behavior is by no means unique to IBM India. Some organizations are slowly transforming into more casual ‘dot com-ish’ organizations, but the trend is in rudimentary stages. The Indian managers and employees are used to the structural way of management. A lot of times, you will see employees calling you sir or madam like they address their managers. This is not a sign of keeping you at a distance. Hierarchy matters in India. You will rarely see people calling their superiors by first name as practiced in the US. It is standard custom to stand up and greet somebody. I have seen a lot of success when approaching with a global agenda of governance but letting the local managers manage from a local perspective. A lot of times, disagreements are not voiced openly but are ducked around with statements like ‘let’s return to this issue later’. It is important to be sensitive to these aspects of the business behavior. If you want to transform the organization culture, my suggestion would be to take a slow steady route of transition rather than a big bang approach of changing.

I wish you all the best in your Indian business ventures.

Anirban Dutta, PMP is a sales work-stream lead for IT Portfolio Management solution with IBM. He is responsible for evangelizing and selling IBM Rational Software’s portfolio management solution globally through IBM Global Business Services. He can be reached at adutta@us.ibm.com
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