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1992 Global Outlook Optimas Award ProfileBRGeneral Electric Medical Systems Group

June 1, 1992
Related Topics: Career Development, Managing International Operations, Global Outlook, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
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In May of 1990, the doors were opened at the new headquarters of another GEMS project—this time in Bangalore, India. This was a joint venture of GE Medical Systems-Asia and Western India Products (Wipro Ltd.). The company's India operations are already experiencing success in a country whose more than 850 million inhabitants speak 647 different dialects.

GEMS manufactures, sells and services diagnostic imaging equipment, including x-ray, CAT-scanners, magnetic resonance, nuclear medicine and ultrasound systems. The company has sales and service offices worldwide and major manufacturing facilities in Milwaukee, Paris and Tokyo, with smaller facilities in Italy and Spain. GEMS has joint ventures in Japan, Korea, China, India and Russia.

By recognizing that global outlook in human resources is one of the most important prerequisites for success in the '90s, GEMS has made the world its oyster—and inside that oyster is a pearl: an increase in non-U.S. business revenue from 13% of the company's total revenue in 1985 to more than 40% today.

This recognition has resulted in recognition of another kind: the 1992 PERSONNEL JOURNAL Optimas award for Global Outlook, which is awarded each year to an HR department that has created a program or strategy to help the company succeed in the world marketplace. The program that attracted the attention of PERSONNEL JOURNAL to GEMS was the Global Leadership Program (G.L.P.), which has spawned a number of successful global programs also worthy of the award.

The G.L.P. lasted four years and involved more than 200 key managers worldwide. Each manager was involved in the program for a few days at a time for six months, in addition to attending to the normal business of the company. During this time he or she was part of a team that worked on developing solutions to various global business issues, such as global staffing protocol; global manpower training; global understanding of GEMS' customers, products and services; its mission and values; and the company perspective (of GE as a company).

Along with the project activities, the managers participated in a recreational team-training program. This meant working together to perform such tasks as scaling a wall. Often members of a team didn't speak a common language, according to GEMS manager of human resources, Toby D'Ambola.

There was a formal meeting in Europe to kick off the program. Participants worked for several days to decide project assignments.

Each follow-up meeting then would be hosted in turn by individual team members in their home countries. The hosts invited their colleagues into their homes and shared with them what was unique about their cultures.

"It was an experiential thing," says D'Ambola. By design, the program combined action learning with the social-cultural environment.

When the meetings were hosted in Japan, for instance, members participated in traditional ceremonies and ate Japanese food. "Many never had experienced anything like this," D'Ambola says. "The Japanese box lunch is different. Raw fish was new for some." In addition to the cultural challenges, the participants in the G.L.P. worked on a real business issue. It was hard work. They had to meet a deadline. Often they needed an interpreter or consultants.

"It was very real. It also was a time commitment on their part because this program was in addition to their regular jobs," D'Ambola points out.

Halfway through the program, teams would make presentations on what they were doing in their projects. Then, at the end of the six months, a formal 2 1/2-day program would take place. Each team was allotted 20 minutes to make the presentation.

"After that, we'd go in to a whole series of meetings to test the ideas that had been presented," D'Ambola says. "We decided what changes to the projects might be needed if we were to use them and what the business would commit to. Many of our global programs today came out of the G.L.P.," he adds.

GEMS has been transformed by the G.L.P., which won't continue in its present form. "The entire cadre has gone through the program now. They know how to network across the world," D'Ambola explains. The G.L.P.'s spirit lives on in many forms and including the global outlook that now permeates every level of the organization.

"We have process teams now. These teams study specific processes: how we deliver orders, for example," D'Ambola continues. "We use the global team technology we learned from this G.L.P.," he points out.

The company's videoconferencing capability, how presentations are made, how teams are put together, how GEMS operates in the global environment, its sensitivity to language and culture, the global human resources network, the entire expatriate program are all the result of the G.L.P., according to D'Ambola.

