Corporate Service Corps

A Triple Benefit
Communities have their problems solved.
IBMers receive leadership training and development.
IBM develops new markets and global leaders.

New Zealand Herald: IBM is promoting a new spin on the big OE

New Zealand Herald, 25/10. Global volunteers do the business

IBM is promoting a new spin on the big OE, reports Ashley Campbell

W HEN IBM IT architect Mike Goddard set out for a month in Tanzania this year, he thought he'd probably "experience a new culture, meet new people and be exposed to different ways of thinking''.

He wasn't prepared for how different that way of thinking would be - or how the cultural differences would change the way he approached life and work once he got home.

You can see the point of change. Two weeks into his stay, he wrote a blog called Infrastructure, what infrastructure? "I'm writing this (in Word) with no real idea of when I will be able to post it to my blog,'' he wrote.

"The internet is so slow today that I can't even open an email, think dial-up then slow it down some more. It is amazing in just five short years how dependent we are on the internet for all aspects of our work, and I didn't really appreciate this until coming to Tanzania.''

Goddard's epiphany came as he was taking part in a ground-breaking IBM leadership development programme - the Corporate Service Corps. With eight other IBM employees, from Costa Rica, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, he was among the first of 600 leaders-in- training to experience the reality of business in a developing economy.

But they were doing more than business - they were involved in projects that would have a positive impact on their host communities. One hundred people have been given that chance this year - another 500 will experience it over the next two.

Goddard's task was to develop training manuals and streamline stock control and distribution systems for KickStart - a Tanzanian NGO that manufactures and distributes foot- operated water pumps to farmers, who often don't have electricity and can't afford to run fuel-powered equipment.

Many large corporates have leadership development programmes that include an element of community service. Few include it in a developing country where the corporate hopes to grow its market - and also expect a diverse group of employees from several different nations to deliver it.

But the Corporate Service Corps brings all these elements together, says IBM New Zealand's managing director, Katrina Troughton.

"What can we do to assist our leaders of the future in this world, particularly in areas such as the diversity of people we work with now?"

"We are increasingly seeing things as very global, so how do you give people experiences that are beyond their backyard?''

As well as giving IBM's potential leaders those experiences, the programme shows new markets that IBM is focused on understanding them and "becoming part of the environment'', she says.

Cultural diversity looms large in any global corporate and learning to navigate it takes time and experience.

For service corps members such as Goddard and IBM project manager Mike Stevens - who is preparing for a month-long stint in eastern Turkey in January - much of that experience occurs even before they leave the country.

Each team of eight or nine people has tasks to achieve and is expected to start working on them several months before they depart. That means group emails and international conference calls (usually in the early hours of the morning for the Kiwis) to build an effective working group.

"I've seen that already, as part of the build-up,'' says Stevens. "Just [among] the nine people we've got on my team - it's fostering quite a community structure.''

After numerous emails and conference calls, Goddard says he was actually nervous about meeting the other members of his group in person.

"It was just that expectation that in 40 hours' time I'd meet the people that I'd been working with on phone calls and emails for the last three months or more ... I didn't think that was going to affect me like it was.''

He also didn't realise that, although the team members all spoke English, they were often saying very different things.

"Just hearing what the client was saying within the room, I'd interpret it one way, Sara from Italy would interpret it another way ... and we were all partly right, so we'd have to go back and actually say, `Did you mean this and that?'''

It's a lesson Stevens is learning, as his team from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, China and India prepares for its role in helping the Chamber of Commerce in Mercin, Turkey, beef up its tourism portal.

"We have to talk in very simple terms.''

In Tanzania, the lesson was further reinforced for Goddard as he worked on KickStart training manuals.

"The people who've asked us to generate this material were English- speaking and Swahili was like a second language.

"But the people they're going to be giving this presentation to are the dealers, and Swahili is their primary language. So are we actually writing this as we'd present it to a client here in New Zealand or the US?''

Reviewing the communication challenges, Goddard reflects that some people learn painfully after several misunderstandings, lost contracts or opportunities: "I think the key thing is always seeking that feedback of understanding and that you're using language that's appropriate.''

And then there was that epiphany - realising how he had come to rely on the internet, often to the exclusion of human input.

"Everything we do here, whatever I'm working on, whether that be KiwiSaver or Westpac or whatever else, just involves researching things on the internet. We came in with these expectations of what we'd achieve if we were at home.

"As Yohji [the Japanese member of his team] and I sat down, we looked at things differently - `this isn't going to work the way we're used to working. How can we work more effectively?' A lot of that came about by networking and reaching out.''

Another lesson: "They have a saying over there, `poli poli', which is `slowly, slowly'. Faced with all these challenges, I think we run around way too much. Over there you make sure you say hello to everybody [in meetings], `Habari, how are you all?' And then get down to business. Rushing into a meeting - `Hi I want to know this, let's go, bang' - is very offensive.

"Perhaps we do charge around too much and lose sight; the task becomes more important than the person. Over there it's very much the person and the interaction with the people is still more important than the job.

"Not saying that it's not important to get things done, but it's just reversing it a bit and chilling out a bit more and relaxing.''

This, says Troughton, is a vital lesson for Western businesses.

"Are we spending the time thinking or have we got ourselves caught up in the 200 things we have to do? Because, especially when you're talking about innovation and change, actually you need that space for thinking.''

And time for appreciating what you have. On a trip to one farm, Goddard realised how simple things that we take for granted can have a profound effect on the lives of others.

"We actually went to some dealers and some farms to understand the issues. One farmer was explaining to us how he got his pump through World Vision and paid it back through three harvests, and he now had enough money to send his kids to school, he could buy them medicine when they were sick, he could give them clothing.

"That to me was one of the moments of this trip.''

While Goddard's experience has changed his approach - and Stevens is sure he'll have similar experiences - the idea of rich Westerners magnanimously offering their wisdom to those in less developed economies can smack of condescension.

But even if someone started off with such an attitude, it wouldn't last long, says Goddard.

"Within the first couple of days of working with people there, you realise you cannot go in with your thinking about `I'm going to fix this as I would fix it at home' ... The only way to be successful is to understand that culture and take time to get to know the people.''

Which is a vital lesson for anyone engaged in a global business.