Analysis of the cultural challenges faced by a Swiss organisation and its employee after the arrival of Indian collaborators.
1.1 Setting the stage
The management team of the IT department in a leading international company headquartered in Switzerland (the Swiss company) I used to work for decided that, in order to reduce costs and optimise resources, they would outsource the development and maintenance of software solutions to an international company based in India (the Indian company). Employees were informed of this strategy and were requested to transfer the knowledge they had in their area of expertise to their Indian “colleagues” in order to ensure business continuity and the smooth run of activities. After a few weeks, consultants from India started arriving.
1.2 The incidents
The company and the employees were not prepared for this and had not anticipated the difficulties related to cultural differences. There were two different corporate cultures but the issues arose mainly due to national culture differences. A few examples were:
- Coffee & Tea: Employees from the Indian company, independent from what level of the hierarchy you were, were served coffee at their desks. In the Swiss company, only executive management got this service and all employees made their own coffee & tea.
- Food: The canteen offered two menus but as most of the employees from the Indian company were vegetarian, they found it difficult and sometimes impossible to eat at the restaurant. This selection actually became very popular with the Swiss locals and if you got to the canteen too late it very often was not available anymore.
- Kinesics: Employees from the Indian company were in the habit of alternately tilting the head at an angle to each side that was interpreted by employees of the Swiss company as “I'm not sure”, though it meant Yes or I heard you.
- Hierarchy: Employees from the Indian company were often referred to as taking no initiative and nodding when in fact they hadn’t understood what was required from them.
- Non-Verbal Communication: “Water in the Gents”. After the arrival of employees from the Indian company, certain employees from the Swiss company started complaining about the mess that the “Indians” left behind themselves in the gents. The assumption was that as the floor was wet, they didn’t care about where they urinated.
This created a reaction from employees of the Indian Company who were mortified that anybody could even consider that they would do this.
1.3 Resolving the issues
Following the series of incidents and communication issues, the management team decided to organise intercultural workshops of 1 day for employees and consultants. Many workdays were spent in setting up these workshops from finding the appropriate consultants who would present it to defining the content. At each workshop, members of the management team were present including a representative from the Indian company. The exact cost of this operation is unknown to me but it included the material, one day of work for 120 employees, over 50 consultants and several days of the management team present at each workshop. In addition, employees from the company in India attended a similar workshop of half a day.
The origin of the “water in the gents” was finally discovered. In India, people do not use toilet paper but they use water. Taps can be found next to the toilets and people use them to wash1. As there were no taps in the Swiss company’s toilets, the Indian people filled small bottles of water instead. This was not as practical as using the taps and very often water spilt on the floor. The issue was not quite resolved as taps were not installed in the toilets but people were more cautious when using water. The Swiss employees knew where the liquid was coming from and the drawing was removed.
Other initiatives took place to attempt a better integration and acceptance of Indian colleagues. To resolve the food problematic at the canteen, the Swiss company organised for a catering service to provide an Indian selection at the canteen four days a week.
Events were organised by the Indian company, inviting all members of the IT department to celebrate a very important Hindu event called Diwali “the festival of lights” and in turn, consultants from India were included in the Swiss company social events.
Despite these attempts, the harm was done and people’s perceptions were affected. These intercultural communication issues were probably not the only cause but they contributed to the fact that after just over a year a certain number of departments within the IT section stopped working with the Indian company and selected another European based consultancy firm.
Although I mentioned several incidents, I will take “water in the gents” to discuss the intercultural communication incident using the aI2C model of analysis.
2.1 Communication Process
2.1.1 The transmitter
The transmitter of the message was an employee of the Swiss company who was of Swiss nationality. His intention was to communicate his interpretation of the liquid on the floor in the gents to the Indian employees. The “interpretation” of the wet floor, in this case, is his filter that provided the content for his message. Indeed, wet floors seen through his cultural filter can either mean a flood which would have been resolved by maintenance but as it continued to occur was interpreted as urine on the floor. In addition through his emotional filter, caused by the fact that he knew that he was transferring his knowledge to people who would be taking over his job, there was no empathy or attempts to better understand the origin of the liquid on the floor.
2.1.2 The message
The nature of the message was to inform users of the gents, in this case, employees of the Indian company that they should urinate in the toilette and not next to the toilet. The content and meaning are emotional and subjective. It is a disguised way of accusing people of being careless and even dirty. The content also indicates how people should behave when going to the toilet in Switzerland. The communication code used here is non-verbal and more specifically graphic. It really shows what the transmitter thinks about what the liquid on the floor is and, given the timing of the message, who the drawing was addressed to. The canal used was a drawing created using PowerPoint and the medium was a wall at the “scene of the crime”, the gents.
2.1.3 The recipient
The recipient or in this case recipients were not specifically named but, given the nature of the message, they immediately knew it was addressed to them (the employees of the Indian company). Their comprehension of the message was clear and one can even say that the communication process was successful if as the recipients understood the intent of the transmitter. However seen through the lens of intercultural communication it is a total failure given the reaction of the recipients who went to their own management to complain. This, combined with other incidents as mentioned earlier forced the Swiss company to take measures to resolve the cultural problems the working relationship was encountering.
