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Why do some U.S. HR departments succeed in Asia and others fail to comprehend and capitalize on the opportunities that these emerging markets present? A lot has to do with understanding the point of view of the Asian workforce and integrating it within an organization’s culture. Asian talent presents a great opportunity for American organizations and successful companies are integrating Asian talent by making them a part of executive teams; treating Asia as an academy for global leadership; and gaining from the region’s appetite for creativity, ingenuity and succeeding against odds.
Asia’s Cultural Diversity Is Complex
There have been many attempts to systematically study Asia’s cultural differences with the West and the most important ones are well highlighted: Eastern cultures are less direct; less confrontational; more conforming to social norms; more Parent-Child than Adult-Adult; more consensus-oriented and have a greater respect for authority. While these are largely true, the nuances are more difficult to understand and apply. Culture varies from country to country and within regions in each country. Stereotypes do not apply. Also, people who succeed and grow in American companies are often the outliers within their native cultures. One factor that derails achievement of goals is when there is a local subculture that is at odds with the prevalent company culture and prevents implementation of strategies at a local level.
Disparities Make Generalizations Difficult
In addition to cultural differences, Asia is riddled with disparities that make generalizations and holding a simple uniform view difficult. Some of the key disparities in the region include:
*Huge economic disparities: some of the fastest growing engines of the world economy exist side by side with the poorest regions in the world; slums exist next to some of the most expensive residences; and the pay differences between the highest and lowest paid person in the Asian organization is far greater than in the developed economies.
*Religious and philosophical systems: most of Asia has a wide array of religious and philosophical systems, and they are sometimes difficult to comprehend. One of the most fascinating and baffling aspects is that the really big questions—what is the purpose of life? What is the role of family? How should life be lived?—have been answered differently in the Eastern religions and philosophies. Answers to these questions translate into thought systems and approaches to decision making and problem solving as well as social affiliations in the workplace.
*Social structures: while largely unseen in professional worksplaces, regional and caste affiliations have a history of thousands of years that is hard to shrug off.
These disparities make the region difficult to navigate. From an HR point of view, a nuanced understanding of the workforce is both important and difficult.
Sharad Verma is senior HR director, SunGard Global Technology, based in Pune, India.
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