Globalisation : Puzzle Palaces

James M. Spitze cofounded the Systems Consulting Consortium (SCC) in 1986 and now serves as its managing partner. He has spent over half of his 30-plus-year career as a CIO for companies with overseas operations. SCC is a San Francisco-based IT-focused management consultancy.

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Since the mid 1990's, a growing number of CIOs have been faced with overseas responsibilities. Unfortunately, many CIOs are engaging in on-the-job training as they tackle their expanded roles, just as I did before I knew better. Expect to exit with residual scar tissue.

After 30 years of experience managing information technology for large organizations around the world, I am still surprised by the effects of national differences. When a U.S. company builds a new factory in China or Mexico, or opens a sales office in India or South Africa, the company's CIO is expected to provide the normal telecommunications and computer-based systems for those facilities, often in double-click time. However, even where English is the primary business language, differences in culture, infrastructure and the availability of skilled staff have a meaningful impact on current business activities.

The average per-capita gross domestic product of the United States is almost five times that of most Latin American people, almost eight times that of most Chinese and nearly 15 times that of someone living in India, according to The Conference Board in New York City. Less money means weaker infrastructure, including electric power, telecommunications and-most important-education.

Almost one-third of the people in the Middle East can't read, more than 40 percent in Africa can't read, and almost half the people in South Asia can't read. And far more people can read than can add and subtract. Think about what that could mean when you try to take a physical inventory in one of these countries.

My own lessons learned began with cultural nuances. A few years ago, I had the task of reorganizing a large division of one of the Near East's most important and most prominent energy enterprises. My client was the division chairman, and he and I quickly developed an excellent working relationship. I started by interviewing all of the management staff to get to know who they were, what they did and especially what they might be capable of doing. After a few weeks of this, I pulled together a first draft of a new organizational chart.

When I showed it to the chairman, he laughed. I had failed to factor in the all-important family relationships. There simply was no way that Bob would work for Sam or that George would accept being one level lower in the hierarchy than Jim. In this particular culture, I had behaved like a good but unaware American.

What to do ? One of the chairman's assistants and I put all of the senior executives' names and salaries on individual 3-by-5 cards. Then we spread out the cards on the boardroom table and started rebuilding my tattered organizational concept. With the assistant's gracious help, we moved the cards here and there in a semilogical fashion until we hit on an org chart that was both rational from a U.S. point of view and cognizant of family relationships.

When we showed it to the chairman, he made a few changes based on family antipathies only he knew about. He was happy, and I had learned a lesson.

A few years before the card-juggling act, I was the vice president and CIO of a major U.S. company with divisional offices throughout the Far East-Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea and the Philippines. In each of these countries, there was a fairly large IS department that theoretically reported to me.

I thought it would be a grand idea to have a unifying project that we could all work on. "Brilliant !" my boss said. We were both wrong.

We were a large U.S.-flag containerized shipping company with a good share of the Pacific Basin business. Our business systems varied from port to port, and our customers were frustrated with our inability to track their cargo in a timely and accurate fashion. My scheme was to have each country-based IS unit develop a part of the overall system. We carefully selected a standard hardware platform, a standard database and a standard developmental language. An experienced and respected project manager was chosen. Requirements and specs for the various modules soon began to take shape. At our port sites in the Far East, programmers worked diligently. Soon modules were being tested.

Then the day arrived when the module developed in Country X went with its development team to Country Y to install it there-and my grand concept began to unravel. Mentally, the two countries were still fighting a war I hadn't even heard of. The people from Country Y found it difficult, at best, to work cooperatively with the people from Country X. Progress quickly ground to a halt. Failure loomed-and I have a strong aversion to failure.

Again, what to do ? Luckily, the problem was pretty obvious to everyone involved. The two IS groups were uncomfortable working together. We had to separate them and make the Country Y team feel that it was in control. Onsite testing by the receiving country proved to be an approach that worked. It made everyone feel that they were truly playing an important role in a global project. We snatched victory from the jaws of defeat but should have seen the problem coming much earlier. Another lesson learned.

In most foreign countries, unseen cultu ral issues hide under a very thin Americanized veneer. A foreign business associate might seem to you to be quite similar to your American business associates. However, that is rarely the case, and the sooner you learn the key differences, the better.

Beyond the specific language-related example mentioned earlier, there is the general problem of "language" that is often somewhat hidden beneath the surface. This is one of the key issues in any overseas relationship. Almost everywhere I have traveled overseas, including countries where English is very much a second language, most of the people I have worked with have spoken fair-to-excellent English.

Here's the kicker. Although they can speak English, that most certainly does not mean they can really understand it-quickly and correctly-when they are listening to it. Many times, in Italy, Germany, France, Singapore, Japan and other countries, I have caught a sort of garbled response at some point in a discussion and, after some cautious and courteous questioning, discovered that the person I was talking to was only partially understanding what I was saying.

My best advice is to slow down, use words of fewer syllables and sometimes try to say the same thing in two or three different ways. Being patient and courteous is essential. Communication gets easily confused when you speak rapid, complex and idiomatic English and the other person is stuck on your third word.

As a CIO, you will need to deal with weak infrastructures and fairly obvious shortages in expertise. These shortcomings are relatively easy to accommodate-a bit bigger diesel generator, a bit more effort and a bit longer to hire the required staff. It's the cultural differences that can prove damaging. Watch out for historical antipathies, national pride and a more relaxed pace of business than we have in the United States. National differences absolutely, positively must be considered, and ways of doing things that would not be at all normal in the United States may have to be accepted as standard practice if you are to achieve your goals. It's not all bad. It just takes some adjusting. 

© Copyright James Spitze 2004

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