The organization has currently 152 expatriate employees, according to Nan Sheppard, senior specialist of global human resources for GEMS. "We call all of our employees involved in the international program expats, whether they leave one country to work in another, or come here from overseas," Sheppard explains.

Employees being sent to work anywhere in the world now attend cross-cultural orientation. To help them to adjust on a personal level, they and their families receive a full menu of support services, including pre-departure counseling, cross- cultural and language training, host-country support, and an individualized education plan for children.

Repats, or people who have returned from an overseas assignment, serve in a volunteer capacity to help support GEMS' expat population. On February 19, a group of employees and their spouses met to discuss ways the repatriates could get involved in GEMS' global assignment program. This first meeting resulted in many useful suggestions on ways to strengthen the expatriate support programs, as well as to extend to repatriates and their families an invitation to share their experiences and knowledge with future global assignees, Sheppard explains.

The following suggestions resulted from the first session:

  • A peer mentor program in which repatriates are matched with outgoing expatriates and their families as they prepare for a global assignment
  • Pre-departure and cross-cultural workshops using repatriate employees as guest speakers
  • Ongoing roundtables to discuss expat support programs and offer advice and input to global HR on program developments
  • An expat peer mentor program to help incoming global assignees and families become acquainted with the local community, customs and so on.

All U.S. employees returning from foreign assignment receive a profile questionnaire to fill out. This questionnaire is designed to help the company to determine the extent to which repats and their families wish to be involved in future expat programs and to maintain a current catalog of volunteer and activity selection.

The questionnaire asks responders to provide basic background information on themselves and to tell in which areas they would be able to share useful information about the foreign location with departing employees and their families.

Topics include:

  • Volunteer activities
  • Clubs and organizations
  • Employment opportunities
  • Adult education
  • Church activities
  • Child care
  • Preschool
  • Medical care
  • Shopping

The peer mentor program allows participants to allay the fears of the outgoing employee and his or her family. "We try to pair them with someone who has been to the same country or match them with ages of children, and so on," Sheppard says.

"They meet, have dinner or lunch, and discuss such questions as 'What are the schools like?' 'What things do I need for the kitchen?' 'How do I transfer money?' This is real, first-hand information," according to Sheppard.

Pre-departure orientation also includes two workshops for those employees transferring to other countries. These workshops may last as long as three days and include participation of the global assignee and his or her family. Repats may serve as guest speakers for these programs. They also may host dinner or lunch for the transferees' families.

The workshops include a thorough introduction to culture and a discussion of family issues, geography, religion and relevant laws. Useful living skills and specific relocation information on the new country may be provided.

The peer mentor program also has an overseas counterpart: an employee in the host country. "He or she stays close to the expat for a couple of weeks to help with work and social adjustment. This works very well.

Not only does that help the incoming employee, but it gives the buddy an opportunity to practice language skills, be exposed to the other culture, and so on. It broadens two people," Sheppard explains. The program requires briefing the mentor before the beginning of the peer mentor assignment.

The peer mentor program actually was an offshoot of a program begun by a group of African-Americans at GEMS' home office in Milwaukee. Members of the group were paired with new African-American employees.

"Expats coming into the U.S. are incorporated into some of the processes we have here," Sheppard says. "These are people who are on a work assignment in the U.S. One of the programs involving these people is our Around the World Roundtables," she continues.

"Any employee, even workers from the shop floor, can sign up to participate. We're trying to expose more employees to different cultures and educate them as to how our business is conducted worldwide," Sheppard says.

Also open to all employees are two workshops: Doing Business with the French and Doing Business with the Japanese. These workshops provide a rapid overview of French or Japanese culture and how to conduct business effectively in the French or Japanese business environment, Sheppard says.

Cross-cultural and language training is important, even for employees who remain and work in the U.S. because frequent contact with other cultures occurs in the Milwaukee headquarters. More than 30% of the workforce at the home office have received some training of this type.

Any new hire who is expected to have significant global contact is brought to Milwaukee for a week-long, new-employee orientation program. The repats and expats take part in this program, as well. They share information on their experiences as expatriates or explain what it's like in their home countries. For example, someone from Paris who is on a global assignment in the U.S. might present a segment of what it's like to live and work in Paris, on adapting to the culture, and so forth.

