Rudyard Kipling said, ‘East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’. With the world moving more towards the concept of global citizens, this does not hold true for many of us today. We have learned to work seamlessly with people across the globe, transcending time zones and cultural differences. Professionals in America and India work together in global teams where the members wake up, log into a conference call and automatically wish their offshore colleagues a ‘Good Evening’ or vice versa!
India’s focus on the development of technical and professional skills made it one of the first “hot spots” for offshoring technology development and business services. My own experience of cross cultural teams goes back more than a decade. I have also talked to some others to learn about their experiences, the adjustments they may have made and the things they enjoy when they work in such teams. This post discusses what happens when East meets the West and how the West’s view of India has changed over time, as they slowly become more familiar. While much has been said about working across time zones and language differences, the true challenge in successfully working in global teams rests with overcoming cultural differences. On that front, we have come a long way.
Time was when Indians working in America on software projects faced censure from colleagues for not automatically saying ‘bless you’ when they sneezed. Indian women were offended by the forced physical contact of a hug from an affectionate Western boss. These differences are not issues for either side anymore. Indians used to fold their hands in a Namaste, to the delight of any Adrian Monk amongst us, as he need not hunt around for a wipe after every single handshake to get rid of the germs. Today, men or women, they have perfected the art of shaking hands.
The notion of management hierarchy was also very different. Indians were used to addressing men as ‘Sir’ and women as ‘Ma’m’, in a colonial style – and would baulk at the use of first names for anyone ‘superior’ to them as their culture strongly ingrains an attitude of superiority and inferiority. Over the years, Indians have adjusted well to a culture of equality where bosses are very flexible, approachable and compassionate. They enjoy having a boss who is willing to accommodate leave applications and personal emergencies with an ‘of course’ as long as the delivery deadlines are met and work does not suffer.
People feel connected to colleagues on the other side of the planet, thanks to the communication channels afforded by technology. Working across time zones has erased the notion that working hard means being present in the office until the boss leaves for home. Now, with no physical office and a boss who is not present, emphasis has shifted to establishing a clear idea of what must be done to achieve high standards of performance. Orientation and emphasis have shifted from process to results.
Differences in project management also reflected cultural differences. In the past, the desire for specific, detailed agreements clashed with a general understanding of intent and approach. When conflicts occurred, the tendency of Americans to be direct was inconsistent with a culture of conflict avoidance. As a result of extensive cross-cultural training, both sides have altered their styles, creating an approach that incorporates elements of both styles.
Interactions are not limited to the hiring of Indians who have immigrated to the United States or to offshoring ‘stand alone’ functions to India. The West does not fear traveling to India, the land of snakes and sadhus, anymore either. I know many who love not just Indian curry, but ask their Indian hosts for ‘Pakora’ (an Indian version of onion rings, for the uninitiated) and ‘Gulab Jamun’ when they visit India on business. That is clearly a change from when a host was asked for information on the parts of the city where it may not be safe for visitors to go. Or, when some prankster back home could tutor them to request their host to schedule a visit to a particular animation studio which has a ‘snake pit’ in the middle of the foyer, as live subjects for the artists! Even when they are back home, they reminisce about the remarkable qualities of India’s street corner stores, where one will find an astonishing variety of very useful things stocked in a 6×6 (or, smaller) cranny. Many end up falling in love with the store owner, who bills a dozen items on the back of some scrap paper and tallies it all up without any mistake, without the aid of a calculator, or computer; completely impervious to the frequent power outages.
At DCR Workforce, we find that there are many common factors between our two countries. We share a democratic form of government, citizens of varied cultures and races, and citizens who are secular in outlook. By leveraging talent in both countries, we can offer greater levels of service to our clients, and benefit from a stronger employee base. Investments in collaborative technology and cross-cultural training have yielded great benefits. So, I say sorry Kipling, but the East can meet the West – and make a success of it too.
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