2.2 Cultural Configuration
Employees from the Indian company are from a large power distance4 culture versus employees from the Swiss company who have both a national and organisational culture that is much flatter and equalitarian. This is relevant in this incident as the employees of the Indian company considered employees of the Swiss company as their hierarchical superiors. For them to imagine that these same people could have thought of them doing this was insulting. Indian people are very discrete and prudish and to have displayed an intimate act so publicly was very upsetting.
Furthermore, they would never have themselves expressed their feelings that directly which only made things worse. As India is more a collectivist culture than Switzerland and thus the expression of feelings is more of a collectivist expression versus an individual one, this image, perceived through their cultural filter, meant “they all think this”. They probably did not realise that it could have been the expression of only one individual.
The Indian consultants came from Kolkata and Bangalore, and the majority of them were of Hindu religion. An interesting point is that despite the distance between Kolkata and Bangalore (approximately 1600km) and the existence of many cultural differences within India5 these cultural differences between Indians from Kolkata and Bangalore did not surface. They all formed a new group and saw themselves as Indians working abroad and therefore it was the Indian “national” culture that was dominant.
I have often noticed that when people are faced with a same problem or issue, they tend to group together and focus on the issue to solve versus the various differences that they may have. Differences which were an issue when there was no common problem to focus on suddenly are not or less relevant.
2.3 Individuals involved
The individuals involved in this particular incident were one person from the Swiss company and employees of the Indian company. Although employees of the Swiss company had voiced their feelings about the “water in the gents”, none had actually taken any measures such as the drawing.
From the beginning, the perception certain Swiss employees had of Indian employees was filtered by the reason for the presence of the Indian employees. It was after all for them to acquire the knowledge of Swiss employees to be able to replace a certain number of skills that were held within the Swiss company or by consultants of other Swiss companies.
Swiss employees feared for their jobs and the jobs of their colleagues. They knew that transferring their knowledge would lead to an internal restructuring of resources and that the operational activities would be done in India. This led to demotivation and delays in the knowledge transfer activities.
The “water in the gents” incident is an emotional reaction that built up over several weeks. There was no attempt to try and understand or even discuss the issue orally. This type of emotion, shared by others, was expressed by one individual. He felt free to show his feelings through a very explicit picture but using an implicit manner to convey them. He was not interested in the point of view of others and only his mattered and was correct in his eyes. This led to a lack of collaboration in the knowledge transfer exercise.
Emotions and feelings were not only felt by the employees for the Swiss company. The Indian employees had left their home country, sometimes their families and had to function in a new country where amongst other things the food was different, a new company and even a different language when they were not working. As mentioned earlier the welcome was not very warm and they were well aware of the reason of their mandate.
2.4 Social actors involved and contextual social frames
The two “groups” involved in this story are from two distinct national cultures. There alone many differences can be noticed as described earlier. On the one hand, the Swiss employee was of Swiss national culture, worked for an international company, was in his thirties, single, with a comfortable income and lived in one of the richest countries. On the other side were Indian employees of Hindu religion, mainly vegetarian from a developing country.
I will not list all the differences here but would rather draw the attention to the fact that when looking at the individuals from either the Indian company or the Swiss company there were almost more similarities than differences. They all shared the area of education which was IT, they all managed projects according to international standards and worked for leading international companies, they were mainly all men in their late twenties, early thirties and they all spoke English. On a face to face communication, people actually got on well together. However from, a work/project perspective, the perception was not that of the individual but that of the group meaning “the Indians”.
3 Conclusion & Recommendations
Two key observations can be made. Strangely, in a department such as IT where project management skills are promoted, one of the most important things is planning. In this case, the planning was mainly done on the operational level but other levels such as communication management, resource management, and change management were left out. According to project management principles, most of the time should be spent on planning and not execution. Change management would have been very valuable in this “outsourcing” project. The change was happening at an internal level as development and maintenance activities were being outsourced to India and internal resources were going to be reduced and also at a communication level.
The employees of the Swiss company were going to have to communicate with people from a different culture but also change the communication channels they had been using. After the knowledge transfer activities had taken place, employees had to communicate using other methods and channels than face to face because the Indian employees were operating from India. This also limited the possible contact because of time differences between the two countries. The communication channels included email, e-collaboration platforms and the phone.
The second observation is “the human factor”: an aspect that is very often ignored or underestimated in project management but also in many other areas. People, their reactions, their feelings and how to manage them is not easily quantifiable and therefore the management skills thereof are referred to as “soft skills”. The cost that would have had to be determined is “how much will it cost if things go wrong?” In this case, it was the cost of having to organise intercultural awareness sessions for all employees and consultants, for employees to attend the sessions including the management team and employees of the Indian company. There was also the cost of having to ensure special catering to accommodate Indian eating habits. The extra time and effort spent to explain and supervise activities to people that were not located in the same country.
My personal contribution to this was to try and make employees of the Swiss company aware of cultural differences. I organised a departmental drink with Indian consultants and started it off with an icebreaker exercise to start team building. This enabled people, to a certain extent, to get to know each other on a personal level and move beyond the stereotypes and reason for the Indian employees’ presence.
Someone once said to me “never assume”. In the case of the “water in the gents” incident this piece of advice would have been very useful because it really was not what it looked like”.