Cross-cultural Advice

From "PD in the News" on 20 February 2013:

Why the Brits are better than us at business in India


Stephen Manallack

Australians should look at how the UK manages the subcontinent's culture and values.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is not only leading his country's biggest ever trade mission to India, including Rolls-Royce and BP, he is also showing how to mix business and politics by announcing faster business visas, lifting of limits on Indian students and promoting cultural links.
In the federation that is Australia, our biggest missions are now led by state premiers and while the numbers are great, the political level lacks real clout. Cameron's mission is diverse - businesses large and small, soccer's Premier League, universities and the British Museum are all there, along with four senior government ministers. It will be noticed, even in busy India.
In recent years, record numbers of Australian business leaders have headed to India with high hopes. The Victorian government, for example, has its second ''super trade mission'' going in March with substantial financial support for attendees. But even though their numbers match the UK team, will they be noticed?
The answer is yes, but not at the same level. One reason is the shifting view in India as Indian companies expand globally, with icons such as Jaguar and Land Rover now in Indian hands. A growth in confidence and the fact that ''the world is knocking on their door'' mean they do not take notice of every new visitor.

British success in India has been based on high levels of cultural sensitivity and most trade missions only follow substantial cross-cultural awareness programs and preparation. For example, delegates are fully aware that the Indians they meet have acceptance of change hard-wired into their psyche - they thrive on it. These delegates also know Indians are less specific in plans and contracts, which can be disturbing for newcomers.
Trade mission leaders need to go with something concrete to offer and while our premiers make a good go of this, the best offerings come from Canberra.
Through close levels of contact, the British are prepared for the speed of modern India - yes, it is still true that lots of things take twice as long over there, but in the new India some business activities happen at the speed of light. Businesses need to go prepared to deliver on a product or service right now, not just having some idea for a future opportunity.
British missions often include some element of philanthropy, while our own record has been patchy - some philanthropy but not every time. The Indian business leaders these missions meet have built generosity into their personal and business life - typically they rate people issues and community above share price as priorities - and choose to do business with others who share their view.
Ratan Tata, who recently stepped down as chairman of Tata Group, India's biggest conglomerate, summed up this generosity: ''Some foreign investors accuse us of being unfair to shareholders by using our resources for community development. Yes, this is money that could have made for dividend payouts, but it also is money that's uplifting and improving the quality of life of people in the rural areas where we operate and work. We owe them that.''
Although we see the British as formal and stuffy, in India they show the capacity to go with the flow and quickly tune in to ''Indian time'' and the flexibility that requires - while it is true that too many Australian missions fill their days with appointments and reduce flexibility.
Another adaptation that works well for the British missions is their culturally acquired sense of diplomacy and politeness, which they take to higher levels in India. The Indian culture is one that is often offended or at least misunderstands blunt communication - a challenge for our cultural background.
Indian culture provides masses of room for nonconformists, and so too does Britain. Diversity of dress, styles of doing business and personal contact are to be expected over there. Your host might want to talk about diet or spirituality instead of your product and it is wise (and fun) to go with the flow. Our Aussie ''tall poppy syndrome'' makes nonconformity increasingly rare and we are just not used to it.
For all that, Australian missions whether state or national do generate substantial business and contribute to closer relationships with this powerful neighbour.
India's nonconformity is supported by a ''can do'' belief and many find success there - as more Australians head over there with optimism, India's great thinker Tagore can be your inspiration: ''You can't cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.''
Stephen Manallack is a cross-cultural adviser and author of Soft Skills for a Flat World.

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© Deborah L. Trent 2019