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Over the last five years, 2,400 IBM employees have been dispatched on almost 200 voluntary aid engagements around the world. The Corporate Service Corps has provided more than US$70 million worth of skilled, pro-bono services since 2008, directly benefiting 140,000 people. Jeffrey Balrak talks about his recent experiences as a Belgian IBMer sent to an emerging part of China.

CSC 19 China team

CSC 19 China team

Balrak’s CSC group were sent to Zhengzhou, a city of 8 million inhabitants in north-central China. Upon arrival, Balrak’s sub-team of three were assigned to two Zhengzhou clients: The local university and a software company. “You really hit the ground running, and we got our first indication of the challenges ahead on our first day at the university,” says Balrak. “This was an IT faculty but they had almost no internet connection. That forced us to recalibrate not just our understanding of IT needs in China, but also what we could do to help.”

With only four weeks for each CSC intervention, teams have to work quickly to understand how best to utilize their skillsets. “The IT professors told us that the greatest contribution we could offer would be as guest lecturers.” For the next month, therefore, the team spoke daily to upwards of 500 students on topics like IT career planning, industry trends, management consulting, and data mining and analytics.

The nature of self-sacrifice
Cultural pre-conceptions were quickly overturned and forced the group to understand the nature of IT careers in China in radically different terms to their own experiences. “Many students were telling us that they were not interested in programming. As we dug deeper, we found out why: Students who achieve good grades in high school exams get their choice of university courses. Those who don’t are assigned places on IT courses. So, many were studying IT because they had no other option. That forced us to radically rethink the motivational advice we were giving. We had to switch from sharing high-level industry challenges to encouragement and enthusiasm, pointing out all the benefits of a technology career.”

The greatest learning for Balrak was an ideological one. “Obviously, the students’ lack of choice is not a model we can appreciate in Europe. But it fits with something inspirational about China; something that has enabled its massive growth in recent years and has been true throughout history: The notion of collective endeavour. You get a clear sense every day that an ideology of ‘selfless sacrifice for the greater good’ runs deep throughout the country and is part of its core identity.”

Navigating cultural issues of ‘face’
The second half of Balrak’s team’s remit was to work with a young, mid-sized IT company. “The contrast is a perfect example of what the CSC does, because we went from advising internet-deprived students on the value of IT careers to working with this creative software company, where the focus was very much on business development.”

Again, it was the cultural differences that raised most eyebrows: “Employees were very eager to understand what their business was. They felt it lacked a definable culture. Simultaneously, staff satisfaction was very low. Asian business tends to carry rigid social hierarchies, as well as a strong sense of ‘face’. So we realised that the message about employee dissatisfaction was not getting through to senior managers, because people didn’t want to challenge ‘upwards’ in the company to express the culture and guidance that was missing. It required some finesse from us to get that consultancy advice through to the leadership in the right way – without destroying their ability to retain ‘face’.”

The skills to move your career forward
When Balrak found out, upon leaving China, that he had been promoted into a new role back in Brussels, it was the icing on the cake. “It felt like perfect timing. In that one month, I had learned new skills, taken on a real leadership role and had had a rapid immersion into the management consulting skillset. By the time I came back, I was ready to capitalize on that and push forward further with my career. It all came together very nicely.”

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