This is the final blog post of the year - and what a great read it is! I met Sarah over a year ago as she was starting her work running the change program for the PwC GSuite roll out - and ever since she kindly agreed to share her insights and lessons learnt on her tour of Central and Eastern Europe I've been looking forward to reading this article.
I hope you enjoy this, and also have the opportunity to spend time with loved ones over the holiday period.
Thanks again for all your support during 2017 and I'm looking forward to sharing more interesting insights with this group in the year ahead.
I’m Sarah and I’ve just returned home to Canada after spending six months travelling around Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) visiting 19 of PwC’s 29 offices to support the deployment and adoption of G Suite at PwC. While I didn’t pick up all the languages (beyond ‘hello’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’), I did notice interesting cultural nuances and working styles. I also gathered some survival tips which may be useful in the event that you are involved in a similarly complex deployment or change program.
I am a management consultant at PwC focusing my efforts on digital strategy, experience and change. PwC is the second largest professional services firm in the world and is ranked as the most prestigious. We have 236,000 people in accounting, consulting, deals and tax in offices across 158 countries.
In 2014, PwC selected Google to be part of our digital transformation and shortly after, our Canadian offices were using Google’s cloud-based collaboration tools; ‘G Suite’. Our PwC digital and innovation team, led by Philip Grosch and key team members Howe Gu and Arie Fisher, quickly saw immense value in G Suite. We found that the tools made us more mobile and flexible, and drove efficiency by removing unnecessary workflows and hierarchies. G Suite enabled us to work in completely new ways through real time, cross-border collaboration – and since then we’ve helped several of our clients empower their teams through G Suite as well.
Going Google empowered us to work the way we live. It was a key part of our transformation to a more digital, agile organization, and now, it was time for PwC’s Central/Eastern Europe (CEE) region to Go Google too.
Based on my digital consulting expertise, keen interest in international work, and support from my awesome sponsors Philip Grosch & Kristian Knibutat in Canada, and Keith Murphy in CEE, I had the opportunity to relocate CEE to help 10,000 people in 53 offices across 29 countries Go Google.
The PwC Central/Eastern Europe (CEE) region is highlighted in pink below and here is a list of the countries.
This was a big change. We were asking 10,000 people from 29 countries, cultures and languages to completely change the way they work. Not the content or the actual work they produce - but change how they go about completing their work. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work with a wonderfully diverse and talented team to make it happen.
Engagement is a critical part of any change, which is why we recruited a group of ~900 Google Guides from all 29 countries where PWC has a presence, to champion the changes. From May to November, I traveled to 19 of the 29 countries, and met the other country representatives virtually. The country leaders and I discussed the overarching strategy and how G Suite could help us achieve business targets. I then met the local Google Guides – enthusiastic, tech-savvy volunteers from all levels and departments to understand their perspectives, build relationships and determine how we could align PwC’s global transformation to meet individual needs. Google Guides received early access to G Suite, specialized training and workshops, incentives, and support so they could aid their local teams through the transition. The curiosity, energy and commitment from the Google Guides was a key factor behind the program success in CEE.
I would like to share some personal observations and cultural nuances my CEE colleagues exchanged with me, which ultimately influenced how we executed the change management program. The findings are not necessarily true for everyone, but they reflect my experience.
The Language: Before flying to CEE, my first question was an obvious one: how will I communicate? I knew my basic Spanish and French wouldn’t be very helpful in the region, and the Google Pixel buds hadn’t come out yet. As it turns out, all PwC partners and staff spoke English! I was impressed with their level of fluency as people understood and even laughed at (some of) my jokes. That, or they were laughing at the naive Canadian… :-)
One Size Doesn’t Fit All: While most messages were in English, there was a certain level of ‘translation’ still needed. With any change program, communication, engagement and training plans must be customized to the audience. In CEE, this was paramount as we had 29 countries and cultures at play. What resonates in Poland, for example, may not resonate in Albania, or Mongolia.
‘Swag’ is a word commonly used in North America for giveaways such as pens, notebooks or prizes handed out at conferences/events. We wanted to incentivize the Google Guides with ‘swag’, but people didn’t know what this word meant. Plus, some ‘swag’ was perceived as more or less desirable, depending on the country. As such, we adapted our communications and ‘swag’ selections, customizing them with input from local country representatives.
Another lesson was learnt when I asked all potential Google Guides to tick a box on a form, indicating that they fully understood the time commitment involved and confirming that they had manager approval to take on the role. Upon reviewing this form, one of my colleagues kindly reminded me that 30 years ago, many of the CEE countries were under communist regime and as a result, some may be (rightfully!) unreceptive to authoritative language, especially for a volunteer position. Instead, it was culturally more appropriate to change the wording from “I understand” to “I agree”.
The Region: PwC CEE is a region of 29 countries. But in reality, it’s 28 + 1. Can you guess who the stand out country is?
