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Outsourcing lessons atop the Himalayas

world Updated: Oct 23, 2008 23:00 IST
Reshma Patil

The world of Indian call-centres is remote from the Himalayas. But it is from some of the world’s highest mountains that an American woman drew lessons to teach US managers how to get along and work with Indians.

During the early days of business outsourcing a decade ago, a classic example at intercultural trainer Arlene Blum’s workshop went like this: An American asks his Indian colleague to work on Saturday. “It’s my son’s birthday,” says the Indian, indirectly saying no. “Oh, how nice of you to come to work on your son’s birthday,” beams the American, who only understands direct responses.

During her first visit to China this month, Blum described to HT her insider’s glimpse into the early days of India-US business ties. “There were classes on how to do business with Japan but not India’’.

The biophysical chemist, Stanford and Berkeley professor, and the first woman to climb some of the world’s highest peaks is the author of Annapurna: A Woman’s Place. It’s the best-selling story of the first American all-women expedition she led atop the world’s tenth-highest Annapurna mountain in Nepal in 1978.

Risky expeditions and travels across rugged north India led to the design of Understanding India workshops for companies like HP and Sun Microsystems in the US. “In the mountains, your lives depend on overcoming cultural and communication differences,” she explained.

She brought similar business communication gaps into focus. “It was very hard for the Americans to give feedback to Indians,” she said. “The Americans would think they were praising and the Indians would think they would be fired.”

She taught companies that Asians considered it important to build relationships before getting down to work. “The jet-lagged American would prefer to go from the airport to the plant, while the Indian would say, let’s have tea.”

In China and the US, Blum is now campaigning against toxic fire retardants used by chemical companies in furniture. She’s looking for researchers to study the subject in India, where she collected many memories.

From 1981-82, Blum hiked through Bhutan, Nepal and India. “Living in Indian villages seems less tough than being in Beijing,” she smiled.

She also chatted with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “I was surprised she was shorter than I expected her to be.”