This week’s column is named after and inspired by Alisha Chinai’s eponymous superhit from 1995. This patriotic number talks all about Alisha Chinai’s desire to meet a dashing virile male who is Hindustani and not at all “Englistani”.
To which I always have only this to say: “Yes Alisha. Tell me.”
But semi-jokes aside, this week I would like to dwell on a very specific aspect of brand Made In India. Let me explain.
A few days ago, I was having a chat with a foreign journalist. Due to privacy concerns I can’t say which country she is from, but can only confide that it is one that rarely wins the Ashes.
“So have you seen Outsourced?” she asked me when I told her about this column. I am sure some of you have heard of or illegally seen this show already. It is about an American chap who is asked to move to Mumbai and run a call centre. Culture shock!
She told me that the show was somewhat popular and asked me if it was representative of Indian office culture. I promised her I would watch it at some point and analyse.
But wait. One minute. Is there such a thing as “Indian office culture”? Something that would hold itself up against other well-known office cultures such as the Japanese, American or Teutonic?
Now I am sure we could make some clichéd generalizations about Indian offices being hierarchical, unpunctual and chaotic. But I am looking for something more concrete.
For instance, look at some of the other famous “cultures”. The Americans are informal, highly collaborative and not averse to confrontation. Japanese offices are supposed to be highly efficient, punctual, deeply aware of hierarchies and insanely intense. The Germans, some Googling tells me, are more work-focused and deliverable-oriented than most. And French offices are usually remarkably quiet. Because they are all out on strike.
So how would you really characterize an Indian office culture? I Googled up the term “Indian office culture”. And got a massive list of six results.
The only useful link was a Hindustan Times story from 2007 about a study by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where researchers observed how 103 engineers across four US and two Indian high-tech firms spent their day at work.
Key observations: US companies wasted more time on meetings than did Indian companies. The average US meeting had more people (eight versus five) and went on for more time (55 minutes versus 47 minutes). The researchers said that this was because Americans liked to involve everyone, while Indian companies only summoned relevant folk.
Consequently, Americans tended to multitask during meetings—read email, surf the Internet, invade nations to free them of tyranny and hydrocarbons— more than Indians. Multitasking was observed in 46% of American meetings and 20% of Indian meetings. The researchers also observed that Indians carried less work home, got more done in office, were more focused and always had a leader in meetings. The Americans had more “diffused leadership”.
Duly noted. Next, I searched for the phrase “office culture in India”.
This gave me 10 results. Few were usable. Two made references to the fact that we “still have office boys in India”. (Who are really second in ability, power and networks only to the CEO. But still.)
The most interesting result was a business school case study that looked at the many troubles suffered by an English information technology company called Sierra Plc while setting up a branch in Bangalore in 1999.
The study makes interesting, if mildly voyeuristic, reading. The gist of it was that the company tried to transplant “a little bit of Sierra UK in India” and failed in epic fashion. There are many quotes by expat Sierra staff who sound flabbergasted:
“The London office is much freer. A typical example from the UK is when someone joins us we open a bottle of champagne. People casually mill around say ‘hi’ and move on. Here I am expected to make a speech. 20% drink, 80% don’t, we have some soft drinks for them to get people to loosen up. In the UK everyone drinks.”
(I know. Which disgraceful engineering college did these techies graduate from? Soft drinks it seems. Unless the remaining 80% were smoking pot.)
In general, the expats found Indians too aware of hierarchy, silent in meetings, lacking a thirst for knowledge, obsessed with technology and ignorant of business requirements.
LOOK, SOMEONE HAS AN IPAD IN MY OFFICE!
Sorry. Where were we? Ah, yes. Sierra finally shut the Bangalore centre in January 2000 and relocated the Indian developers to the US and the UK.
At the end of all that I am left with a set of negatives and a smaller set of mild-positives. To that I am also going to add, in desperation, jugaad. (That institutional Indian ability to take a terrible situation, salvage it somewhat and blame the rest on Pakistan.)
Surely there is more to all of us desi cubiclists than hierarchy and insularity? Any expats out there? Or people with multicultural experiences? Should we call a meeting to discuss this? I can be leader. Done. Tomorrow at 5pm. Ish.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama