A year ago, had Merav Tal, a marketer for the Aladdin high-tech company, been told that she would be spending long hours during the coming months in conference rooms in Bucharest, she would have thought that this was a fictional scenario. However, the crisis in the high-tech industry was swift and severe, and the Eastern European and Asian markets, which for the companies had previously existed primarily on paper, have become major targets of Israeli high-tech people.
They have recently learned that the high-tech bubble has burst not only in the business sense, but also in other aspects: The vision of an international global culture has been contradicted.
Merav Tal is part of a growing group of high-tech people who travel to long business meetings in Eastern Europe, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South and Central America, destinations that until not too long ago had been considered esoteric. But the high-tech crisis has been felt only faintly in these places, and they are now considered relatively stable markets.
In certain senses, high-tech people are the civilian-business analogue to diplomats, only their trajectory is the other way around: At the Foreign Ministry, service begins in Uzbekistan in central Asia and Asmara in Africa, for example, and only after several years of experience in less familiar cultures do young diplomats feel their way back to the habits of the Western world. The high-tech crisis, however, has taken the marketing people from the caf?s of Seattle to experimental start-up companies in Taiwan and its neighbors (and all of them see themselves as proud emissaries of Israeli society, especially at a time that is not at all easy for Israeli emissaries of any sort abroad).
Up until two years ago it appeared as though in most countries of the world a uniform business culture was emerging that was ruled by the United States: Companies, for example, used the services of behavior counselors for business people, who explained not only the language used in business meetings but even what haircuts are appropriate. But then came the months of crisis and they posed a new challenge to the marketing people: Very long meetings in Japan, a flexible and creeping timetable in South America, extreme Scandinavian politeness and planning, all of which demand control of impatience. They discovered that computerized communications between countries is perhaps faster, but it does not create a uniform and homogenous community, and that business trips to eastern Asia are more frequent, but flight times have not grown any shorter.
Ella Shelef, the manpower director at Interwise, a company that develops products for distance-learning, says: "Contrary to popular opinion, the high-tech industry has a hard time bridging between business cultures. This is an industry that does see the world as a single market, but this is an illusion. All companies invest a huge effort in penetrating additional foreign targets, but the cultural difficulties are great and selling the product is not easy."
Guy Michrowsky, marketing director at Fantine, has doubts not only about the concept of a "global village," but also about more prevalent assumptions such as the notion that it is easy to create good working relations with Eastern European countries. Fantine specializes in the marketing and promotion of projects of Israeli high-tech companies in Europe, and tries to ease their way with the help of business and cultural mediation.
Michrowsky does not need to go as far as eastern Asia to determine that "there is no global village." In the offices on the 38th floor of the Azrieli towers in Tel Aviv he tries, he says, to create a model of a "mini-Europe." The European market is deceptive, he says, because it looks close and familiar. "Even though I spent five years working in Britain, it's hard to say that I really understand the British business community. I still can't get a conversation going about the weather or soccer. These are skills that have to be far more deeply internalized."
The company where he works is divided into teams, and in every office hangs the flag of the country in which that particular group specializes - from France and Italy to the Scandinavian countries. The company has 70 workers, of whom 60 are Europeans, mostly new immigrants who spend most of their time mediating between impatient Israeli companies and large European firms that operate according to venerable traditions.
One by one the team members enter the room. Yaakov Melchior, 27, a development consultant for the Scandinavian countries, relates that that sometimes he almost has to use force to prevent people in Israeli companies from dialing the cellular phone numbers of top executives of companies with which they are conducting negotiations at all hours of the day and night. "Time off in Scandinavia is sacred, and the division between work and home is very sharp, in contrast to Israeli who are available 24 hours a day, including the Sabbath and holidays."
Yvonne Schutte, 27, from Holland. is a go-between for Israeli companies and inhabitants of her country. She came to Israel with her husband, a diplomat by profession. "The Dutch find it difficult to say `no' unambiguously when they are not interested in a deal," she relates. "They delay their answer until it finally becomes clear. The Israelis, on their part, want to move fast: After one meeting they are already prepared to sign the contracts."
