Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Michael Brimm on Managing Complexity

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Michael Brimm on Managing Complexity
August 2008 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary


Prof. Michael Brimm
Prof. Michael Brimm is Emeritus Professor of Organization and Management at INSEAD.


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  • Recently when Nokia decided to shut down its German's plant, it faced (and continues to face) severe opposition resulting in a (seemingly) diplomatic crisis between Germany and Finland. How do you characterize such a complexity an internal or external source of complexity? How do you think managers in such instances have to respond, balancing the company's diktats and the ground realities and yet not damaging the reputation of the company?
    (I would like to move this away from the internal and external. I don't believe this is a useful distinction to develop.)

    The Nokia situation that you cite is not a new problem. The current fight over defense department contracts for planes in the US pits American interests against European interests in an essentially political battle played out around Boeing and Airbus. These battles to capture employment and local content have been at the basis of conflicts since the early days of globalization.

  • What do you think are the critical success factors for managing complexities? Are there any benchmark practices or bench mark companies that are worth emulating?
    At the risk of "beating the same drum" once again, the fundamental issue comes down to having a simple, clear communication of what an organization is trying to accomplish that should be cascaded through the organization to yield equally concrete and specific statements at each level. The late Roberto Goizetta at Coca-Cola and Jack Welch at GE both wrote their own chairman's letter for their annual report. This helped them to articulate for insiders and outsiders a clear message that was understandable to diverse audiences and compelling enough to draw the commitment of investors, employees and customers. Other leaders spend significant amounts of time travelling round the world to personally deliver their message in a clear manner backed by the credibility of their position. The better ones demand continuing feedback from their audiences to assure that themessage being heard is consistent with their intent. I don't believe that technology (videos, teleconference, etc) has offered a compelling substitute for the personal engagements.

  • After all it's the peoplewho have to manage complexities in global corporations. How do you think these managers should be trained? In what aspects do you think global managers should be trained, so that they become highly effective managers in leading global corporations?
    In my teaching at INSEAD, I realize that much of the development takes place out of the classroom. We have known for a long time that leadership development does not take place in academic settings but rather is a product of experience with enlightened support. Like many athletic endeavors that combine skills and art, experience-based learning with strong coaching support is where development occurs. What still is necessary is the opportunity to interact with a variety of culturally diverse individuals around tasks and do the necessary cultural learnings. That is why various modes of "action learning" in places provide a more promising basis for leadership development; like INSEAD, there is a built-in cultural diversity.

  • What is the role of culture (the national culture of a manager working for global corporation) in managing complexities in global corporations? Should it be made mandatory for such managers to grow through a rigorous understanding of multicultural issues, Hofstede's cultural analysis of countries, etc? Do you think such exercises would prepare them well for managing complexities in any global corporation?
    Hofstede's groundbreaking work began our voyage into an understanding of this complex world of cultural differences. It provides an interesting, although I would argue a 'dated' framework for starting this journey. The reality for many of today's leaders and the bulk of tomorrow's global leaders is that they are no longer products of a single culture. INSEAD draws large number of students who have parents of different nationalities, were brought up in a third country and have worked in two or three different countries for significant periods. My colleague Professor Linda Brimm refers to these as "Global Cosmopolitans" and has studied their behavior and development at length. The traditional caricatures of culture do not fit them well nor do these frameworks seem to serve this emerging group of global leaders. She identifies a number of special skills and difficult issues encountered by these individuals. I find this a much more compelling path forward.

  • What are the other ways in which the managers working for global corporations can be prepared better for the imminent complexities?
    The high cost of expatriation has led many companies to seek more efficient ways of providing the necessary experiences and attendant development. More use of cross-cultural project teams, short term assignment to other country units and other less burdensome ways of building the necessary experience are being tried by organizations. Equally, we need to build new frameworks which better describe the reality of the new global leaders to facilitate their "seeing" the limits to their own culture and experiences. In fact, much of this interaction with diverse cultures should be designed to help individuals become more clear about their own cultural lenses as opposed to seeing the reality of others.

  • One of the realities for any manager working for a global corporation is living with diversity and working with multicultural teams. Are there any differences between homogenous teams and multicultural teams? How should managers be trained well on managing multicultural teams and getting maximum out of diversity?
    Research data suggests that multicultural teams tend toward the extremes of a normal curve of outcomes. When well functioning, they provide innovative and high quality solutions. Otherwise, they perform significantly worse than the average. Not only in teams, the organizational challenge of cultural diversity is to make this an asset rather than a liability in performance and functioning. I actually believe that most organizations either know or have access to the necessary tools. The question is whether they will make the necessary investment in time and resources to help achieve the better outcomes.

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