Global cultural integration: HR shows the way

The term ‘Global village’, once just a fancy term has now become a reality that can be readily experienced everywhere.

The crowded outlets of McDonald’s and growing customer base of multinational banks will vouch for that. Undoubtedly, various organisations are seeking to expand their presence globally and are always on the lookout for new territories to grow; here’s an interesting dilemma they face: How can an organisation having a global presence maintain its individuality, while also assimilating various local cultures, traditions and practices? What are the factors that can help instantly bond people, no matter the location?

These are some of the soft factors in global integration. These soft factors are not governed by policies, or framework, these are not the hardwares but the softwares which facilitate writing codes of bonding, acceptance and mutual trust.

Typically, the HR department is entrusted with the implementation of corporate policies and plays a significant role in instilling a homogenous culture throughout its branches. However, the HR group faces multiple challenges during the globalisation process. When a company sets up office on foreign soil, there are ethnic and cultural differences, while in the case of acquisition and mergers, there are differences in corporate culture that would need to be addressed.

The first step towards achieving integration is to create a global mindset within the HR group itself. It is followed by understanding and studying the practices, policy systems, service terms and conditions prevalent in the two organisations, the mapping of these practices recognising the similarities and the gaps to fill. The other element, when designing a policy framework, is to understand the respective country’s culture and the local law of the land. While there is always an easy route like applying universal policies throughout the organisation, but such a step carries the risk of detaching people emotionally from the company, and may lead to employees considering the organisation as ‘just a corporate entity’, and not the ‘family’ they belong to. On the other hand, allowing too lenient a policy and accommodating local customs can compromise on the professionalism and work culture associated with an organisation. It is said that 70 per cent of time the merger efforts fail, the reasons are the absence of the emotional, soft factors.

It is imperative to patiently evaluate the existing processes and practices of local business units, before considering a universal policy. More often than not, it could turn out that the local customs actually complement the corporate organisational policies.

Moreover, the integration process should be looked at from a human and humane perspective to achieve a long-term connect with the employees globally.

Some of the specific issues faced by the HR department during the globalisation process and possible initiatives to counter that:

1. Different ethnic cultures

It is of utmost importance to realise the inherent cross cultural boundaries and remain flexible. A strong corporate culture should not be imposed, and there should be a leeway for customising it in accordance with the local traditions. For example, in some countries, it is perfectly fine to ask about age and marital status of a person, while in other countries, it may be considered rude or even illegal! Similarly, in some regions, team management and collective work is emphasised more, while in another, individual performance is considered superior. Hence, the HR group needs to be emotionally intelligent and geographically aware, when it comes to acquisition and retention of talent.

2. Varied corporate cultures

The HR department should design corporate working environments keeping in mind the comfort level of employees in different geographies. In essence, everyone should be on the same platform when it comes to the ‘what’ of achieving, however, the ‘how’ of it can be left to the discretion of the concerned location. The corporate culture varies from continent to continent. The challenge for the HR team is first to understand the difference, absorb it and then adapt it. The bigger challenge is in sensitising the internal folks to build acceptance towards different cultures. 

3. Different time-zones

The other element is cementing differences and creating a cohesive and global workforce by means of effective coordination and inculcating a global mindset. In this day and age of video conferencing, virtual gatherings do not pose a problem and the HR group can play a significant role in connecting the employees using these means. However, varying time zones and location separated from the mainland with limited telephone access may still need to be addressed in a different way. For effective collaboration between offices working in different time zones, employees need to be empathetic about other’s comfort levels. If a person sitting in India shows sensitivity towards work and personal timings of a person in the USA, and vice-versa; it builds a much healthier environment. For example, if someone in India needs to call someone in Chicago, USA, the best time to do so is in the evening before the end of working day and not after coming in to work in the morning, since it would correspondingly be late night in Chicago.

4. Global learning platform

Implementing learning and training practices across locations could prove another big hurdle for the Learning and Development department. Some organisations now employ a ‘chief learning officer’, who takes care of global trainings to bring out the best in employees. Some firms even conduct special training programs, wherein the goal is to spread awareness about a specific culture and language of a country. They cover topics such as language, food and cultural understanding, international protocol and more, on a macro level. The need of the hour is to think innovatively, in conduct training and introduce learning initiatives globally, through webinars, videos, etc. At Geometric, we also conduct various knowledge sharing sessions, webinars and seminars covering a plethora of technical subjects, which not only helps train but brings people together based on their common passion for technology.

5.Connecting with employees

No matter where employees are located, the thing that makes them human remains the same- emotions.  There is a need to create communication forums, and platforms for the employees so that there are channels open to communicate, be it then the company information and directions, or grievances or issues of the employees. The other means to connect are at ‘soft factor’ level. This includes fun contests and exhibitions wherein family members of employees can partake. Many companies have  organised various competitions celebrating employee’s bonds with their family members and share their experiences with colleagues.

Whilst the above are the soft factors, there are other hardwares that are being implemented, like aligning with the business goals of the organisation, common driving factor for the performance management system, rewarding good performance, recognition practices and a few more.

This is possible only on a strong foundation of values of the organisation, which include policies on religious tolerance, business confidentiality, non tolerance to gender discrimination, among other things.

The initiatives listed are by no means exhaustive. A progressive thinking, creative and emotionally intelligent HR group can come up with more ways of connecting with employees worldwide helping retain a global identity without overly compromising on local customs. Global integration is an ongoing process, one that should be always evaluated and evolved accordingly. To that effect, the human resource management systems must be adaptive, tolerant and should have a flexible attitude towards creating strategic human resource practices.

(The writer is VP & Global Head, HR and Organisational Development, Geometric Ltd)

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