Indian engineers actually think differently than western ones do

From Dick Morley: FROM A READER Clash of the Mindsets: How Indian And Western Engineers View the World Differently Posted by Navi Radjou on July 1, 2008 11:36 AM Western multinationals like GE, Microsoft, Siemens, and Google are shifting their R&D to India (read it here), eager to tap into its vast reservoir of creative engineers and scientists. These multinationals are either building captive R&D centers in India, or contracting out their R&D work to India-based service providers like Wipro, which employs over 10,000 R&D experts. For followers of global business, this is not a surprising development. But the reverse trend is also happening: Indian companies with global ambitions are tapping into highly-specialized R&D talent only available (thus far) in the West (read it here). For instance, India's top utility vehicle maker, Mahindra & Mahindra, just acquired renowned Italian auto design house GRD. And Suzlon Energy, the world's fifth largest wind turbine manufacturer, conducts most of its R&D work in Germany and Netherlands. I recently asked senior execs at both Western and Indian multinationals with R&D operations across US, Europe, and India what challenges they face in managing their firms' transnational innovation networks (read it here). They pointed out that the biggest hurdle is socio-cultural, as Indian engineers think and act completely differently than their Western colleagues. The former, growing up in a red-hot economy, are animated by a "growth mindset" whereas the latter, operating in mature economies, are stuck in a "settled mindset." These two opposite approaches clash when they are asked to collaborate on a R&D project. Why? Because Indian and Western engineers completely differ in their: 1) Reasoning. Unlike Western engineers, who reason with a predicate logic (a statement is either true (1) or false (0)), Indian engineers solve problems using a fuzzy logic (the degree of truth of a statement can range anywhere between 0 and 1). Both reasoning styles have their own merit. In the exploratory stage of product development, Indian engineers' creativity and flexibility help solve ambiguous technical problems with imprecise data. But Western engineers' quest for predictability brings stability to the development process later as it gets closer to commercialization. One Indian exec who manages a multinational R&D team joked he felt like a diplomat as he must constantly broker peace between uncertainty-loathing Western engineers and ambiguity-loving Indian scientists! 2) Problem-solving. Given their average age (mid-20s), Indian engineers belong to the Generation Y (read) , or the Millennials, who learn through hands-on experiments (think video-games) and peer-to-peer interactions (instant messaging anyone?). When solving a problem, these grown-up "kids" harness the multiplicative power of social networking (read) tools to experiment with multiple solutions simultaneously, and select the optimal one based on peer input. You can call this problem-solving approach "Collaborative Darwinism." By contrast, Western engineers, many in their 30s/40s/50s, theoretically weigh the pros and cons of every single solution before even trying it, and feel too proud to ask for help when stuck solving a problem. It's the "ostrich-style" problem-solving. 3) Market expectations. It's hard for Western engineers living in rich economies with advanced infrastructure to design products for use by customers in developing economies with poor roads and unreliable electrical and water supply. But that's second nature for Indian engineers in Bangalore, with its ever-congested roads and frequent power cuts. As a US tech multinational's exec eloquently puts it: "Western engineers' product ideas are shaped by laws of abundance whereas Eastern engineers' inventions are motivated by the rules of scarcity. Our Silicon Valley engineers don't even know what "low-cost" product means. And they would have never conceived, let alone marketed, a telecom router with embedded back-up power-supply, as our India team did, to cope with India's constant power shortage." Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. As India integrates its engineering and scientific talent into global innovation networks, Western and Indian multinationals need culturally-savvy managers adept at harmonizing and synergizing the opposing mindsets in their transnational R&D teams. It's time for B-Schools in the West (and in India) to start teaching a course titled "Managing cross-cultural innovation networks." I am sure it will be a hit.

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