NAE Academic in Residence Harminder Singh explores multiculturalism in multinational corporations
The issue of multiculturalism arises often and is perceived by some people as a failed philosophy whilst others see it as a description of what we see around us – at least in areas of people from different ethnic origins, or multicultural areas…one can see the problems of finding a suitable word. However the real issue is what actually happens, when people of different historical, class, gender and ethnic origins live and work together?
We tend to look at communities to answer this question but, maybe, we can learn something from multinational corporations (MNC) whose organisational tendrils are typically found in many countries where they seek to make a profit. The reward of a profit is a motivational factor towards understanding other cultures or, in different words, understanding people of different ethnic origins. It reminds me of an article in Harvard Business Review in June 2013 by Hae-Jung Hong and Yves Doz , ‘L’Oreal Masters of Multiculturalism’, where they look at the cosmetics MNC and how they manage global integration (keeping the identity and culture of L’Oreal coherent) whilst dealing with specific country needs (responding to the local culture and so avoiding costly mistakes). How do they do this? Well the answer is at once both obvious and sophisticated: the obvious is that L’Oreal employs local people who have multilingual skills and cultural empathy.
The sophisticated aspect is that L’Oreal invests in these people and nurtures them by providing experiences – inside and outside their home country – which develops them into multicultural managers. In this role they are able to integrate outsiders and deal with any cultural differences between the country subsidiary and headquarters. This has been a successful strategy and helped L’Oreal move outside of its traditional United States and European Union markets. The multicultural managers are moving into senior positions, not least of all because the promotion system values multilingual and multicultural skills.
Perhaps some people will see it as an irony that we could learn about multiculturalism from MNCs, however what they are doing could be a reference point for dealing with issues of multiculturalism (however we define it) in the UK. It requires:
– Investment by corporations and funders
– Nurturing of people from ethnic minority origins into national talents
– Using the law as it stands to provide positive action
– Integrating people of different ethnic backgrounds into senior positons
These suggestions are not from some group that can be classed as ‘political’ or ‘self-interested’ but emerge from the practices of a successful MNC which has recognised the value and importance of people of different ethnic backgrounds and does not appear to worry that its own culture will change in time. What is of concern is the costly, time-wasting and life-wasting policies and practices that don’t and have been seen not to work.
– Harminder Singh
NAE Academic in Residence
University of Warwick