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Business Across Cultures: How Green Was My Valley; How Safe is My Worksite?

The perception of different cultural groups looking at one specific set of circumstances can result in widely different interpretations of those circumstances. This is seen in many aspects of Western-Indonesian work interactions. However, there is one area where this difference in perception is perhaps the most obvious: heavy extractive industries in the oil/gas/mining sectors of Indonesia.

The corporate vision or policy of large Western companies may be that safety is first and foremost; zero injuries being the goal. However, whether they admit it publicly or not, all companies have a certain level of expected injuries. Western managers understand that some injuries are inevitable and the question becomes one of the acceptability of the injuries. Most Western companies have a zero-death policy, meaning that while some injuries on the job may be expected, any preventable loss of life is unacceptable.

But what does a zero-death policy really mean in Indonesia? The answer is not as straightforward as you may think. The perception between Western business cultures and Indonesian business culture is usually one of whether that zero-death policy is: 1) a threshold; or, 2) an objective. In other words, it is either a starting point or a finishing line.

For most international companies, it is seen as a threshold. Record one accidental on-site death, and you have failed. For many Indonesian managers and staff, the policy is seen as an objective. A ninety-five percent compliance with the policy (meaning maybe only one person killed this year) is successful and, realistically, is a very good record for large operations in Indonesia. It is just not a very good record for home office oversight purposes.

Assuming that your company has a policy to attempt change, is it even possible to successfully implement Western safety systems in Indonesia? I need to answer that question with another: which bonus for your workers is larger, the production bonus or the safety bonus?

When production and safety come into conflict most companies will clearly state that safety has priority. But in the actual decision-making process, when time is of the essence and deadlines for production, or bonuses related thereto, are due, safety often takes the back seat to production needs. The Western ideal of ‘do anything you have to to get the job done’ now becomes a detriment to safety enforcement.

Assuming that you have your expatriate staff well-trained in the production versus safety balance, there are then three other major themes that EOS has identified as barriers to the implementation of safety systems among mid-level Indonesian supervisors and workers. These include the importance of: 1) conforming to a group; 2) loyalty to a superior; and, 3) the lack of future time perspective.

The importance of the group demands loyalty to that group. It suppresses individual initiative and personal responsibility for the actions of the group. It prohibits actions against other members of the group that can be damaging to his or her career. This causes problems in areas such as a lack of implementation, lack of reporting, and lack of ownership for safety issues.

The importance of loyalty to a superior involves conforming one’s behavior to the actions of that superior. This does not necessarily mean following instructions, orders, and procedures. But rather observing from your personal relationship what the superior actually is communicating. This causes problems in areas where the superior is observed acting in a particular manner which is in disregard of stated procedures. In this case, the observed behavior will be the guide, not any written statement of policy.

The lack of future time perspective is probably one of the most frustrating causes of and strongest cross-cultural barriers to Western-based safety system implementation. This difference in the outlook on time influences areas such as schedules, maintenance, and work quality. The lack of future time sense causes a weak understanding of cause and effect relationships. This is the primary reason why many expatriates say that Indonesian personnel lack ‘common sense’. Common sense is a culturally ingrained ability to examine a present situation and extrapolate possible outcomes in the future, based on a specific cultural bias of what is right or wrong. Because it is so strongly cultural in nature, ‘common sense’ is difficult if not impossible to instill without significant resources and a lengthy learning process.

Other cultural barriers include the strong sense of Being instead of Doing which causes personnel not to be the first one to initiate an action — it’s someone else’s problem. Also the cultural trait of Subjugation to Nature may lead to a lack of empowerment and a feeling that there is little that a person can do to change the outcome of a situation.

This may sound like, and in reality is, an almost Herculean task for an international business in Indonesia to accomplish. However, many areas of the Indonesian business environment take commitment and a lengthy learning process to change. The safety area is no different. While the resources and commitment required by an international company to successfully implement such systems in Indonesia is enormous, it is possible to achieve. Many companies currently operating here have had some demonstrable success in that implementation, at least on company property during working hours with adequate supervision.

The level of safety observance in general Indonesian life and society also tends to be dismal from a western perspective. Families of four on motorcycles and bare wires plugged into electrical outlets in homes (regardless of the economic rationalizations) are only two common examples of the perceived lessened importance placed on safety and perhaps human life in general.

Indonesia is hardly alone in these circumstances. Historically, there is a cultural progression from industrialization to social welfare. The United States and England, for example, underwent an industrial age where the health and safety of employees were not a priority. Workers’ rights and government recognition of occupational health and safety standards is a recent step even in the most developed countries. That cultural change caused great societal pain before widespread acceptance was achieved.

The question here should not be whether or not Indonesia is ‘ready’ for such systems but rather whether or not an international company is ready to meet the challenges of implementing them.

In conclusion, I note that some change is indeed occurring, albeit slowly. Any eventual widespread acceptance of modern safety systems here may be one of the best examples and accomplishments of the technology transfer required of foreign companies and employees operating and working in Indonesia. It just could be a company’s major contribution and legacy to the local community surrounding and supporting its operations.

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