Mountain View Masala
High-tech firms are turning to Indian cultural training to boost performance.
By Rachel Rosmarin

(Business 2.0) – Last August, Intel software manager Connie Martin arrived for work and received a new identity. She was handed some fake rupees and a nametag that read "Rekha Gupta," and was told that she now hailed from a northern Indian trading family. For the next eight hours, she hit the books, studying the subtle dietary differences between Jainism and Hinduism, Indian political history, and Bollywood movies. At the end of the day, she was given a test on it all, which she aced. "I can even tell you how things changed under British rule in the 1800s," she says.

A North Carolina native, Martin is a graduate of "Working With India," an optional training class that Intel began offering to employees in 2002. With an estimated 400,000 Indian nationals in Silicon Valley--and roughly a third of the 65,000 new H-1B visas issued by the United States in 2004 allocated for Indians--companies such as Adaptec, AMD, Intuit, and Rockwell Automation have also held similar sessions during the past year. "Indian cultural training is at the top of the radar screen right now," says Lisa Spivey, director of business development at Meridian Resources, an intercultural-training company.

But while diversity classes are sometimes simply a tactic for reducing employee lawsuits, Indian cultural sessions are targeted more squarely at improving performance. According to Ashok Mathur, an associate at Charis Intercultural (which runs Intel's Indian cultural training program), the biggest problems addressed by the classes are communication breakdowns around conflict. Sometimes Indian employees "make promises they can't keep to maintain harmony, but then they'll run into problems at the end of a project," Mathur says.

That's what happened at Adaptec, a Milpitas, Calif., maker of memory hardware, where managers requested Indian cultural training after a major chip-manufacturing project ran more than a month late. "My gut feeling was that our Indian engineers didn't understand the sense of urgency," says David Sommers, Adaptec's vice president for engineering. After employees received training from both Meridian and Charis--which included everything from lessons on communication styles ("yes" doesn't always mean yes) to tips on how to distinguish first and last names in various clans--Adaptec's next chip came in on schedule. "Things became more predictable, with fewer problems that I could attribute to cultural differences," Sommers says.

Classes usually take place on corporate ground in a conference room, facilitated by contract trainers. Charis's Mathur begins with a lecture on culture and history and then introduces role-playing scenarios to illustrate communication do's and don'ts. He also shows films about Indian life and, time permitting, orders in curry. Often, Indian employees also take the training. An Intel corporate services manager who hails from New Delhi found himself suddenly popular among non-Indian co-workers attempting to pronounce their new Indian names. "The training builds respect for India and its people," he says. "I watched my colleagues broaden their horizons."

Some companies have instituted more extensive training. Eighteen months ago, to kick off its Indian Global Immersion Program, chipmaker AMD flew teams of Indian IT workers--at $7,000 a head--to Sunnyvale, Calif., and Austin for a month of cultural training with American managers. Addressing the group, Frank Edwards, AMD's manager of global leadership and development, cracked a joke about a non-Indian colleague's pair of shorts. "[Our Indian workers] found it a bit off-putting," Edwards says. The lesson learned? Until they've spent some time in the casual workplace culture of many U.S. high-tech firms, Indian employees are more likely to assume that a corporate setting is a formal one.

As talented, well-paid Indians flock to Silicon Valley, even the real estate industry is studying their ways. In October, after housebuilder Warmington Homes California received requests from Indian buyers for videotaped key ceremonies, home blessings, and religiously significant escrow dates, the company signed up for Indian cultural training. "These are move-up buyers of million-dollar homes," says Cheryl O'Connor, Warmington's vice president for sales and marketing. "It's good business to honor their culture." -- RACHEL ROSMARIN