Center offers courses in global adjustment: Programs help companies learn cultural differences

November 28, 2005

In India, where cricket is the sport of choice, telling an employee he knocked the ball out of the park with his latest proposal most likely would confuse him.

The communications gap and other cultural contrasts between the United States and a country such as India can be as vast as the 10-hour time difference.

So, as local software developer Sigma Micro Corp. prepared to launch operations at what it refers to as an off-shore development center in the city of Cochin, executives knew they needed a crash course in Indian culture.

Enter the International Center of Indianapolis and its multicultural staff that, with its pack of programs, can cater to companies branching beyond U.S. borders.

The International Center has been assisting citizens with cultural challenges since its inception in 1973. But as global business opportunities arise, employers increasingly are seeking out the center to provide assistance in bridging those divides within the workplace.

"A company like Sigma Micro has an awareness that the world is [its] marketplace," said Caterina Cregor Blitzer, executive director of the center. "The companies that will grow will be aware of the need for training."

The center has conducted roughly 50 sessions for business and government since the start of the decade and might cover topics ranging from workplace ethics to communication etiquette. The object of the one- or two-day gatherings is to give participants a grasp of what they will encounter, whether they're hosting expatriates or working abroad.

In Sigma Micro's case, however, the relationship with its Indian counterpart is much different. While executives will visit the Indian operations a handful of times each year, and vice versa, much of the rapport will be built via text messages, e-mails and phone calls.

"We're certainly trying to have the element of face-to-face interaction, but we are certainly in a virtual world," said Matt Konkle, Sigma Micro's CFO. "We tried to educate both sides, because the communications path is the critical success factor."

The company sought the center's assistance before moving projects to its subsidiary, Ind-Sigma Infotech Private Ltd., in mid-September. The managing director is Mukund Krishna, who formerly was with Powerway Inc., another locally based software firm.

Although a 10-1/2-hour time difference separates the two locations, employees have perfected a schedule that limits inconveniences, Konkle said.

Sigma Micro blocks out time from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. each morning, which is the end of the workday in India, to handle conference calls and map out projects. If the matter is urgent, employees here can make calls or send e-mails from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., the beginning of the business day in India. Their Indian colleagues then have a full day to work on a particular issue, and when Sigma Micro employees return to the office the following morning, they have the information, Konkle said.

During the center's cultural training, in which roughly 30 employees from the local office participated, Indian employees introduced themselves via videotaped recordings to their peers in Indianapolis. They also have exchanged photos.

"We're trying to do joint company efforts to personalize the relationships," Konkle said, "because there's a face to the name and a person to the name."

Assuring the Indian employees that it is all right to voice concerns has been part of the learning process, too. Unlike in the United States, where employees might vent frustrations to their superiors, the Indian culture is steeped in respect for authority; workers often frown upon raising objections, unless they flow through the correct hierarchy.

Established in 1982, Sigma Micro develops software for large retailers such as Sears, Lands' End and Foot Locker. Faced lately, however, with the conundrum of turning down work due to a lack of manpower, the company sought India and its booming technology market, Konkle said.

Competing software firm Baker Hill Corp. enrolled recently in the International Center's program after being acquired by Massachusetts-based Experion Systems Inc. on Sept. 1. The purchase may lead to prospects in Thailand, where eight executives will be visiting potential clients, said Holly Cunha, Baker Hill's director of human resources.

"We currently don't have any signed contracts, but we need to be prepared on a very quick basis to be able to respond to a client's needs," Cunha said. "That's why we thought this program would be a good fit for us."

Cunha said the center came highly recommended to Baker Hill from other human resources professionals in the city who have used its resources. During the training session in mid-November, the center invited a local businessman who lived in Bangkok to speak to the contingent.

Getting them familiar with Thailand's geography, government and demographics is critical, Cregor Blitzer said, because, although it is impossible to become an expert overnight, visitors do not want to embarrass themselves, either.

Bettye Ellison, international and domestic relocation manager at DowAgro Sciences, doubles as president for the Indiana Employment Relocation Alliance.

Ellison said the international center is the only not-for-profit in the city to offer such cultural services and her organization appreciates the experiences staff members bring. Italian, English, French and Malaysian cultures are among their backgrounds.

While companies might be seeking more global opportunities, Cregor Blitzer credits her staff's broad diversity, and increasing competence, for the increased demand in the programs.

Ellison concurred.

"When they say they really have been through this," she said, "they mean it."
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