Monday, December 17, 2012

Developing a subculture

A British culture-management consultant was comparing notes as she was preparing for her workshop with a North American company for its team in Eastern Europe, which also had folks from Africa. MNCs are able to operate across cultures and markets because it is able to create a subculture – and it supports the conventional wisdom that necessity is the mother of invention? From within an MNC the perspective could be that simple yet from the outside it could be overly complex? For example, in the Philippines we’ve had a love-hate relationship with MNCs and expatriates? And that reality is reflected in the World Bank’s metric re “ease of doing business” – i.e., we rank number 138 behind our neighbors Vietnam (99) and Cambodia (133) as well as Indonesia (128), China (91) and India (132). Indeed we are fortified against the outside world, reminiscent of the old walled city of Intramuros? While quantitative analyses may say we are still a better choice for businesses than India, Vietnam and Cambodia, the prognosis may not hold true over the longer term. That is, if we remain unwelcoming of outsiders and fail to recognize that our inherent parochialism (which preserves our cherished hierarchical structure) won’t propel PHL to become a developed economy.

And while we’re preoccupied with our inward-looking worldview, the rest of the world is moving forward. After apologizing for being on the phone, a Bulgaria taxi driver explained what was going on: “Our Company wants to distinguish itself from everyone else in the business and so whenever I notice something that is undermining the effort, I offer ideas. I work directly with clients and they tell me what works and what doesn’t. We charge more than others yet Carrefour (the French hypermarket chain) signed a contract with us and we are the only taxi company allowed in their taxi stand. And we are in the process of signing up more firms like hotels. And so I was telling the dispatcher that the game is very simple and we must always be defined and perceived as the better choice, like no other.” This man was born and raised under communist rule – and ten years ago that was obvious from their crumbling infrastructure . . . and even beyond, especially in their “mentality” as my friends would explain.

The British consultant was discussing a culture-management conference in Tallinn, Estonia in the fall of 2013, and we were considering presenting our Eastern European experience. And if we do, I would talk about this taxi company and my Bulgarian friends. [Beyond the recognition as one of Europe’s best and fastest growing companies, they were feted on 6th December 2012 by the European Excellence Awards for a recent multi-country product launch alongside global brands Braun and Axe.] Thus it shouldn’t be surprising when I think about it, why in “ease of doing business” Bulgaria (66th) ranks ahead of the Philippines (138th). But should it prick a Pinoy’s ego?

I had always assumed that Bulgaria would rank worse than the Philippines given what I walked into ten years ago. And as my Bulgarian friends would relate, “Barbados, we found out, is not for us. It is perhaps British but definitely not Bulgarian.” They want something less organized and more rowdy. They have their version of Filipino time, for instance. They could create bottlenecks while driving – and thus can use basic road courtesy. And so it is amazing to me still that within its organization my friends have developed a subculture – of transparency, being vision-driven and focused and disciplined. It did not happen overnight. They struggled to migrate from their “Bulgarian culture” and “small-company” mentality. Indeed they were torn: they saw their initial successes as coming precisely from their culture and their entrepreneurial bias. But as the business grew, it became clear to them that the challenge has likewise grown beyond their comfort zone. They had to learn that an MNC, which they have become, as a matter of necessity, needed to create and articulate a subculture.

A business is an economic activity that must pass the test of time. And that is a universal need. It must be inclusive in the true sense (not our crab mentality), i.e., deliver benefits to an expanded and expanding clusters of constituencies beyond the short- and the medium-term and over the long-term. And world-class companies have demonstrated longevity beyond a strictly parochial setting. And they don’t have to be from the West; they could be once dirt-poor Eastern Europeans that are able to develop a subculture that has universal appeal. But is that asking too much of PHL?

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