Emmanuel Nakash, who is responsible for the French team, explains: "The French are ready to sign a contract in another two years as well. They think that high-tech products will still be here in another 100 years time, like bicycles or shoes. But to Israelis it is clear that this is not the case, and there are a lot of difficulties around this gap."
And if the European market poses such problems, companies that specialize in more distant markets encounter more complex difficulties. Paul Norflus is in charge of product management at Envara, a company that develops means of wireless communication and specializes in working with Japan and Taiwan. "A large part of my job is to suit the products to the countries with which our company works," he says. "We made a series of trips abroad and held meetings with the local management to determine which products to market in each locale, and only afterward did we divide up the targets for the marketing people. This was a complex coordination operation, an attempt to arrive at a somewhat better understanding of what the world wants from us. This attempt is always a partial success.
"The flights to Japan and Taiwan are long, and in high-tech terms time stretches even longer," adds Norflus. "To make the process a bit shorter we have local people working with us who help us with coordination." According to him, in recent months the east Asian market has become of greater importance, though, he adds, "Japan has also been a lively market as far as we are concerned, especially as we make products for home use. But as of now Taiwan and Japan are experiencing the great crisis less severely, and their importance has increased considerably."
Norflus also believes that the way to a unified, universal business culture is still long, and in fact he is not at all sure that this is possible. He distinguishes, for example, between Taiwan's business culture and Japan's. "In Taiwan, there is a very large community of people who have spent time in the United States, came back and established start-up companies, and they play a central role in the local market. Company offices have changed a great deal over the past two years, and look like interior-designed high-tech offices, and not like factory floors. High-tech people in Japan resemble Israeli workers, and they absorb a lot from American culture - from the way they dress to the swift business conduct. Mostly high-tech people in Taiwan go by American names like John, Paul or Albert. When they grew up, they chose an American name for themselves and stuck with it. Even their colleagues at work call them by their American names and not by their real names.
"In Japan, however, Eastern culture is more obvious. There, for example, they tend to prolong and expand meetings, and if a meeting is scheduled for 15:00-17:00 it will not end earlier, even if there is nothing left to discuss. In the remaining time, the hosts talk among themselves in Japanese, as if we did not exist. The meeting will go on this way until the time it is scheduled to end, and not a minute earlier."
According to Norflus, another characteristic of Japanese business culture that could look strange is the way people dress: Workers wear identical uniforms, sandals and white socks. As the executives have to stand out, they wear suits in colors like orange, yellow and phosphorous green. "This is still strange to us," notes Norflus. "The executives come to meetings in fluorescent uniforms. But when they come to Israel for meetings they wear regular western business suits."
The Japanese business card is also very different from the western one. "Every executive has a two-sided card: a Western side and a Japanese side," explains Norflus. "On the Japanese side, there is no business title, only the person's name and the company. Ostensibly, this is egalitarian, but in fact this is part of a very strong hierarchy that needs no reminders."
At every meal in Taiwan and Japan, it is necessary to eat and drink quite a lot, says Norflus, "because this is a sign of health and masculinity, and I hope that so far, we have fulfilled expectations. Speaking of masculinity, at our meetings, the definite majority is male, and female workers for the company enter in total silence to serve drinks. They bow, and it is not polite even to relate to this gesture.
According to Merav Tal as well, she is still surprised to discover at working meetings in Eastern Europe that she is the only woman present. "I was pleasantly surprised to find that no notice was taken of the fact that I am a woman. What in Israel would have certainly drawn a comment or two went by there in total silence."
Tal is responsible for marketing in the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Scandinavian countries. "These are awakening and very important markets. The slowdown is less felt there, and companies from around the world are aware of this. When I started working at this job, I preferred to work in South America, or in Italy, places I had never been before. Maybe it was harder for me to penetrate there from a business standpoint, but I was curious about them. Today I feel that the trips to Eastern Europe are a positive experience, though an exhausting one, that always manages to surprise me. There are already friendly relations with the distributors, and I feel quite comfortable, though it is clear that there is no cultural uniformity: You always have to get used to a new place, a new climate, and a different kind of hospitality. It still bothers me a lot when I'm the only woman in a roomful of marketing people, but the attitude toward me is completely businesslike."
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