By Lenka Bila
Intercultural management at Škoda Auto
The merger of Škoda Auto and Volkswagen AG in 1991 compelled the tradition-bound Czech company for the first time to face the challenges of internationalization. Today Škoda is the largest industrial undertaking in the Czech Republic as the company sells its products in 100 countries worldwide. The Joint Venture with VW is regarded by the company as a successful marriage between the systematic, methodical and dependable approach of the Germans and the creative, improvising and proficient disposition of the Czechs.
A tradition of more than 113 years
In 1895, when Vaclav Laurin and Vaclav Klement set up a bicycle repair workshop in the outskirts of Mlada Boleslav in Central Bohemia, people in the neighboring places thought it to be just another small event in their lives. A few years later the mechanics graduated to bicycle and motorcycle construction and, by 1905, they presented their first automobile, the Voiturette. In 1925 a merger of sorts took place with Škoda Pilsen and between 1946 and 1949 the main works in Mlada Boleslav was extended to the ancillary units in Vrchlabí and Kvasiny.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union the Czech government looked for a strategic partner so as to secure for Škoda a short and medium-term expansion of its automobile market in Central and Eastern Europe. The decision to establish a Joint Venture with Volkswagen in 1991 is regarded by insiders as a very successful match between the two parties.
The 100 percent ownership of Škoda Auto by VW AG since 2000 notwithstanding, the company’s management continues to uphold its tradition of more than 100 years, which in fact has a positive influence both on the Czech customers and on the Czech workers’ motivation.
Since 1991 Škoda Auto has transformed itself from a “brand with tradition without future“ into a ”brand of the future with tradition”.
Facts & figures
Today Škoda Auto is the largest industrial undertaking in the Czech Republic and on 31.12.2007 it recorded 23,559 regular and 4,194 contract workers.
The annual vehicle production has increased steadily from 172,000 p.a. in 1991 to 630,000 p.a. in 2007. In 2007 the products were sold in 100 markets – as opposed to a mere 30 in 1991. In 2007 the export share of Škoda Auto accounted for 7.5 per cent of the national total.
The company is not only a prestigious forerunner of the Czech industry but it is regarded as the role model in the socio-cultural arena as well. The international product portfolio is fittingly complemented by the company’s policy of Corporate Social Responsibility & Corporate Governance.
Foundation of intercultural coalescence
In order to achieve innovations through the fusion of both cultures – but without falling into the trap of overstated dominance of the one or excessive assimilation of the other culture – highly motivated German experts were present right from the start of the Joint Venture. Their number increased from 20 in 1991 to 146 in 1994.
Following the successful implementation of the Tandem Management and due to the introduction of a strong endorsement program for a younger generation management as well as talent management the number of the German experts was cut down gradually to 52 in 2007.
Since 1991 these experts included a team of human resources specialists who had a track record of international experience, modern know-how in the field of human resources, a visionary outlook and a distinct performance and target orientation. Thanks to a methodical approach and an exemplary and humane dimension of all members of the team, the team had a favorable effect on the Czechs. Thus, it was able to impart enthusiasm, vision and knowledge to the Czech workers.
A valuable initiative came also from the involvement of Czech emigrants living in Germany. During the first few years of the Joint Venture it was these people in particular who helped to develop suitable and feasible concepts and to build a well-balanced bridge between the German experts and the Czech managers and workers.
The team had the necessary instruments which often proved to be truly ground-breaking and their beneficial effects are still deeply felt today.
Cultural differences between Czechs and Germans
A Czech-German partnership can profit from two important pieces of information:
First of all, the Czech likes improvisation: he is mostly averse to universal rules, formalized procedures and standards; he wants to have free space for creativity to let out his inventive abilities. And yet, or just for that very reason, he is capable of adjusting to circumstances, willing to learn, is broadminded and considerate – which may sometimes make him appear phlegmatic or disorganized. Maximum risk prevention and organization, systematic approach, detailed thinking and acceptance of hierarchy motivate him only when he understands their meaning and purpose, which he then internalizes.
