John Holden is a Senior Director with Symantec APJ. In this article, John offers the opinion that it is often bad management that can prevent an organisation achieving the benefits of a global delivery organisation.
Do cultural differences slow you down? How much failure can a manager lay at the feet of traits, behaviour, and other biases that we attribute to our and our employees' cultural heritage? My answer - none, not if you want to keep your job!
The greatest operations innovation of the past 20 years continues to be the globalization of non-manufacturing processes. In cubes and meeting rooms from China, across South East Asia, India, and on to Eastern Europe, there are off-shore employees working with global teams to develop software, provision technical services, handle back-office operations of all types, and much more. From my experience, cultural differences are never plausible excuses for unsatisfactory results, though they are often used as such by unimaginative managers. However, sometimes they provide an explanation as why things turn out differently from expected - usually neither better nor worse, just different.
This morning I stood up in front of 30 engineers and program managers in Chengdu, South West China. The purpose: to launch a site program to stimulate employee engagement and improve morale. Our employees are young, average age 28, and generally educated to Master degree level. They listened quietly to my overview in English, then, almost equally quietly, to the more detailed comments of my Chinese manager. As I looked at them, feeling before their unlined Asian visages slightly ridiculous and Santa-Claus-like - a grey, rotund Caucasian, parachuted in from somewhere far away - I asked myself if my exhortations made any sense to them. Whatever do we have in common to suggest that they would find my words resonant with their world? How would they respond to modern management ideas of empowerment, self-directed career development, and all the other stuff (guff) that is the ciabatta and pesto of contemporary American corporations?
Well, the answer in my experience is - remarkably well. Not that it is down to our employee programs, commendable though they might be. No, their receptiveness comes from within, from their own choices and ambitions; one could even argue, from universal values. Our colleagues in Chengdu are of what is called the '80s generation' in China, the generation born after the Cultural Revolution, and the first to grow up in the years since the policies of 'opening up' and 'reform' commenced. Theirs is the zeitgeist of modern China; eager to learn, acquire, and experience. It is to their expectations that the government oscillates. (Their successors, the 90s generation, are, in contrast, common targets of scorn on account of their flashy consumption and shallow showiness).
The employees of the 80s generation are surprisingly fluent in the language of western business; talking about seeing opportunities to contribute, upgrading their skills, their eagerness to participate in cross-team projects - deftly ticking many of the boxes you expect to hear when dealing with highly-paid Western employees. Most of them have never left China but communicate well in English, and in many cases have hobbies and interests - Arsenal, NBA, Hollywood and Lady Gaga - similar to their US and European colleagues. This in a country where access to Hollywood movies and Western TV channels is very restricted. Thank you Internet, illegal downloads, and pirated DVDs.
These software engineers earn a quarter of the salary of their American colleagues whom they've likely never met. They work as critical members of global development teams; the program managers coordinate global projects. There are no non-Chinese managers on site - I am the most frequent non-Chinese visitor and I visit two to three times a year for a few days at a time. Yet our Chengdu team has a fine track record for delivery within the company (barring the odd necessary hiccup) and we continue to move more sensitive and complex work there. Our success is replicated across the many, many foreign companies who have recently set up off-shore centers in Chengdu.
Simply put: I say if we can do it in Chengdu - far away, barely arrived on the global stage - we can do it anywhere. The adhesive forces driving global teams to collective output are greater than the differences that would pull us apart. After all, we get paid by the same company. So why then all that dysfunction in global teams? The answer is out there - in a gazillion management books. It is our constant companion; it is to be found wherever two people gather together in the name of profit - it is, simply put, bad management.
A couple of links for Chengdu:
- PR site for the software park where we are located, specifically to a page trumpeting Chengdu's ascension to global city most like to succeed in a Fortune magazine article http://tianfusoftwarepark.com/en/news/chengdu-news/1368-fortune-chengdu-is-chinas-benchmark-city-for-investment-environment.html
- Site for ex-pats, wannabe travel writers and English teachers http://www.gochengdoo.com/en/
Keep an eye out on future issues for more of John's insights into making bad management good and good management great.