Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cultural Diversity In Silicon Valley Companies

In the present day, we often hear terms such as “global economy” and “diversified workforce”. A quick survey of my current company and workgroup provides some very strong evidence of this global scope and diversity.

Some facts about my current workgroup in Silicon Valley in 2009:
Industry: Technology Application Development and Support

52% of employees located out of state
28% of employees located in Silicon Valley
19% of employees located outside the country

30% of employees are not originally from the US
20% of employees have learned English as a second language
Most of the foreign born employees are from India, China, and the UK

What about the boss?
The Director of the workgroup is originally from the UK and the next two higher levels of management are also originally from the UK.

We use Instant Messenger, Email, Telephone, Video Conference
Phone conferences with accommodation to international time differences

Everyone has a cubical in a common area which our Human Resources group calls the Open Office Environment

Typical Workday:
Often starts early (6 or 7 am) from Silicon Valley perspective and ends late. (8 or 9 pm)
Long hours are another accommodation for international time differences.

Who do we work with?
Support the global operations of an international company. A person from virtually anywhere on earth may contact us directly to resolve an issue. Paradoxically, though we maintain physical presence in other countries, our actual operational support personnel are located only within the U.S.

What about “Cultural” diversity?
Although it is popular to think of our diversity as cultural, it is not truly so. Despite the diverse nationalities of employees in a typical Silicon Valley company, the only culture you are likely to see on close inspection is corporate culture.

Corporate culture is all about conformity, also known as team building. All through the day employees attend meetings, view presentations, and read email which is all presented in a common language which I’ll refer to here as “corporate speak” (i.e. rollout, alignment, resources, infrastructure, outsourcing, or just insert one of the common buzzwords here.)

You shouldn’t bother to look for cultural diversity in a Silicon Valley corporation any more than you would look for cultural diversity in the strip mall among the Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Home Depot stores. Welcome to Anywhere, USA. The next time you hear someone talking about cultural diversity in the corporate world, ask for some examples. Perhaps the only thing you’ll hear is that some people bring different kinds of meals from home to heat up in break room. It is still quite common to see groups of people huddled together and these groups are separated by race, ethnicity, nationality, or language. The existence of diverse culture apparently does not equal the opportunity for sharing among the diversity of cultures.

Once I heard a preacher extolling the congregation, saying “if you believe in God” (he reaches in his pocket for coins and holds up his hand), then “show me the change”. He wanted to know what would make such a “believer” any different from the average person, not by their appearance but by the way they live. Culture presents a similar opportunity. What does it mean to Chinese or Indian? Yes, these cultures are present in the Silicon Valley workforce but what do we know about them? What do theses cultures tell us about themselves? Day by day, we come to work together, a culturally diverse lot for sure but we’ve come to “work” and the blinders are purposely on when it comes to understanding the culture of people. Instead we invest the minimum energy it takes to blend with the corporate image and to conform to corporate standards of language and behavior.

At the end of day, we are all assimilated no matter if we were born in China or South Carolina. We each begin to echo the corporate-speak and we dutifully fall in line with the common vision. One company executive recently asked employees to wear bright colored rubber wristbands and memorize the company values and mission statement. The wristband signifies belief and solidarity with the corporate vision. Even more dulling to the senses, we begin to see the world from the point of view of a multi-national corporation. We speak corporate and we understand corporate. To live in this world for so many hours each week can become quite a challenge to one’s individuality and I’m sorry to say that we acquire very little knowledge of the cultural diversity of our fellow workers in compensation.
What was it like before the world became smaller?
Having thought about what it is like to work in the connected world, I decided to compare and contrast this situation and how it was when I first began working in the valley.

