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Business Across Cultures: E-mail's influence

Efficient and reliable communication between members of an office or organization is one of the keystones of international business. It becomes even more important to establish effective communication guidelines when the various members of the group stem from different business cultures.

Indonesian personnel generally rely on indirect forms of communication. This is one of the major issues that foreign professionals have to address when working with Indonesian managers and Bapak, what exactly is the message being communicated?

Indonesian managers and Bapak often use indirect and complex methods of communication. These include figurative forms of speech, facial expressions, gestures and other kinds of body language. How a Bapak is reacting to what you are saying can usually only be determined by interpreting a series of signs, gestures and seemingly indefinite comments. Indonesian managers may feel satisfied with a lesser standard of communication and accuracy than is acceptable to their western counterparts.

There is an old axiom for doing business in Indonesia that says, 'Never write when you can call and never call when you can visit.' This refers to the sometime difficulty in receiving a timely response from Indonesian managers and Bapak.

One of the ways that business communications are changing world wide is through the advent of the Internet and Email. This is certainly the case in Indonesia. Most international offices here have their own Email accounts and many have set up Intranets to facilitate communication between their own employees.

For some time now, I have been researching the influence of Email communications and how it fits in to the overall Indonesian business culture. Email has many of the same aspects of a written letter and on that basis, it should be difficult to implement in Indonesian offices. However, many international companies have reported great success in using Email to facilitate communication within their offices.

Companies that have established electronic communication between the employees report that the system has become very popular. Often to the extent that the system is used for personal and other non-business information. Top management notes that the Email system often replaces the water cooler and the Musholla as centers for employee gossip. If this becomes a problem, intra-office Email can be regulated through attribution and moderation along with set guidelines for use.

There are several possible reasons for the popularity of Email with Indonesian employees. First of all, many Indonesian managers and government employees are embarrassed about their English language proficiency. Even fluent English speakers often have reservations when they are asked to compose a letter or report. The informal writing style used in Email, a style lacking in salutations and closings, where a few typos are overlooked, gives the second-language author more confidence in its use.

Also, many employees the world over, when given the choice, would rather talk to their computer than to their supervisor. The impersonal nature of email communication allows for the Indonesian employee to put forward his or her opinion without immediate repercussions like probing questions or anger from the superior. It is hard to be yelled at via Email.

The Send-to-Group options on email allow a high tech version of the group conflict resolution style common in Indonesian business culture. When an Indonesian team member wants to ask his same level co-workers for advice or procedure, there is no longer a need to track each one down and have individual conversations. Contact is only a mouse click away.

However, one of the most important advantages of email for a traditional Indonesian employee may be that it takes the place of a third party intermediary. Because of the importance of Asal Bapak Senang, Malu and Gengsi in the Indonesian workplace, bad news and requests for guidance are often not communicated to a superior. Email can be used to pass along information without a face-to-face discussion thus avoiding the possibility of confrontation and a disruption of office harmony--at least in the short term. Keeping in mind that Indonesian business culture tends toward a past or present orientation with less emphasis on future consequences, this short-term postponement of possibly unpleasant events may be an acceptable trade off for most employees.

There is, of course, a downside to these developments. I recently heard about an expat manager in an energy sector company that received an irate and somewhat insulting email from a Pertamina Bapak. The expat involved had had nothing to do with the matter before and was contacted only because his was the only email address that the Bapak had in his company.

Moreover, those of us with laptop computers or other Internet appliances, are finding it harder and harder to escape from the barrage of incoming email that is becoming international business in the 21st Century.

It appears that despite its resemblance to written correspondence, email is going to continue gaining acceptance and popularity in Indonesian business culture. International companies need to assess the relative advantages and disadvantages to their own third separate culture here and determine if email can be an aid to their internal business communications.

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.