P&G Gets Reticent Researchers to Speak Up

In the belief that innovation thrives on open debate, Procter & Gamble is teaching researchers at its Beijing facility to overcome cultural taboos against outspoken disagreement

At Procter & Gamble's (PG) massive research facility in Beijing, they have a saying: "No speak, no thought." For the more than 500 Chinese scientists, PhDs, and senior researchers working in the global consumer products company's China research and development division, the mantra defines the skill set needed to excel at P&G.

It's not meant to be a rah-rah corporate cheer. Rather, the statement reminds Chinese employees of the importance of sharing one's thoughts. In China, and across much of Asia, people typically do not share challenging ideas with co-workers, certainly not with higher-ranking colleagues. Asian workers are taught to say little—especially anything that might be perceived as questioning authority—no matter how right they might be. As a result, they keep to themselves. "In Chinese culture, we don't speak in front of superiors," says Jennifer Zhu, an associate director in the R&D division there.

That makes for a culture clash of the corporate kind. P&G's culture, especially in R&D, demands that researchers talk openly about their ideas, disagree with and challenge one another, to make ideas stronger. Diversity of thought, emanating from different cultural perspectives, fuels creativity. "It's how we do our R&D work at P&G," says Bruce Brown, P&G's head of global research.

"Gas Station" Program

With its Asian researchers struggling, P&G executives began experimenting in 2006 with a program intended to help Asian researchers develop the confidence to speak their minds. Called "gas station" because it's where workers go to recharge and fill up on their skill set, the effort immerses newly hired researchers and scientists into a three-day residential program. Procter veterans attempt to retrain reticent employees and help them learn to thrive in the outwardly challenging environment at P&G.

The experience is like going back to school to get a quick degree in American-style corporate communication. New employees not only listen to lectures, they role-play and get to know one another. The program teaches participants to speak up by encouraging them to contribute thoughts to the discussion. "We designed the program to be very interactive and experiential," Zhu says. "We leverage every teachable moment to learn how they can do things differently."

And they demonstrate how technical mastery, one of the key goals of the program, comes from broadening one's network of relationships beyond the group in the Beijing center. In China and throughout Asia, the process means developing relationships with several people who are of different cultural backgrounds and have various areas of professional expertise, Zhu says. When the participants see African-Americans, Caucasians, women, and men teaching different aspects of the seminar, they learn that diversity is valued at P&G. Zhu and her co-teachers explain how having more connections with people of diverse backgrounds allows a researcher to leverage others' expertise in addition to their own.

After the orientation, each class of "gas station employees" reunites every quarter for a day or so to check on their adaptation progress and to pick up new concepts. The program has helped "solve the issue of how to be successful in the company" for Asian scientists and researchers, says Janet Reid, an ex-P&G executive and principle partner of diversity consulting firm Global Lead, which is advising P&G on the gas station concept. "They feel more eager and secure expressing thoughts and fears."

Diversity as Business Driver

P&G needs to find an edge in China. One of the early foreign investors in the market, P&G has seen its dominance eroded as local companies step up their battle and other multinational companies chase growth around the world. Further, notes Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Ali Dibadj, frugal consumers in China's urban centers are looking to buy cheap products, hurting P&G because its goods are usually priced a bit higher than its competitors.

In 2005, for example, P&G had 43.5% market share in diapers. By 2008 its share had slipped to 41.9%, Dibadj notes. "China is becoming a much tougher market for them than it has been." he says.

Judging from the reduced attrition rate, the gas station program seems to be working. Back in 2001, 15% of P&G's Chinese employees left the company in the first year. Today, that number has dropped to 5%. Brown, the head of R&D, attributes much of that to the gas station. P&G is opening a new multimillion-dollar technical center in Beijing. "We would only do that if we can say with confidence that we can attract, recruit, and retain the best in China," he says. "Before we started this program, I'm not sure we could say that."

Consider the case of one 2006 hire. Zhu gave the example of a female employee who came to P&G from Tsinghua University in Beijing, where she was a top microbiology student. But at P&G she rarely spoke up, even though her English was respectable. The gas station allowed her to observe successful P&G managers like Zhu and learn how they advanced in the organization. She was repeatedly told by mentors in the program: "If you don't speak, you won't have a point of view."

Eventually she learned that having a point of view did not always come with bad consequences, and she soon developed the confidence to contribute to the discussion. That helped her greatly when she went back to work. Now she is leading a significant project within the oral care business unit.

The success of the program has prompted P&G officials to expand it. This year it is being extended beyond China to other regions of Asia, including Japan, the Philippines, and India. And P&G officials want to open the program up to more than new hires by starting a similar training process for researchers and scientists who have been at the company for several years.

By getting a chance to pull into the gas station, Asian workers "get exposed to the concept of dealing with people who are different from themselves," Reid says. "That's the beauty of diversity."

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