Monday, May 23, 2011

Cross-cultural Management in the age of Cultural Flattening

After 35 years work experience in the US, I taught my first ever course in India on entrepreneurship, and realised that the notion of cross-cultural management, a mainstay of human resource professionals, is an idea past its prime. Superficially, dress, food preferences, language, art knowledge, there are differences, but fundamentally e.g. motivation, values, relationships, people are people.

The monumental change Internet and mobile digital information has wrought,  I would argue, is that the notion of "culture" is rendered obsolete; and this is a good thing. Today, its about being aware of yourself and of others;  its about individual choice more than the culture a person grew up in; focus on what is hard-wired vs. what is social (read culture) conditioning.

Globalization, social media and access to high quality visuals at  Internet speed have had a "flattening"  effect not just on business but also social mores. In  Art Kleiner's Strategy+Business  article A Long-Wave Theory on Today’s Digital Revolution, historian Elin Whitney-Smith observes: "in each new information revolution, decision rights have been pushed lower in the organization. One of the social innovations of the electric information revolution was the train conductor. He was a working-class individual, but he wore a suit and tie and carried a watch. He could say “all aboard!” to an aristocrat and the aristocrat would have to get on the train or get left behind. That was a huge social innovation." That metaphor now applies across countries and cultures. As long as an individual has a vested interest in ensuring long term success of the organisation, in this case keeping trains running on schedule for the greater benefit, decision making overlooks culture defined norms, be it hierarchy, race, and even religion. Information access, whether in a business, societal or personal context, means that culturally defined rights and wrongs just become data points and not defining criterion.

There is a rub though. More so than ever, "cultural flattening" underscore the need to understand practical considerations imposed by geography and economic circumstance because cultural cues that help awareness are now missing. The digital armchair traveller may intellectually understand poverty but cannot experience hunger. A false understanding can lead to wrong decisions.

We say that “cultural awareness does not focus on a specific region of the world, but instead requires general sensitivity to other cultures.” Overall I agree with this– just replace culture with “circumstance” (this is important because circumstance can be changed, culture not so easily). By and large though, from food to fashion, social class to religious custom, "unity in diversity" has changed from a slogan to reality.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Social E-Challenge: Final Round

The annual BASES Social E-Challenge, a student-run social entrepreneurship business plan competition, where I mentor, will be hosting its final round event Wednesday, May 18th at Stanford University. Our finalists are:

Foresight Medical is a low cost device for cervical cancer screening, a disease that kills 270,000 woman a year.
Culture Kitchen is a social enterprise that seeks to connect immigrant women in the U.S. with female American “foodies” interested in learning to cook authentic ethnic cuisine, by creating a culinary and cultural forum focused on empowerment.
1/2 PROJECT champions the idea of giving on a small scale through everyday common purchases, instead of large annual gifts that require more financial commitment.
Juntos Finanzas creates innovative personal finance tools that empower first generation Latino communities.

The finalists were chosen after multiple rounds from the following:
Biological Processing of Milk Wastewater
Culture Kitchen
D3W: Diagnostic Devices for the Developing World
Foresight Medical
Gram Power
The College Gap

Monday, May 9, 2011

India Calling? First Answer the Question WII-FM?

The "India Calling", themed SAMBAA event on May 9, where I was a panelist, drew an astonishingly accomplished, enthusiastic, energetic and diverse audience with a range of interests (renewable to retail, rural to lifestyle). However almost everyone I chatted with (before as well as after the panel) had one underlying question in common:  If I go to India, will it work out (be successful)?

Its easy and appropriate to answer this vaguely.. well it really depends on what you want .. depends on what your goals are ..etc. because that is the reality. But as I think about it I realise this question can be handled like a corporate re-organisation where the first question that pops into my head  is :What's In It For Me or WII-FM?

So, go ahead, if you are considering a move to India have some fun with the following questions:
Q1 - Is moving to India a major strategic career change for you?
Your answer is NO if there is no financial downside to you such as loss of a paycheck (e.g. if your company is opening office in India and will move you or its a paid internship etc etc) and my advice is move to India but don't burn any bridges in US and while in India keep up with your contacts.  A major career change often requires you to give up something or making an investment.
Q2 -  What is the benefit or why do you want to move to India?
Most common answers to this one are - I want my children to grow up in India or I want to be with aging parent. Both are good reasons and you may have others but if you cannot clearly articulate a benefit it means your answer is NO and you should shelve the idea till you figure this out. I phrase the question as a benefit to you because other common answers I get are : I want to give back or I want to do good and those are poor success predictors and indeed are good reasons for you to stay here and engage with India in other ways.
Q3 - With this pre work done you are ready to answer WII-FM? Create a statement, write it down - take the long term view (long depends on what industry you are in - average is 3 years) because while it is easy to move back and forth these days, still some preparation and field work can make your move more fun as well as a personal and career development activity. This question often has to do with what makes you happy - which is important in keeping your attitude positive when things look low. It helps you define boundary conditions.

With this under your belt - its time to talk specifics!

Other topic: Several people brought up spousal agreement. I do believe that if involved parties answer the above questions first individually and then move to a common ground things will go better. Also - if you haven't been to India in the last 2 years - make a trip - some things are just the same but others are radically new.

Most importantly - like other decisions this one too is a heart decision - follow your heart and your head will figure out what to do to make it work.