This month’s article is different than usual. Instead of interviews and analysis, I am sharing a true story, because it perfectly illustrates the cultural differences that Western and Asian teams need to overcome.
The story takes place in Amsterdam, at the VU university.
Three law students, two Dutch and one Indian, work together on an assignment. The assignment is to prove that the professor’s hypothesis is incorrect. During the project, the Indian student does not give any input. The Dutch students are irritated – they are doing all the work. Once it is complete, they ask the Indian student to do the final proofreading, literature reference list, et cetera. A simple job that shouldn’t take much time.
But nothing is forthcoming. The two Dutch students keep on asking where the final report is and all the Indian student responds with is, ‘Don’t worry, I’m working on it, it will be ready’. And finally, one hour before the deadline, she submits it.
What do you think she has done……?
She has completely re-written the entire report. Her Dutch peers go ballistic. They think their Indian co-student is completely stupid and perhaps a little insane.
Is she indeed stupid? Very doubtful, she’s clearly intelligent otherwise she would not be a law student. Is she insane? I should hope not! So, why did she do this?
The problem, as you may have guessed, is the nature of the assignment. In her eyes, the professor is the ‘oracle’ of Amsterdam. He is an authority. You don’t tell him that he is incorrect. The reason why she never contributed to the assignment, is because it went directly against her values.
What’s interesting too, is how she handled it. Instead of telling her fellow students that she felt extremely uncomfortable about the assignment, she did not say anything. Nor did she contribute. Rather than going against her peers, she came up with a different solution: re-write the report and submit it so late that her fellow students could not submit the original report.
A combination of complete conflict avoidance and ‘saying yes, doing no’.
I see the same on the work floor, not only in India but across the Asian region. Usually, on the ‘professor level’ – also known as senior management– people are super intelligent, outspoken, decisive and a pleasure to work with. Their Western peers are super happy and don’t see a lot of cultural differences. The differences are felt much harder on the ‘student level’ – also known as the operational level. When you work on projects, problems and delays are unavoidable. But when feedback is lacking and you find out about problems at the last minute, professional trust gets a hammering and the project does too.
I see this happen especially when there is a ‘new’ element. A new team in India or a new team in the West. A new project. A new type of work assignment. Knowledge transfer. The word ‘new’ always raises a red flag in my mind, and it usually goes wrong at the start. For IT, this is both extremely relevant. IT is at the forefront of both front-end innovation and back-end (RPA) improvements. Almost everything is new!
To illustrate how ‘new’ can impact your project, we shared a real life example during an SSON webinar last month. Joost van Daelen, Director GBS Project Management from Akzo Nobel, explained how a new RPA implementation – a seemingly simple first bot – took 13 months to develop, instead of 6 weeks.
The cause was different expectations on how the project would be handled, miscommunication, and a too junior project lead on the vendor side. At the root of this miscommunication and mis-expectation lie cultural differences, just as the students experienced.
Digital transformation is really about human transformation. Human transformation in a global environment. For this reason, cross-cultural communication within a local context has been declared as the #3 skillset* of the future.
The good news is that I see a hunger on an operational level to learn. They really want to understand and learn. How are India and rest of Asia different? How can I understand, recognise and anticipate that things are going wrong? And once I think it’s going wrong: how can I fix it? This positive attitude will help IT to truly be at the forefront of transformation.
* #3 ranking is derived from 2 different lists citing cross-cultural collaboration:
Organisation: Institute for the Future. Report: Future workskills 2020
Organisation: Singularity Hub. Report: 7 Critical Skills for the Jobs of the Future