In today’s fast evolving technology environment, the CIO role has become quite demanding. In the past, CIOs typically dealt with issues related to the usage of technology to advance the business goals. Over the last five years though, the growth in mobile device usage, the advent of cloud computing, and the resultant information security challenges have drawn the attention of many a CIO. As many businesses are looking to expand to global locales for a variety of reasons, CIOs are expected to face new challenges in 2015.
The reasons for global outreach may vary. Some businesses are chasing new markets in emerging economies, some are exploring local customer service centers for more efficient and faster customer support, while yet others are looking to tap into local talent pools to improve their research and development capabilities. However, for each of these scenarios, the CIO needs to step in to create the right technology infrastructure to support business goals. This introduces multiple problems for CIOs tasked with foreign assignments. The issues are not always purely technology solutions, the realm CIO’s are most familiar with. Issues and challenges often fall into the cultural domain relating to how the foreign teams work and also how they use technology.
Sanjay Malhotra, currently CTO of Clearbridge Mobile, was positioned in Sharjah, UAE, a location with rather extreme working conditions, for his first foreign assignment as CIO. The pressure to perform was immense. “I found that people expected much more from a foreign transplant because as the outsider, I was brought in to help solve some very specific, high impact problems,” shared Malhotra. “For me it was exciting to be working in a completely different environment with new people, culture and problems. The experience has shaped how I work and think about issues that arise even today, from both a people and process perspective,” he continued.
On his foreign assignments, Brian Greenberg, CIO at Akrete, found that understanding the cultural differences was the most important requirement for success. “My first foreign assignment was in Mexico. The cultural differences and attitudes about work and business were the most surprising experience for me. I am from Chicago, with a Midwesterner’s work ethic. Pretty much the kind that says you stop working only when the job is done. Of course, the job is never done. I learned to appreciate a greater sense of balance in my life working in Mexico. It was with that appreciation that I was able to look up and see all the wonder of what it was to be in Mexico and appreciate life in, and out of, the office,” says Greenberg.
Malhotra has similar experiences and often found the culture and work pace while on foreign assignments, was much more relaxed than the fast paced work mode so common in North America. He advised, “From a management of people perspective you need to understand the culture first. You always have to do the right thing for the business, but take into account people move at different paces around the world. What we take for granted in the West does not always translate very well in other cultures.”
According to Greenberg, the key is to be open and accept the differences: “First, have an open and welcoming mind. Try not to bring too many assumptions with you. They’ll just cripple your experiences. “Remember: ‘This isn’t Kansas anymore, Toto’.”
Greenberg believes speaking the language, or at least making an honest attempt to, can significantly improve chances of being accepted by the local teams, “Even if you are terrible at languages like me, at least learn the niceties, greetings, asking for the bathroom, etc. And always try to start interactions with the native language and customs, no matter how bad you are at it. Be humble and apologetic and that courtesy will set the tone for a good relationship.” Sharing from his other foreign assignments, he continued, “My second assignment was in Japan with the same language hurdle to overcome. However, I was there a lot longer and took weekly languages classes. I read everything I could on Japanese culture and approached every experience with a sense of wonder and humility. I was able to make many friends in Japan, an experience described to me as somewhat rare for Westerners.”
At times access to basic technology can create unforeseen hurdles. One example Malhotra shared related to basic Internet access, “I take for granted that the Internet would just work. But after a few hours on site found out that people had come to accept an outage and worked around it. For me this a deal breaker, so I moved to solve this problem quickly. I appeared to me that the local staff had taken this as a given. They didn’t want to deal with all the bureaucratic mess and issues to get it fixed, so just accepted it. There was also an issue that lower level staff was not likely to report issues, because it made their manager look bad. But from my perspective, the pain and cost to business was too great. I had to figure out the issues and go solve it.”
While there are many layers to dealing with cross cultural issues, Malhotra’s advise sums it up, “As CIO, you are there to solve a number of key issues and build a great team around you. Evaluate the people and processes and then move quickly to implement the things you know work.”