Fun @ Sun

Making of a Global Workplace

With the growing trend towards offshoring of IT-related work, a number of multinational companies have established software development centres in India. The film Fun@Sun was shot inside one such company, the Indian subsidiary of an American company, Sun Microsystems — Indian Engineering Centre (IEC). It focuses on the relationship between the Indian centre and its parent company in Santa Clara, California, and the functioning of ‘virtual teams’ – a typical feature of offshore software development projects. In this mode of organisation, development work is carried out by geographically dispersed teams composed of software engineers and managers located both in Bangalore and the U.S., who must be in constant communication with one another in order to coordinate their activities. One of the main problems faced by such companies is to ensure the smooth functioning of such teams composed of people of different cultural backgrounds. In order to create a sense of integration with the parent company and to overcome geographical and cultural distances, Sun, like other MNCs operating around the world, attempts to reproduce its distinctive corporate culture within the Indian subsidiary. The film highlights the techniques through which American-style management practices are transplanted into IEC, such as an induction workshop for new employees. Fun@Sun also depicts another typical feature of the Indian outsourcing industry – ‘soft skills’ training programmes, including communication skills and cross-cultural sensitivity classes, that are designed to overcome the communication problems and cultural gaps that are considered to create problems in the functioning of multi-cultural teams. While these programmes in theory aim to create better understanding and communication on both sides (American and Indian), their primary purpose appears to be to mould Indian software engineers to fit into the global workplace, by teaching them to adjust their behavioural and communication styles according to ‘global’, or American norms. The film illustrates the multiple ways in which ‘culture’ is manufactured, appropriated and deployed in the new global workplace. First, there is a contrived corporate culture, the Sun culture, which the company seeks to articulate and reconstruct in its Indian subsidiary. The promotion of the ‘Sun culture’ is typical of contemporary management theory, which advocates indirect ‘cultural’ or normative techniques to control the work process and to enhance productivity by inducing employees to identify with the company and its goals. However, this process is not without its contradictions, as several of the narratives featured in the film suggest: Sun’s managers are struggling to find a comfortable fit between ‘Sun culture’ and what they understand to be the local ‘Indian culture’ of the employees. Second, multinationals such as Sun, which have subsidiaries and offices around the world, invoke current ‘global management’ theories and techniques in order to integrate their culturally diverse workforces. This is perceived as a significant issue in the new global economy, as more and more people are articulated into economic networks that cross multiple borders. Cross-cultural management theory attempts to address the problems of managing this diversity, using cultural typing that is supposed to enhance cross-cultural understanding and create better communication and coordination among work sites and within virtual teams. In the Indian software outsourcing industry, however, it appears that the aim of cultural training programmes is to induce Indian engineers to adapt themselves to the culture of the parent and/or client company, and in this case, to American culture as well. American communication styles and values are promoted, even while the ‘differences’ of Indian culture are acknowledged and appreciated by trainers and managers. This points to the third level at which culture operates in the global corporate social field: a singular model of ‘global corporate culture’ is becoming increasing dominant, and workers around the world are expected to adapt to this culture through personal adjustments in their behaviour, working styles, and attitudes. This global corporate model is based essentially on American culture and management trends, which emphasise individual responsibility and initiative, assertiveness, and drive for achievement among employees — features that enable them to be productive within the ‘flat’ structures and ‘informal’ cultures of the ‘new workplace’. The multiple uses of culture in IEC betray several contradictions: Global companies such as Sun espouse multiculturalism and claim to value cultural difference, yet at the same time they attempt to integrate their employees across the globe into their specific corporate cultures, which are embedded within the cultures of the wider societies in which they originated. Moreover, in the case of the Indian software outsourcing industry, which caters primarily to clients or corporate headquarters in the West, engineers are expected to conform to what are regarded as universal norms of the global workplace in their interactions and self-presentation – an expectation that requires them to erase or mask cultural differences. And while global corporations claim to value cultural difference, their management and training techniques entail a denial of actual differences. For instance, the communication and cultural training programmes depicted in the film draw on a conventional ‘cultural values’ pattern variable framework to categorise and describe differences between Americans and Indians, while ignoring the cultural dissonance that seems to arise from the classroom interactions themselves. Similarly, the reproduction of the ‘fun’, ‘informal’ and ‘non-hierarchical’ work culture of an American company in its Indian subsidiary appears highly artificial, as Indian engineers struggle to adapt to the company’s expectations by ‘having fun’ in ways that are very un-Indian. The parties, informal get-togethers and even team meetings appear to be official rituals rather than spontaneous expressions of camaraderie, while a real sense of identity and solidarity surfaces in other kinds of interaction. These contradictions and complexities of work in Sun’s India offshore centre raise questions about the cultural transformations that are being wrought by globalisation in the workplace, and their impact on employees’ subjectivities.