Major Teoh’s Blog

September 3, 2007

Corporate Malaysia’s Diversity Challenge

Filed under: Guest Writers,Pete Pereira — Major (Rtd) Teoh @ 8:50 pm

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Corporate Malaysia’s Diversity Challenge

Some weeks ago, I read an interesting exchange of posts on malaysiaHRonline (MHRO) titled Language Preferences and if I am Malaysia’s Education Minister. The variety of responses that were posted on this particular thread is the source of inspiration for this article – and for that, I thank all the contributors: BM Tan, Thilaga, TG Lee, Datuk S Jaafar, Desmund Wong, MA Ismail, Doreen Yap and Mohd Nizar Ahmad.

The origin of the post and the whys and wherefores of the subject do not matter in the context of this article. Suffice to say that corporate Malaysia is sitting on a potential goldmine of diversity and grossly mismanaging its resources. Why a goldmine of diversity? Consider this: two of the fastest growing economies in the world apart from Vietnam, is China and India. Certainly the Sino-Indian economic axis is set to be the more sustainable in the long-term. Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world that has a unique and winning mix of ethnicity perfectly placed to take advantage of this growth. Rather than harness the strength of diversity that is readily available to us, any discussion pertaining to race, language or religion is quickly deemed ‘sensitive’ as the undertones of the thread mentioned above would illustrate. That is our bane at present.

Malaysia and the Global Economy

Let’s put the benefit of leveraging on diversity in context first. It is known that homogenous teams would generally encounter less problems in the phases of forming, storming and norming, for example. However, heterogeneous teams that consist of diverse personalities and talent take a significantly longer time to get to the stage of norming. What happens after that, however, is that the heterogeneous team outperforms a homogenous team by as much as 270%!

Christopher Selvarajah and Denny Meyer of Swinburne University in Australia produced an excellent piece of research titled ‘Profiling the Malaysian Manager: Exploring Dimensions that Relate to Leadership.’ This was published in the Journal of Management and Organization, November 2006. In their research, Messrs Selvarajah and Meyer found distinct differences in leadership behaviour across Malay, Chinese and Indian managers in Malaysia. The inference is that each ethnic group has a distinct preference in the way that they are lead as a result of their own cultural dynamics. It also means that a “Malaysian’ leadership style has yet to emerge – which, in the context of our diversity, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Inherent within this complex diversity of Malay, Chinese and Indian culture is a whole spectrum of ‘natural’ talent that more than adequately help us to address the challenges of competing in a global economy. By ‘natural’ talent, I mean cultural behaviour such as harmony, collectiveness, directness, the orientation of task vs relationship, etc – all of which are present in varying degrees across each ethnic group. Imagine examining each of these variables within the context of teams within an organization and determining, objectively, who has strengths in a particular area.

Then, match the strengths of individuals to the needs of global customers that the organization serves. You are likely to find then, that perhaps the recruitment policy needs to be realigned more strategically. Possibly, this might even open up the prospect of venturing into new markets as a result of a deliberate business policy of diversity.

On a larger scale in Malaysia, however, it appears as if the whole concept of competing in a global economy is going over our heads. Many organisations go into export markets on the assumption that cultural variables applicable to Malaysia are the same the world over. An anecdote to illustrate this:

A leading local organization that deals with the supply of halal products to emerging markets was given the opportunity to supply a large order of canned tuna to a middle eastern country. They labeled the product ‘halal’ on the assumption that the market they were exporting to would operate on the same imperatives as Malaysia. The entire shipment of 20 containers was rejected because in this particular country, tuna does not need to be labeled such. The labeling from Malaysia would have raised suspicion that there was something wrong that it needed to be labeled ‘halal’.

Getting Started with Diversity in Malaysia

The fact is, with the wealth of natural talent available in Malaysia across all ethnic groups, most organisations are short-changing themselves and their stakeholders by not pursuing a deliberate hiring strategy that emphasizes ethnic diversity, amongst others.

In some ethnically-diverse organisations that I have the continuing pleasure of working with, I sense a strong desire to explore the dynamics of ethnicity in an objective, team-based manner.
For example, one such organization that is predominantly Chinese initiated such a discussion of diversity across all their functional teams in their annual teambuilding event. One particularly significant point of discussion and agreement that they arrived at was that they need to make a collective effort to refrain from speaking in dialect in their work environment. This was in response to creating an inclusive environment within the organisation.

The key to getting started with diversity in the context of Malaysian organisations, is to explore the less contentious areas of diversity such as personality, brain dominance, values and such. In the process, communicate to employees the areas of diversity that are going to be explored, why they are being explored and the benefits of such an initiative before actually starting out. It will be a lot easier to get participation when people know what’s coming and what to expect.

In Conclusion

The MHRO thread elicited one particular comment along the lines of “….this is an HR forum….if you need to pour out your personal problems, do it elsewhere….”

Au contraire. Diversity in Malaysia is a particularly relevant issue for strategic HR intervention. We have a vast abundance of culturally diverse talent that is just waiting to be harnessed to take on the world. It remains a challenge as long as we condition ourselves to believe that it is ‘sensitive’.

As human beings, we all hold, within our depths, a need to belong and ‘connect’ with others. Exploring diversity will help us fulfill those needs while meeting the business demands of an increasingly global economy.

Pete Pereira
Director, Organisational and Team Development
Aspire Consulting Sdn Bhd
pete@aspireconsulting.com.my

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