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Values Training Spans From Boston to Bangkok

February 1, 2000
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Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Values, Managing International Operations, Featured Article
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Grand Circle Corp. faced a challenge when it decided to open a regionaloffice in Bangkok, Thailand. The Boston-based tour operator caters to50-something adventure-seeking travelers, and was convinced that a remote officestaffed by indigenous employees would assure the company’s planned"Jewels of Thailand" tour would provide the authentic culturalexperience their customers demanded.

But how could the company transfer its own corporate culture to employeeshalfway around without trampling on local customs? Success in Thailand wasimperative, not only because the tour would be an important source of revenue,but also because the company planned to open local offices in other countriesusing the Bangkok experience as a model.

For Grand Circle’s HR team, training the Thai employees was a call toaction. Grand Circle already had in place a training philosophy that was anoutgrowth of collaboration between the company’s senior team and the VP of HRand VP of corporate philanthropy and culture. They were committed to seeing thatthe entire staff was aware of and embraced the company’s values and goals. Itwas in this spirit that co-owners Alan and Harriet Lewis created a 12-memberteam called Winning Operations Worldwide or "Team WOW." Recruits camefrom a cross-section of departments and were chosen for their expertise inoperations at Grand Circle, dedication to company values, and culturalsensitivity.

"The purpose of Team WOW and its cross-cultural training is to build a‘bridge’ between Boston and our new regional offices, not to tell otherswhat to do," says Priscilla O’Reilly, director of worldwide culture andcommunications at Grand Circle. "Our goal is to decentralize operations. Wewant people in our regional offices to be able to make their own decisions. Todo that, we provide the training and information they need to succeed."

An integrated HR perspective.

Grand Circle-facilitated exercises, in conjunction with the company’s owncenter for leadership, taught Team WOW members how to inject corporate values --teamwork, the interplay between speed and quality, risk taking, and thriving inchange, and open communications -- into their training programs. Team membersalso received a mega-dose of Thai culture from O’Reilly, who briefed them onthe history and current issues the country faced. Team members then honed theirpresentation and facilitation before packing their bags.

Team WOW left Boston with both a structured approach and the awareness thatan adventure is a well-honed plan gone wrong. "We had a feeling ofunpredictability so we were prepared to adjust training as needed, which fits inwith our corporate values," says O’Reilly.

Team WOW sets up in Thailand.

As a first step, Team WOW concentrated on helping their Thai colleagues setup the physical office space in Bangkok, providing training for each departmentfollowing patterns set at the Boston headquarters. "We sent the IT peopleover first to set up the computers and e-mail, to make sure communications werein place," says O’Reilly.

Customer service then flew in from Boston to brief their Thai counterparts onthe special needs of Grand Circle’s older American customers. To bestillustrate the point, Team WOW members and new Thai staffers tagged along on oneof the company’s "Discovery Series" tours led by local guides toexperience first hand the kind of travel experience Grand Circle customersexpected. "We found that our local Thai guides wanted to shelter our oldercustomers," O’Reilly explains, "but Grand Circle customers want toexperience the culture more completely." The collective team made necessaryadjustments.

When formal office setup and training had been completed, Team WOW and theentire Thai staff got together for informal values training in the form of gamesand getting-to-know-you-type activities. One of these activities, called the ‘eggdrop,’ had Thai associates constructing a package that would carry a raw eggunbroken over an eight-foot drop.

"At first, the new associates didn’t understand the game, though theywillingly participated," O’Reilly says. "Then we explained that theegg represents the customer, and showed them ways to give the customer a betterjourney by employing Grand Circle values." The game further illustratescompany values by imposing a time limit (speed versus quality), requiring teamparticipation (teamwork), and dropping the egg (risk taking).

Team WOW then asked the Thai associates to show how Grand Circle can earnrespect and trust based on values and issues important in Thai culture."Our Thai associates couldn’t wait to tell us about themselves,"says O’Reilly. "They appreciated the opportunity to talk about what wouldhelp their experience."

Team WOW learned that Thai people value respect for Thailand’s royalfamily, religious tolerance, and veneration of one’s own family, particularlythe elderly. "Our Thai associates made it clear they’re not going to beAmericans," explains O’Reilly, "They want Americans to be patientwith them and understand their cultural values."

Thai associates have given Team WOW training good marks. "This programhelped us think of ways to face challenges together," says PornpunChulanuka, regional director of the Bangkok office. "The cross-culturaltraining gave us an idea, not only of what was expected, but how Americans thinkand feel about us."

Customer response has been excellent, as well. The "Jewels ofThailand" trip has been Grand Circle’s fastest-selling tour since itsinception. "Our customers are happy," says O’Reilly. "We have alot of repeat business." Grand Circle routinely conducts satisfactionsurveys in which customers rate tours as poor, fair, good or excellent. Thecompany’s goal is a 60 percent excellent rating for "Jewels ofThailand," but the tour has consistently scored 71 percent excellenceratings.

Clearly, Team WOW is a success. "With this program, we’re able tointroduce our overseas colleagues to the core values of businessoperations," says O’Reilly.

Team WOW has gone on to train staff in the company’s Rome office, where itsencounter with Italy’s culture was as successful as it was with Thailand’s.The next stops are Paris and Sydney in the spring of 2000. Grand Circle willcontinue to monitor feedback from customers and employees abroad.

"Bridges span both ways," O’Reilly says. "Team WOW isbuilding our bridge to the world with a built-in maintenance program andmaterials that will last."

Workforce, February2000, Vol. 79, No. 2, pp. 90-91 -- Subscribenow!

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