East Meets West in Corporate Culture?

By Suhas Sreedhar

Outsourcing jobs to third-world companies has been a fairly polarizing issue in the past, and those ardently in favor of it and against it will probably continue to debate its merits for many years to come. But for all practical purposes the issue is passé. Outsourcing has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. A more interesting question is, what impact can it have on corporate culture?

At Paprikaas Interactive, an animation studio based in Bangalore, India, I found an interesting answer. Outsourcing has the potential to help to combine the best of eastern and western business practices, resulting in companies that are competent as well as creative.

[Please see Animation Nation, Part I: Dreamworks Goes to Bangalore and Animation Nation Part II: Bollywood Sets Its Sights on Feature Films.]

Many offshore subcontractors, especially ones in the IT industry, are technically skilled, but they mostly operate within a stringent, chain-of-command structure. This makes some sense since it's the big client companies that are the arbiters of the end product. However, a rigid structure does have its drawbacks. While many Western companies encourage employees to express their opinions and speak their minds, employees of Indian companies tend to remain reticent and deferential to their superiors. This becomes a problem, especially in creative fields like animation, where the final product is a combination of the best efforts of many individuals.

At Paprikaas, the executives seemed determined to change this mindset. When I met with Creative Director Veerendra Patil, he told me that while he's proud of his employees' technical skill, discipline, and punctuality, most of them treat their work just as another 9-to-5 job. They take one-hour lunch breaks at exactly the same time every day and always look to their superiors to make decisions and set deadlines.

Patil wants the employees to take "creative ownership" of their work, meaning that they'd stop seeing their projects merely as tasks to complete and instead view them as pieces of art they can personally be proud of. It also means that they'd set their own reasonable deadlines and budget their time appropriately in order to meet them.

The same goes for the supervisors in the company, who are being encouraged to take on more responsibility and make more decisions themselves, instead of constantly going up the chain for answers. In order to help catalyze this change in attitude, supervisors are required to alternate between working on projects and training new employees, the latter of which gives them greater experience in being in a top advisory role.

Finally, the relationship between colleagues and bosses is also something Paprikaas execs want to change by promoting more discussions and debates about ideas and encouraging artists to speak out and challenge their superiors, as long as their intent is to help create the best product possible.

If Paprikaas succeeds, it could represent an interesting merger of corporate cultures. Combining quality and discipline with individualism and free expression sounds like a promising formula. But can it happen? And will it necessarily translate into a better bottom line? For Indian animation to thrive on its own, it might have to.

Suhas Sreedhar is a freelance journalist who has previously written for IEEE Spectrum about the future of music. He recently did some blogging and webcasting while working as the assistant director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

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