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Think Globally, Excel Locally
Vic Kulkarni
Friday, February 1, 2008
It really is a small world. The modern executive maintains personal and professional contacts on several continents with customers, sales teams, R&D teams, production facilities, friends, and colleagues. Technology helps establish and foster these far-flung relationships, and many of us routinely communicate electronically (by voice, videoconference, e-mail) with people throughout the world.

In a high-tech career that has stretched over three decades, I have witnessed the evolution of this trend from the times when outsourcing anything but the simplest tasks to a low-cost, overseas producer was a great risk, to the present when international collaboration with equals is fast becoming daily routine.

Early in my management career I was tasked with overseeing an R&D group in Europe for a Silicon Valley based company. Their work was outstanding, but their approach to business and customers differed from the way we did things back at the corporate headquarters. It taught me that becoming a multinational company meant there was no single standard that could be applied to different locations on the globe. Centralized control, as was exercised in the erstwhile Soviet Union, failed miserably and the same could be equally disastrous in business.

It soon became apparent to me that the way the team in Europe did things wasn’t ‘foreign’ to them or the customers there – their way of doing things was conditioned by the knowledge they had of business and culture, and that worked in their country.

In those days ‘globalization’ was not being practiced in the wider sense it has acquired now, it was almost exclusively ‘outsourcing’ then. When I arrived at Sequence, I partnered with an Indian company. Though I grew up in Mumbai, I went straight from IIT to graduate school and a career in the U.S. So my experience with Indian business practices was nil. So our idea was to start by getting our feet wet by learning about R&D management in India through Interra. That experience changed our world from ‘outsourcing’ to true ‘offshoring’.

We learned the most important lesson in the process: You can’t motivate remote teams by insulting them with low-level tasks. That’s when we devised the concept of ‘Centers of Excellence’, working with local talent and local schools. The true meaning and essence of globalization is realized when you create teams of equals in locations scattered around the world. In our case, we presently have teams on both coasts of the United States, the U.K, India, and are looking to expand further.

Given this approach, the very first thing you have to lose is the concept of ‘headquarters’. I like to think that our headquarters are wherever I am at the time. It is not a big bureaucracy headquartered in California, and I’m most productive and useful when meeting with product teams wherever they are in the world.

For our own workforce, it has meant that we have moved our U.S. experts into more of an architect role for new products. They share their ideas with product managers, project leaders, and experienced people in other parts of the world. Naturally, we also reward good initiatives with ideas such as our very successful ‘Made in India’ program that has spurred a great deal of innovation from our team in Noida while also reinforcing the idea that great ideas know no geographical boundaries.

When I talk to the CTOs of the Silicon Valley startups, I hear that any new business plan with hopes of attracting venture capital must show a strategy for establishing distinct Centers of Excellence around the world. Nobody wants to fund a standalone company in Silicon Valley now. You can have your architects here, but you need to have Centers of Excellence in Romania, Egypt, China, Vietnam, India – wherever expertise and markets coexist. So, young entrepreneurs, think globally but excel in your understanding of local business methods and culture. Great opportunities await you, wherever you are.

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