Sunday, March 4, 2007

Cultural Context in a Global Era (Part 1)

A few weeks ago, there was an interesting article in CIO magazine, advising American tech leads how to manage relationships with their Indian vendors. While there is no question that the values and work ethos of an increasingly globalized elite are converging, these cultural differences are real, and should not be underestimated. The article starts out with a very broad generalization: helps to look at the cultures of India and the United States in broad strokes. India is a deeply traditional group-oriented society; tightly knit extended families place a premium on harmony. Survival depends on interdependency, on keeping each other happy. “Your first goal is to make sure nobody is upset by what you say,” says Storti. “If the group is not strong, if it is upset by confrontation, you are in trouble.”

Compare that with America’s fractured families scattered throughout the country, an ethos of individualism and lore filled with Wild West cowboys and a promise that anything is possible if you work hard enough. The United States is a land of grab-for-it. Subtlety is the exception, in both speech and manner. And when an American talks, it’s usually to get his point across, not to create harmony.

While obviously very broad and sweeping, this strikes me as a pretty accurate representation about how business in conducted in either place. Anyone looking to work with an Indian service provider would do well to read this article. In my last post, I talked about the importance of social networks (the physical kind) in conducting business. I pointed out one reason for this: as a way to bypass non-functioning institutions in the redress of problems. The more general reason is brought out in this article: the difference between group-centered and individual -centered cultures.

Articles of this sort tend to go in one of two extreme directions: either dismiss any differences at all as an outdated concept for knowledge workers in the information age, or emphasize the differences to such an extent as to "exoticize" the other. This article has struck the right balance in accepting the global nature of work, while acknowledging the tribal nature of human relationships.

This article obviously begs the question: what cultural advice could you give Indian vendors working with US companies? More to come on this topic.