"We've brought in people from everywhere in the world for the orientation—people from field operations in various countries. This is the greatest thing because they see their counterparts from other countries who also are new to the company," Piano says.

For employees outside the U.S. who aren't expected to have any contact outside their home countries, the orientation is done locally. Both groups receive a module on cultural understanding. In the U.S. program, this is taught by someone not from the U.S., to give participants an accurate picture of how U.S. culture is viewed outside the country.

"New employee orientation is a multifaceted effort. All these programs have had good reviews," Piano says. They help GEMS communicate its global outlook to members of its workforce and their families.

Facilitating communication globally, however, is another important part of GEMS' global outlook. Communication with co-workers in distant locations is vital to the company's survival in the world marketplace.

To tackle this problem, Phyllis Piano, manager of communications and community relations for GEMS, headed a task force to learn how the company could communicate more effectively within the global organization.

"We looked at how we made announcements," Piano says. This program resulted in a communication network, including a directory containing home phone numbers of communication contacts and the translation of GEMS' flagship newsletter, The World, into French and Japanese.

The purpose of the directory is to allow GEMS managers to reach key people in another location in case of an emergency, according to Piano. This is essential for an organization in which some locations are operating during the time other offices are closed for the night. The directory is used only in emergencies. "Usually I use E-mail instead, or stay late at the office until the person I need comes in," Piano explains.

Many employees at GEMS start the day with E-mail, now that the company's various facilities are linked by computer, making international contact more efficient. This is a unique arrangement, according to D'Ambola. "Announcements can be instantaneous," he says. Sheppard arrives at the office very early to have conversations with people throughout the world, and her European and Asian counterparts often stay late to maintain weekly contact.

The purpose of translating newsletter articles into French and Japanese is twofold, according to Piano. "First employees outside the U.S. know what's going on. Second, the employees in the U.S. see the translations in the newsletter and are aware that we're a global company," she says.

The crowing jewel in GEMS' communication network, however, is its global videoconferencing facilities, which opened in June of 1990 and links locations throughout the world. The facility provides the opportunity for employees to confer with others in distant locations. The decision to develop videoconferencing capability was driven by the need to communicate with employees in other parts of the world, and to cut down on travel.

The technology is available to do three-way videoconferences between the home office, Tokyo and Paris. It's one of the best facilities in Wisconsin. "In the U.S. headquarters we decided to find the space and make the investment in a full-scale facility.

"It went through different stages in Japan and France, but now they too have excellent facilities," Piano says.

It's used all day and often during the night, according to Piano. "When three such distant locations are involved, someone has to be up in the middle of the night," she says. Employees must sign up to get on the schedule and arrange the time with their overseas counterparts and the videoconferencing coordinators. Somewhere between 80% and 90% of the videoconferences held are global, Piano says.

For this reason, the organization has developed a videoconferencing manual that's culturally sensitive and designed to facilitate understanding and communication with people from various cultures. For example, a co-cultural tip for Japan says to schedule a five- to 10-minute break every half hour to allow YMS (GEMS in Tokyo) to compare notes, clarify, compile questions, confer with each other and even translate, if needed. Users also are advised to check frequently for understanding and not to use jargon or idioms, especially such words as sports terms to express an idea.

"We don't expect any new issues in the future. We plan to build on the technologies we developed in the G.L.P. The solid foundation was put into place in the first three to four years. We expect to do more of the same: push the technology, the expat program, video communications, and so on," D'Ambola says.

Few U.S. companies have been able to make a dent in the U.S. trade deficit. Many have passed over the world marketplace in favor of trying to increase their marketshare at home, or have neglected it to cut costs. GEMS, on the other hand, recognized a gold mine. By polishing its global workforce, it has added sparkle to its bottom line and set an excellent example of global outlook for the other organizations to emulate.

Personnel Journal, June 1992, Vol. 71, No. 6, pp. 138-143.

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