That’s right, Russia. Here’s why:
- Size. Geographically, Russia is a massive piece of land (2x the size of Canada), and especially large in comparison to the other 28 countries.
- Population. In terms of staff, Russia alone accounts for 1/4 of the total CEE population at PwC.
- Culture. A Russian PwC leader said to me, “We [Russians] don’t like the cloud.” At this point he looked up at the sky, inferring that the metaphorical ‘cloud’ was above us. Then he said, “We are down here in reality,” and motioned downwards. Albeit intended as a joke, there was definitely some truth to his comment.
- Market. Google’s search engine is the market leader in most countries, including 28 of the 29 CEE countries. In Russia however, Yandex (or Яндекс) is the most commonly used search engine.
- Politics. You may be aware that there is some tension between U.S. and Russia. One of my colleagues said to me, “Implementing Google in Russia is like taking a Russian technology system and forcing U.S. to use it.” Doesn’t sound simple, does it?
Based on these complexities, we adapted our change management program. We engaged a proportionate amount of Google Guides as well as Google Ambassadors (more senior leaders) to champion the changes. In Russia, PwC partners and staff must follow specific business rules. Openly and transparently, we communicated these business rules, as well as the reason behind the rules. With the Google Guide, I focused on the ‘What’s In It For Me’ despite restrictions, and held open forum sessions for Q&A. The Google Guides and I together brainstormed suitable tactics to influence their respective teams into adopting the new technology.
Survival Tips for Running International Change Programs
While there are many things to consider, I’ll call out a few tips that helped me along the way.
1. Do your research! Before heading to a new country, I suggest taking the time to understand the cultural norms, general working styles, and professional politeness. I read culture guides online and asked my CEE colleagues for tips. I also found this report on each country's openness to change interesting. While performing this research, be reminded that everyone has an unconscious bias, and it’s important to check your bias at the door and always have an open mind.
Bulgaria was one of the first countries I visited, and this trip was actually the reason I adopted tip #1 moving forward:
In Bulgaria, they say ‘no’ (‘ne’) by nodding up and down in a motion that to me, clearly looks like ‘yes’. They say ‘yes’ (‘da’) by shaking their heads side to side. You can see how this may be confusing! I thought things were going well, and people were agreeing with me, but in fact it was the complete opposite and I had no idea!
2. Consider political factors. Some countries in the region are in conflict with one another, and this seeps into the workplace. For example, conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has resulted in a closed border between the countries, and an inability to travel to both Azerbaijan and Armenia – I had to pick one. As such, I adapted the Google Guides plan, noting that there were more Google Guides in Azerbaijan so I visited that team in person and led a virtual workshop with the Armenian team. Understanding political and macroeconomic factors are an important part of delivering multinational change programs.
3. Learn the language basics. Learning how to say ‘hello’, ‘please’, and ‘thank you’ (with a smile!) in the local language went a long way. I was traveling every few days, so sometimes it was difficult to memorize these words. You can ‘cheat’ by taking a screenshot of the three translated words, and use this screenshot as your phone background screen. If you ever forget, just sneak a quick peek at your phone! I might also suggest that you spell out the words phonetically, and not make the same mistake I did:
I said "molim te" to a room of 250 Serbians thinking I was saying "please" flip the slide. Turns out, I said "volim te", which means “I love you!”
4. Consider brand perceptions. In North America, Google has an allure. It is perceived to be the most innovative and leading-edge company in business and technology today. However in the CEE region this isn’t always the case. Varying brand perceptions meant that our team had to spend more time articulating the benefits of G Suite on a wider CEE-level, a team level, and on an individual level.
5. Triple check visa details. Okay, so this might seem obvious, but if I could go back in time I would triple and quadruple check my visa details – and get a translator! I was detained in the Baku, Azerbaijan airport for 14 hours with around-the-clock surveillance from guards who spoke about as much English as I spoke Azerbaijani. With my passport withdrawn, I was kept in a room apart from the airport restaurants and spa (although I could see these facilities from a distance and gazed longingly).
6. Plan ahead. Coordinating meetings across 12 time zones with representatives from 29 countries is a logistical nightmare. Add varying public, country-specific holidays and summer vacations and you’ve got yourself a recipe for rescheduled meetings and pushed out deadlines. If possible, give yourself lots of time to plan ahead and expect these challenges.
And finally, learn to like vodka (or whatever the local drink might be!) In many of the CEE countries, drinking and enjoying vodka is not a stereotype, it’s a reality! It’s common to go out with colleagues, tip your glasses together, share a meal and trade stories. Someone from Georgia said to me, “You can’t really work together unless you drink together.”
Helping to change the way 10,000 people work across 29 countries was the most challenging and interesting experience of my career. I arrived in each city alone, but was warmly welcomed by PwC colleagues who openly shared their stories and perspectives with me. This experience was a unique reminder that G Suite deployment programs are not technology projects. In reality, they’re all about empowering people to work the way we live.
If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to spark the discussion below and hear about your experiences working on change programs abroad.