Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Culture matters

Everything is possible!” I realized that I was smiling as the sales manager of our Romanian team punctuated his spiel about the higher investment we committed to their market. We were in a ski resort (in Brasov) where proudly they had organized the meeting. “Queen Mary had a castle here,” says one and pulls out an iPhone to show me the castle. I then shared that I was putting together a paper – “Culture in the workplace: How culture is created and maintained” – that I will present in September to the culture-management community of Europe, SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education Training and Research), in Tallinn, Estonia.

This community is apparently keen to hear how a small enterprise in a small ex-socialist country, Bulgaria, could spread their presence in numerous countries in the relatively short period of ten years, overcoming daunting barriers from the get-go: (a) especially competitive pressures from Western behemoths that were flexing their muscles; (b) with neighbors like Greece, Romania and Hungary that showed them no respect; and (c) even in their own country foreign retail chains didn’t want to sell their products. But they wanted to help themselves. They've created a culture in the workplace that they’ve carried across several countries, and are thus confident to push the business across the globe – and bucking and outperforming the shrinking EU economy.

They inspired me to start my blog, four years ago, about how the Philippines could reinvent itself as an economy. A once small enterprise can’t compare to a country, but as I’ve told my Eastern European friends, the US of A was not even in the map when their countries already had their respective histories under their belts. And it always starts in the mind. In the Philippines, how do we help ourselves? Granted that PHL is a young nation and is going through its gilded age, but there is enough knowledge in the world today to leapfrog development barriers. For instance, Vietnam and Cambodia – both once conflict-torn – have overtaken us in rice farming? Or Indonesia able to attract several times more in FDIs (foreign direct investments) than we do? To truly appreciate the 21st century globalized world, must we toss parochialism and hierarchy aside?

We were naïve optimists [college dropouts] and thought that we could create big companies,” says Gates to Charlie Rose about Jobs and him. And I would say to my Eastern European friends to look at Edison, Jobs and Gates as models – that what they can think they can create. “We’re not here to make cheap products (despite being in a poor country) but to develop products that understand the person of today and tomorrow and their wellbeing." In the Philippines we’re still about the big boys, the big deals they add to their portfolio of businesses? We’re finance- and deal-driven not about creating value for the consumer – reflective of our cacique culture and the one-percent character of Wall Street? [If the administration was pleasantly surprised by the strong Q1 GDP, the real winner is if we surprise Juan de la Cruz and deliver on structural reforms – which, unfortunately, remain pure rhetoric in PHL?]

I was in our Bucharest (Romania) office when I was shown a copy of the first order from Asia that my Bulgarian friends and I negotiated when we were there last February. While the Romanians were interested to hear about Asia, they were also keen to know about their two compatriots that had moved on to assignments in Western Europe. But then I would recall that "made in Bulgaria" did not appeal to these people. Yet today they are proud to be part of a rapidly growing Eastern European enterprise. Clearly they have embraced the workplace culture that the enterprise has successfully carried across several countries. “It is our ‘mentality’ that has evolved and changed.”

They have raised my awareness about the challenge of “learning” and the “process of thinking” – from linear to incremental to lateral to "starting with the end in view" to quantum leap to Einstein’s “the value of education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.” And the reality that cultures are dynamic. “The culture of the organization should always be learning and developing.” [Michael Watkins, Harvard Business Review, 15th May 2013] But to us Pinoys, our culture is cast in stone? And not surprisingly, we’re celebrating our 2000 competitiveness ranking in 2013, and masking our reality of having been left behind?

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