Bringing people together

With operations in four countries, Tata Chemicals is a strong believer in the power of a common language in bringing together people from different cultures

When Tata Chemicals (TCL) kicked off its rebranding exercise a couple of years back, there was one decision that required much discussion — the rebranding of its operations in Kenya. The others were simple enough: the operations in the United Kingdom (formerly Brunner Mond) was renamed Tata Chemicals UK and the operations in Wyoming, US (formerly General Chemicals Industrial Products), was renamed Tata Chemicals North America. After much deliberation, the name for the Kenyan unit was agreed upon. Tata Chemicals Magadi it would be.

So why would a company with global aspirations attach the name of a town to itself rather than that of a continent or a country? The answer, to put it in the simplest term, is 'inclusivity'. It was a decision largely driven by the people factor and the recognition of the deep emotional connection that the people of the Kenyan town have with the name 'Magadi'. The rebranding of Magadi Soda Company was a process that saw the company engaging extensively with the local community and employees.

"We sought feedback from local stakeholders. We had focus groups with the local communities and employees at Magadi. We realised that they were very attached to the name 'Magadi' and that they very much wanted the name to be retained. So it was a decision based on inclusiveness," says R Nanda, vice-president, corporate HR, TCL. At the heart of the matter was a deep respect for the culture and identity of Magadi and its people. "It was a truly people-focused campaign and this inclusivity actually helped the rebranding process," adds Sujit Patil, head of corporate communications, TCL.

With operations in four locations — India, the US, the UK and Kenya — cultural diversity is a way of life and work at Tata Chemicals, but company officials say it is not a huge challenge as yet owing to the fact that only the chemicals business, which is largely a B2B, manufacturing-driven business, has gone global right now. Here, too, the movement of people has so far been fairly limited and need-based.

Ever since TCL started its acquisitions outside India, there has been a small movement of people from one location to another for the purpose of skill transfer. These are usually time-bound assignments, wherein both the person moving to a specific location and the existing team at that location are clearly aware of the purpose and period of that movement. According to Mr Nanda, such clarity is very important to make the move easy as well as productive.

"Moving from one culture to another can lead to some level of frustration if not handled properly. Usually such movements are more successful if the person has had some interaction with other cultures before being sent on an assignment," he says, adding companies often offer such exposure to employees by placing them in cross-cultural teams and by sending them on short assignments to other locations. "After all that, there will still be some apprehension; the only way to manage that is through effective communication and involvement of the local HR team."

Samir Shah, part of the internal audit team at TCL, moved from Mumbai to Magadi in January 2010 and his preparation for the African adventure involved a lot of interaction with colleagues who had been to Magadi before him. "Prior to coming to Magadi, we met colleagues who were deputed at Magadi. That gave us a fair idea of the systems at Magadi. Since English was the common medium of communication, that was never an issue. If there was any (other) problem, I just walked into the office of the HR director and discussed it with him."

Keeping communication lines open, then, seems to be the simplest and most effective way to manage the challenges thrown up in a culturally-diverse work environment. That, and a genuine respect for the various cultures and cultural nuances that one encounters in such a workplace. Taking care of social and workplace etiquette is also extremely important. Thus, while it is routine for Indian managers to call up colleagues after work hours and on holidays to discuss work, most other cultures don't take kindly to such a practice. "It's a definite no-no to call up a colleague on Christmas Eve and discuss business. Managers need to understand and be sensitive to these differences," says Mr Nanda.

With its managers located in various continents and time zones, managing time to suit everyone is a constant challenge at TCL. One solution was agreeing on a commonly convenient time to schedule conference calls: 6pm IST, which is the earlier part of the day in the US, the UK and Africa, and not too late for India. "A serious focus on punctuality and adhering to deadlines and commitments, especially with time management, does help in managing meeting etiquettes of a diverse workplace," points out Mr Patil.

"We need to visibly demonstrate respect for the local culture as well as the culture of the organisation. This helps in gaining acceptance. Having done that, if we find scope for improvement in doing certain things, we can discuss with our colleagues and implement change in a gradual manner. But the starting point has to be respect for local culture," says Mr Shah.

A culturally-diverse workplace environment also implies an ongoing process of dialogue and discussion, even if it may not be overt at all times. It's a process that eventually leads to a greater understanding and appreciation of the cultural 'other'. "In the early days of TCL's acquisition phase, the company flew down employees from various locations to Mumbai for an extensive workshop that aimed at teaching cultural diversity and nuances of a multicultural workforce, apart from the business processes. We wanted to create a common language where people said 'we' and not 'I'," says Mr Patil. The underlying message was that despite the differences in culture, language and nationality, TCL employees had a shared vision and a common goal.

TCL is a strong believer in the power of a common language in helping companies overcome the problems posed by cultural diversity. The company, along with its employees, has co-created a framework that defines the four 'cultural pillars' — proactive cost focus, agile execution, inclusive collaboration and enduring care — that are easily communicated and understood by employees, no matter where they are located. As Mr Patil points out, in an organisation that has employees from various cultural backgrounds, speaking different languages, "it is important to have something that binds them all together". Unity in diversity, as they say.