Some facts about my first workgroup in Silicon Valley circa 1978:
Industry: Technology Recruitment Advertising

Notes on the workforce:
Location: All of the employees are US nationals based in
Communications: Phone; Telecopier (no voicemail; no computers)
Meetings: Call the person or go to their desk
Workspace: Most people share offices, two to a room
Workday: Approximately 8 am to 6 pm Pacific Standard Time
Who do we work with? Besides the people in the office, it is mostly customers located within the valley or the people who work in the newspaper offices in San Jose, Palo Alto, and San Francisco

My Self Discovery Interview:

What do you like about the present day corporate world? Opportunity to make money abounds.

Any drawbacks? Well, you need to conform and be a good corporate citizen. It is very rare now to see individual expression and effort rewarded for anything but the most arcane technical creations.
How to survive? Learn how to think for only the short term and remain flexible and adaptable to constant change without question.

What do you miss about my first Silicon Valley job of long ago? Everything happened in one place. We ate lunch every day too, right around noon.

Everything in one place seems rather confining. It’s true that there was not much in the way diversity in terms of nationality or culture, but we had a bit more of something that is missing in today’s world.

I’m intrigued. What did you have then that “missing” now? It is not so easy to get at but I think I want to call it “intellectual diversity”. To put it simply, I’m talking about diversity of opinion and diversity in the way reasoned things out and solved problems. We didn’t have as many rules to conform with then. The modern corporation has adapted itself to provide a common experience and expectation to both its customers and its employees. For intellectual diversity to truly exist and to maximize its potential, there cannot be a continuous pressure to conform. The fruits of intellectual diversity are the creative ideas and exchanges that keep life from growing stale. They help give meaning to life at work. I fear that too many people have settled for a life at work that is devoid of meaning.

But isn’t there a conflict here? You seem to be saying that modern corporations are subject to constant change, yet at the same time everything is about conforming to the corporate image. Well you have that right. Management of the modern corporation is all about assimilating change and then implementing conformity to keep things under control. Unfortunately, intellectual diversity has become a potential disrupter that must be carefully managed or maybe even looked upon as an enemy.

You seem to be looking at the modern corporation in the same terms and discourse one might observe in a totalitarian government. Is this any different than the kind of critique we are more used to seeing concerning communist, socialist, fascist, or theocratic governments? What the devil? This is getting uncomfortable. Shouldn’t we have a break? There’s a Starbucks just around the corner.

The intrepid interviewer is not dissuaded. His brow furrows and he leans forward intently.

Aren’t you trying to say that corporations have become dangerous to the American ideal? The free market system and rights of the individual are like two sides of a spinning coin that is only in balance while spinning. When the coin settles to the ground, it becomes a matter of “heads I win, tails you lose”. Both sides of the coin contain aspects of the “ideal” but when they are out of balance with one another, it can be a dangerous thing. The market pays to produce until you over produce and then penalizes you for having back inventories that no one wants. Unfortunately, we can’t always react fast enough to prevent the damages resulting from over production. We are at risk for producing too much junk and too much conformity too fast.

Great! Thanks for the simple explanation! Well, it remains the job of the free press to keep asking questions and stepping up to sound a warning, to say “the right thing” so to speak and convince people to “do the right thing”. Our founding fathers didn’t conceive that a journalist would exist only to entertain people by reporting news and emphasizing the extravagant, the weird, or the horrible! The free press is supposed to be one of the pillars of our society, a potential counter weight to an over controlling or out of balance corporation, government, religion or any group of people intent on imposing its will on others.

Any last thoughts? Back my younger days I wanted to become a journalist, thinking the day would come when I’d have something important to say and I would be in an established position with a good opportunity to say what needed to be said. What soured me on that career choice was that I began to see that print and television news had become formatted and predictable. Everything must conform in way that sponsors and advertisers would appreciate to serve the bottom line. The news corporation exists to make money and subject to the same pressures as a multi-national technology corporation to justify its existence in that way.

Any more hopeful last thoughts? Yes, maybe there is an opportunity for a free spirited person to make good use of this amazing global communications tool. To make an end run around the censors and encourage a free flow of information and let the effort live or die on its own merit.

Created by Bill Keys

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