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The 'USP' of Indian managers

By Kanika Datta
December 30, 2005 11:01 IST
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Now that China and India are the flavour of the times among the global investing community, someone once asked me to list the key differences between Chinese managers and Indian managers.

Not having much experience or chance to observe Chinese managers, I found this hard put to answer. The only difference I could perceive was that Indian managers were probably more fluent in English than their Chinese counterparts, an attribute the late Shunu Sen assured me was more invaluable than we guessed.

A few days later, a comparison did come in from an American of Indian origin who works in a large multi-ethnic firm in the US. He suggested that Indian managers were all "talk talk talk" while Chinese managers were more work- and performance-driven.

Again, I cannot speak for Chinese management. But even for the most steadfastly non-jingoistic observer, that description of Indian management was surely unfair.

There are, to start with, any number of highly rated Indian managers at middle and senior levels in leading global corporations, some even heading them with notable success, to comprehensively contradict that notion.

And it is probably unwise to taint all Indian managers with the same generalisation. Just as it is to describe Indian managers as outstandingly brilliant as many people are wont to these days.

In fact, now that India Inc is feeling awfully good about itself, I hear a lot of self-congratulation on the "world-class" quality of Indian management and managers in India. At one seminar, adults actually stood up and cheered like callow undergraduates when a self-styled consultant of "Indian management techniques" made this observation.

This outlook, too, is unwarranted and immature. Overall, managers in India are probably as good or as bad as management anywhere - the quality of talent is, after all, a function of exposure, as a debate -- Do expatriates make better managers? -- pointed out.

To be fair, managers in India do have cause to feel on top of the world. The India story today is their story, of adjustment to the threat of competition and extinction within just a decade. But as Gary Hamel once observed, nothing forces efficiency more than a threat to a company's survival. In that respect, India Inc did what was needed to stay the course and succeed.

But one fact that often goes un-highlighted is that this journey really demonstrates what I consider the USP of the Indian manager. Reams are written in consultancy and business journals about how India's potential would be "unleashed" if only we got things right on the policy front.

With the right infrastructure, labour laws, foreign direct investment norms, tariffs there is no telling what heights India could reach, they rightly say. Look at China, everybody says, and how beautifully they have "planned" their entry into capitalism.

The point, however, is that India Inc's turnaround and current centrality in global investment focus have taken place despite these deficiencies.

And that's a pretty strong achievement to talk about. Consider the irony. Here is China with its terrific infrastructure and carefully orchestrated reform programme, cosseting the investment it wants and turning itself into the factory of the world. And here is India, with its unbelievably bad infrastructure, law and order problems, high-level corruption and creaky policy machine, which now finds itself ranked alongside China as a high-growth engine.

It is telling that a recent survey conducted by A T Kearney says India and China rival the US when it comes to business competitiveness. Of the 300 US and European executives polled, 59 per cent said their competition would come from China and 45 per cent said it would come from India. Despite all its deficiencies, India has not only become the world's back office, it is increasingly being eyed for its manufacturing capabilities as well.

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If Indian management has anything to be proud of, it is the ability to succeed and achieve global standards in what are still undoubtedly and unabashedly Third World conditions.

It is an ability that goes well beyond merely "working the system" to creating a mindset that looks at creative solutions to seemingly insoluble issues.

In fact, had the "Indian management" guru highlighted this particular talent, he would have been spot-on. The ability to compete efficiently under such handicaps is probably a unique talent among the significant emerging economies of the world. It is an ability that will stand India Inc in good stead as it steps into the maelstrom of global competition.

The views expressed here are personal
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Kanika Datta
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