Joining the Asian Diversity Network

About three weeks ago, Bill MacGowan (the top of the Sun HR pyramid) sent out a note to all employees encouraging us to join Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Based on both my own views that networked communications are a (potential) tool to drive cultural understanding, and the fact that more than one-third of my Global Systems Engineering employees are affiliated with countries in our Asian Diversity Network (ADN), I asked to join. And last week I became the executive sponsor for Sun's ADN, a role for which I'm thoroughly excited. The ADN not only links Sun's employee resource groups to other, similar groups in our major work locations, but it's also driving an important sense of cultural awareness inside of Sun. My goal as executive sponsor is to make sure that we're using all of the communications channels available: internal and external wikis, blogs, Facebook groups, and one-one relationships including programs like Sun's formal mentoring relationships.

A bit of context is in order: growing up in central New Jersey, my exposure to Asian culture was limited to what passed for "Chinese food" (no Sichuan, only heavy Cantonese style dishes that had been Americanized), and trying to figure out the Indian scripture references in Yes' Tales from Topographic Oceans. The impact of a seemingly benign interaction sticks in the very deep, tape-based portions of my memory of that time: While working at Six Flags Great Adventure, I took a break and went to visit some friends in Ride Operations, hoping we could make plans for a post-shift beer. Thinking we had agreement, I made a hand gesture to signal "all good" to my friend in the control booth, knowing she wouldn't hear me over the electric motors and small kids. Her partner working the entrance gate told me "You just insulted her; in her family that gesture is nasty." Touching, bowing, eye contact, honorifics, hand gestures, and seating position may be things we don't consider every day, but they bound our first impressions and often govern others' strong first impressions of us.

In the intervening three decades, the world has become smaller as a result of networking, air travel and diversity on college campuses, but it's also become larger in terms of understanding the cultures, norms and preferences of the folks on the other end of the TCP/IP connection. One of my favorite learnings was working with a manager in our Beijing engineering office, who described a management situation with the Chinese phrase "Two tigers cannot inhabit the same mountain." To her, this was a statement about having a clear line of sight to one owner for a problem; to me it captured the fact that tigers are one of the few carnivorous animals that don't attack or eat their own kind, creating an effective conflict avoidance mechanism. The root cause of her issue was that the way in which Sun engineering culture would have stimulated a resolution to her issue created a larger cultural conflict; people backed away from what was perceived as the "usual way" in other parts of the world.

What do I hope to get out of the ADN? Two big things:

Cultural understanding. There are the obvious issues, like appreciating holidays, celebrations, whether or not asking questions is considered rude, the desire not to draw attention to an individual, loss of face (on both sides of the table), and whether or not a knife is a weapon with no place at the breakfast table. There are the subtler things, like the fact that "spicy" is effectively a logarithmic scale in parts of the world, or that organizational hierarchy determines who sits when and where at the table. The more you understand about your peers, the more effective you are in creating an environment where everyone contributes, feels valued, and forges strong connections. Failing to understand these differences is as bad as inviting your vegan friends to dinner at your favorite BBQ joint.

Avoiding monoculture. We need to spend time with people who are not like us -- not like us in terms of geography, world views, food preferences, musical interests, and engineering approaches. Monoculture in anything is bad, whether it's desktop productivity tools, search engines or local newspapers. What I've found amusing is that the further afield you look, often you run into something familiar -- my discovery of a synagogue in Shanghai, created when the Viennese embassay of Shanghai smuggled Jews out of Europe during World War II, or finding that my marketing buddy Carrie also listens to matzah-soprano Ofra Haza through a Facebook status update.

Put together, I hope I'm a more effective communicator and leader, and that what we learn in the ADN can be shared with other employee resource groups (in and out of Sun).

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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