Saturday, April 25, 2009

Culture Training in India

I am a sort of a culture enthusiast, or so I have become in last few years. The reason is rather obvious: I chose to live in a different country and the culture issues affect my daily life. This exposure allowed me to explore the academic literature on culture at work, and what I found both impressed and scared me. I have been selling internationally for many years now but have never known the nuances of various cultures. And, this is not just about choosing the right word or behaving properly: I understood that this is about the whole way of thinking and behaving.

With many Indian companies going global now, and more dealing, or attempting to deal with, International clients and their customers, this must be a huge issue to be tackled. Indeed, I have seen this gem of a movie called Outsourced, which takes one through the life of an American manager forced to live in India. While this fictional rendering is of enormous value, the practical aspects of culture at work needs to be explored and managed, and I have seen a significant opportunity in this gap.

Let me explain. I have been involved in building an English Language training business in India. Leaving aside the usual challenges of building a business, the key issue we had to confront is why do we need an English Language training business in India at all, where the business language is already English. We obviously looked at the rapidly expanding market in semi-urban and rural areas, and tried to tackle that aspect - build an English training business that will democratize the access to the Language and make English the language of possibilities, not just privilege. Noble aim, but this obviously needed a long term business commitment and significant investment in building up the business, which is not an easy task in the middle of a global downturn. While I remained enthralled in my initial vision, the practical issues of running a business cropped up. Indeed, our business model was not consistent with the goal that I had set for ourselves - we were a premium provider and not geared to mass market at all. Eventually, I made peace with that position and aligned the business to commercial realities, creating a network of franchisees in other Indian cities to take this forward.

However, during the time I wanted to still go forward with English for mass market model, I had to work with a model of cross-subsidization, where we create in-company training packages at a premium and subsidize the retail training business from this earning. I was not very confident that this can work; but, it did somehow work out, and allowed us to run the business based on corporate revenue for a good 12 to 18 months. Indeed, this was an interesting, though unplanned exposure, which allowed me to look at the business realities of different Indian organizations - banks, software companies, insurance companies, outsourcing entities, construction organizations - even if this was done from recollections of account executives and trainers who talked to clients on a daily basis. This was enlightening at a personal level, allowing me to assess various opportunities in the corporate training market outside the English language training.

What I understood, indeed, one of the big gap areas is cross-culture training. This is crucial, and the reasons are evident. But we have very little available in the market offering. Most culture training is mechanistic and attempts to cram the learner with a set of rules of behaviour, which indeed conflicts with the basic purpose of such training - creating a level of openness - and establishes cultural stereotypes. Besides, the training sessions are often led by individual trainers who have worked or lived abroad, or an expat. The structure of training sessions are often open-ended and mostly anecdotal. When an expat is involved, training sessions often turn into India seen through Western eyes, and regardless of the skills of the trainer, learners develop a stereotype of themselves.

On a personal note, I see a business opportunity here. I am currently helping a few companies develop a set of offerings for this requirement and I shall sure write about these efforts if something come to fruition. However, there is one interesting position that I mentioned a while earlier - that culture training sessions often force us to develop stereotypes of ourselves - and I would want to spend a minute on that statement here.

I have noted this whole body of literature on Indian culture, in quotes, which is about how Indians think and behave. Most culture training assumes that we, Indians, have a common way of thinking and behaving. Obviously, an Indian will tell you that it is grossly wrong, and even without regional bias or any value judgement, it will be plain to see. However, I have seen this notion of an uniform Indian culture prevalent in Western literature, and indeed, in Indian and Western executive management [I am always reminded how one of my colleagues keep telling me that there is a particular way Indians speak, and while I know that is wrong, I introduced her to Craig Storti's Speaking Of India, a fine book but a prime example of western stereotyping].

I think this notion of an uniform Indian culture is completely off the mark. Any large and diverse country has cultural variations within itself - hear how different Scots are from the English and how American mid-west is the god's own country - and in India, such differences are magnified by four dimensions of diversity, region, language, caste and class. I kept reminding our business partners that while from outside, India represents a huge multiplier effect - a nation of a billion people and a 300 million strong middle class - once you have set foot in this country, you see a game of divisions, different variations in everything.

In fact, I tend to see the Western stereotype of Indian business culture coming directly from Thomas Babington Macaulay, who sought to create a class of Indians, who are brown in colour but English in thought and persuasion. Often, this India is mistaken for the whole of India. Yes, indeed, modern Indian education and legal system remains deeply influenced by the colonial era thinking and codes, but one tends to forget that Indian entrepreneurship flourished in spite of the British and it maintains its distinctive traits even to this day. Besides, understanding the cultural nuances of the village India will become increasingly important as millions of people are migrating today from Indian villages to the cities and attempting to enter the global service industry. They may manage to pick up an accent and start calling apartments flats, but they come to table with deep cultural ethos and it is a stupid mistake to paint the whole body of Indians with the same brush. Indian regions represent tremendous variations too - with the north and eastern Gangetic plain representing a paddy farming culture not unlike southern china's, and the Western Indian regions representing a hunter-gatherer culture. Interestingly, Indian democracy and somewhat the caste system, which tells us to be comfortable in leaving the job of governance to others, have sustained the country with such enormous variations.

Such reflection prompts me to actively search for activities and resources to understand the Indian culture deeper, with its attendant variations, and create an effective system to introduce the cross-cultural thinking to Indian executives and business students. While I indeed see this as a separate business for operational reasons [and the fact that the goals and the structure of the business I run is quite different from what it should be for the culture training business], this is closely linked with an executive's ability to communicate effectively, and therefore, need to be weaved into language and general business communication training efforts. Some of my efforts in the coming days will be channelled to create a detailed plan for this undertaking and I indeed see myself evangelizing this business even when I engage myself in a more academic pursuit.

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