Music of the Hemispheres

Economic Times - June 27, 2007

What sets Corporate India apart from its western counterparts is to do with their differing responses to chance. We will experience such differences more intensely as India gets further globalised.

It isn't fashionable to say so in these days of globalisation, but my last few encounters with global corporate America have been tough. The difference in cultural wiring is becoming obvious by the day and cope strategies that enable me to be myself, and not a poor imitation of them, must be devised.

Of course, there is no difference on all the big stuff like how to calculate ROCE and what the best practices of corporate governance are. But it's the small stuff that tends to stress one out. Like, for instance, the repeated requests to rehearse a presentation from the podium at the venue of the big meeting, even after we have agreed on the content, the format, the target group, the key numbers and the key messages. After one such incident, a friend reminded me that Americans usually even have formal rehearsals of their weddings, so why is the thought of their wanting to rehearse a presentation so surprising?

And then began an investigation of why they were so uncomfortable with not having the final performance nailed down in advance, while my comfort level with improvised final presentation was so high. No, it isn't that we Indians do not like process or love to ramble on or have no discipline unlike the great nations of the west. It simply is the difference in the way we think about rules, as can be seen from the difference between the genres of Hindustani classical music and western classical music.

In Hindustani classical music, there are tons of rules that are sacrosanct. However, within this framework of rules, the final performance is unknown, not scripted in advance. It is not a set piece of music like western classical sheet music. In Hindustani music (think the analogy of business presentations as you read this) we are micro-managed by all manner of rules down to which three hours of the day a raga is allowed to be sung in, the gharana dictates the style variables of the singing beyond the rules of the raga itself, the structure and the grammar of concert are as per generally accepted principles and so on. Even the several nuances and departures from the main raga are governed by another explicitly recorded set of rules. Yet, despite this corset of rules, the final performance is largely improvised. Even the accompanist on the tabla or the violin is improvising, since there is no set piece and he or she doesn't know what comes next.

I explained all this to the head of emerging markets of a large, leading edge American multinational in the technology business. Being a musician himself, he got it instantly - ahh it's like jazz, he said. He readily volunteered that corporate America ran meetings and projects and programmes in the western classical music genre. He said that, of course, the ultimate trick that high achievers in his company had was to work with the outward appearance of western classical music but to actually do the real work jazz style, instead. This Chinese American, with high ambiguity tolerance, had certainly set a stretch target for my future development! He then went on to ask whether Indian business leaders ran their organisation in Hindustani classical music style or the western classical music way. Tough question that!

If the anecdote doesn't convince you, there is an entire body of work relating to the original brilliant work by social scientist Geert Hofstede, who had identified five dimensions on which cultures were different. "Uncertainty avoidance" is one of these dimensions. Doubtless, all of us who work with western business counterparts are familiar with this difference between "them" and "us"!

Hofstede describes this dimension as "dealing with a society's tolerance for uncertainity and ambiguity... It indicates to what extent a culture programmes its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unkown, surprising, different from usual. Uncertainity avoiding cultures try to minimise the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on the philosophical and religious level by a belief in absolute Truth; 'there can only be one Truth and we have it'. The opposite type, uncertainty accepting cultures, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side". Could this be a source of competitive advantage for India and not our Achilles heel?

A question that has bothered me is why this cultural chasm is far more apparent now, than it has been in the past. My explanation is taken from the theory of diffusion of innovation by Everett Rogers (1962 book called Diffusion of Innovations). He said that the adoption of any new idea (in this case, the idea of doing business with India) would follow the pattern of a bell-shaped curve, with different groups of people coming in at different points in time after the idea was launched. The first to embrace the idea would be 2.5% of the relevant population that he called "innovators", followed by 13.5% who he labelled as 'early adopters'. Over time they are followed by the much larger number of the 'early majority' and the 'late majority (34% each), and finally the last to come on board the idea bandwagon are the 'laggards'(16%).

In the early phases of liberalisation, we saw the innovators and the early adopters of the idea of innovating and changing in order to do business in India - people who are by definition more open and less hidebound. We are now coming into contact with the majority, as the idea of the doing business in India gets more widely adopted, and these are more sceptical and traditional by definition. According to Rogers, the first 16% are far better educated and aware of new ideas as compared to the rest. This means that cultural chasms will get even more pronounced as we see subsequent lots of corporate America who are forced to adopt doing business in India / China / emerging markets.