Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Question of Culture Training

Culture is perceived to be a lifestyle thing than a hard business issue. Undeniably, most businesses spend serious money to promote diversity internally and conduct cultural familiarization training regularly for staff travelling abroad and interacting with foreign clients. However, culture is usually considered as the things done outside - food, preferences, manners etc - than what is done inside the business. In my experience, it is assumed that there is one way of doing business - presumably the Anglo-Saxon way - though people come from diverse backgrounds and have to assimilate themselves in the 'mainstream'. This implicit assumption often cloud the way organizations approach culture training, and limit its effectiveness.

There is another major issue with culture training as it is done today. The training often trains people to behave in a different way than their own, at least at the staff operator level. While researching on the impact of cross-cultural training on people, I have often faced questions why one has to adopt a behaviour pattern other than one's own. Many training programmes address this issue inadequately, primarily because these are resource-poor and prescriptive, telling people that there is only one way of doing business - the Anglo-Saxon way - and they must adapt to it.


I shall rate these two issues to be the key problems in conducting effective culture training. Culture, indeed, affects the whole behaviour and that includes work. This determines how people see, think and perceive, and therefore, it is important that culture is considered a hard business issue, and not just as a peripheral, lifestyle thing. Besides, the objective of cultural training can not be about teaching a culture - it is foolish to imagine that a seven-day programme can fundamentally alter the ways a person thinks - but about making people more open to cultural diversity. The prescriptive training is bound to fail; though some people love these prescriptive tidbits [never hang your coat on the back of a chair in a Russian restaurant], prescriptive training presupposes that a person's culture could be overridden, which is wrong at the outset and runs against the basic purpose of culture training.

I have read recently a number of books on culture and communication, and noted, to my dismay, that many of them make such a mistake. One notable example is a book by Chris Storti , Communicating with Indians, which I read and used as one of the inputs for a training programme for Western executives. A finely written book, it observes the Indian business behaviour in the context of Western Value system. In all fairness, this book is written for an western business audience, so such an approach may appear common-sense; however, it will appear patronizing and unfair to an Indian reader, as the frame of reference is staunchly Anglo-Saxon and suffers from the resultant arrogance.

Let me give an example. The book quotes an imaginary conversation, where a Project Leader, Indian, is giving several hints to his boss, a Westerner, that a project will not be completed on time. But instead of saying things as it is, he goes on about it in a roundabout way, saying that 'he will try his best' and the project 'is challenging' etc. The author goes on to state that Indians speak with hints and suggestions, and are almost never straight in breaking bad news. The rest of the book, one can say, stands on this central theme of the lack of directness in Indians, in other words, the abundance of mitigated communication.

However, the inherent culture bias has not left the author here. First of all, he sets up a power equation of an Indian project manager and an western boss - an unequal equation with an assumption of a 'correct' outcome, a direct communication. Change this context, and you will see how perfectly acceptable this becomes. For example, an Western Project Manager telling the Indian boss that it can not be done on time because the specs of the project was done up wrongly, and the Indian boss saying that s/he has faith in the team that they can pull this off even with difficult circumstances - hinting, almost with a lack of subtlety but remarkable politeness, that s/he expects this to be done on time regardless of the trouble. Secondly, this may be okay for communication between Indians, who like Latins, thrive on hints and suggestions and whose culture is built around thoughts and interpretations. Besides, the whole communication is being done in English, which may be native to the Western boss but not so to the Indian Project Manager, and it will invariably introduce a bias. Because Indian languages are constructed for mitigation, most Indians feel a bit 'naked' speaking in English, which undermines the nuances of words and subtlety of expressions, and therefore, adopt an unusual language which is high on adjectives, but low on directness.

If, however, one invests time in training to understand, rather than training to behave culturally different, one gets to an all new level - a level of tolerance and diversity, which almost comes naturally to Indians. It is indeed a paradigm shift - from the Anglo-Saxon prescriptiveness to Indian multidimensionalism - and whatever I learnt of cultural training, this will prepare the participants far better for the surprises that invariably comes in course of dealing with a new culture. I do think this type of culture training will also be easier to deliver - as this does not have to start with unlearning a person's own culture. It will, therefore, evoke less resentment and make the learner feel enriched, not culture robbed, at end of the exercise.

2 comments:

PM Hut said...

I would like to raise the issue of different cultures from a Project Manager's perspective. Clearly it is one of the biggest challenges that the Project Manager has to face. For example, you say something in one way and the other party understands it differently (this is very common), sometimes leading to conflicts.

I have published an excellent series on multicultural projects where the author deals with almost every topic dealing with cultural differences. Take a look!

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Very useful indeed. Thanks a ton.

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