Secondly, the Czech is relationship-oriented. He is not particularly open to criticism; nor does he throw himself candidly into solving social conflicts. Work and leisure go hand in hand – in the same way as rationality and emotionality. Formal and informal structures are equally important to him, with the informal sometimes taking precedence.
Tandem management and talent management
Tandem management is a practical instrument based on intercultural sensitivity that is used for the integration of foreign experts and local partners. It was employed at Škoda Auto in order to prepare the local managers for accepting the help from the German experts aimed at enabling them to better cope with their new technical and managerial tasks. In Tandem everyone is expected to manage jointly a domain or a department for a period of one to three years. Initially the German experts played a dominant role. In a phased manner of transferring the know-how they gradually allowed the Czech managers to take on the reins. The Tandem was regarded as a bicycle for two that requires mutual acceptance, willingness to learn and intercultural awareness.
Today talent management is employed in the international facilities of Škoda Auto. This time the Czech unit assumes the role of an expert. The success of its local partner depends on its aptness and, consequently, also on Škoda Auto abroad.
Conditions for success
Three important aspects are considered absolutely essential for success:
1. The expert must possess the ability and willingness to gradually recede into the background and let his local colleagues have the precedence.
2. The local manager must have the necessary potential and ability to widen his know-how, be willing to learn, cooperate and gradually assume responsibilities.
3. Common goals, solutions, implementation and reflection on what was accomplished every day.
The following typical errors may hinder a successful process:
- Faulty selection of personnel or faulty assessment of potential
- Non-cooperation by one of the tandem partners
- Unclear roles
- The expert wants to be in the limelight.
- The local partner is reluctant to assume responsibility.
- Vertical division of functions
- No systematic human resources development
- No objective agreement on tandem development
- No counseling or coaching
- “Old boys“ network: conservative structures refuse to be changed.
Internationalization in foreign plants
Today Škoda Auto is an example of the successful transformation and consolidation of a brand from a local manufacturer to an international player, which, in the course of its growth, expanded its vehicle assemblies to international facilities in China, India, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Bosnia & Herzegovina.
For this reason, competent, flexible, mobile and cosmopolitan-conditioned Czech managers are selected and prepared for short, medium or long-term overseas appointments. At present there are about 80 experts working at Škoda Auto facilities in other countries.
The local managerial and technical personnel are hired, motivated and trained at Škoda Auto for short and medium-term tenures. Currently 30 managers assigned to plants in India and Russia receive training at Škoda Auto.
Internationalization in local plants
Whereas the demographic curve was not truly reassuring, the rapid increase in the number of investors and the opening of Czech borders made it difficult to find adequately qualified domestic workers.
Škoda Auto is, therefore, happy whenever foreign workers show interest in working in Czech industries.
At present, there are 28 nationalities represented at Škoda Auto, on average amounting to nearly 20 per cent of the total workforce. and their percentage in the total workforce is nearly 20 percent on average.
For Škoda Auto itself, internationalization has enormous influence on the sentiment and lifestyle of people in the small town of Mlada Boleslav, as almost half of its population is working for Škoda Auto and the foreign workers too are expected to be integrated into the society there.
Sensitization of Czech workers
In the process of integrating new foreign workers – whether on short, medium or long-term basis – the intercultural sensitivity of all workers plays an important role.
However, if tradition is to be maintained the company must retain its integrity. This happens thanks to the awareness creating efforts by the superiors
- through target-group-specific intercultural Training & Coaching: with general orientation, specifically GERMAN-CZECH, and tailor-made for a particular country,
- through promoting international rotations,
- through instruments of internal communication like work newsletter, work committee newsletter, weekly newsletter, info center , the behavioral code of Škoda Auto,
- through innovative future-oriented projects like WE are Škoda, the promotion of corporate culture, respect for foreign cultures,
- and through language training: one-to-one or in groups, within the country, abroad or by e-Learning; in 2007, 55.1 per cent of the management, 66.2 per cent of the high potentials and 12.4 percent of other regular employees participated in language courses. More than half of the workforce is learning German, about 40 percent English and the rest Russian, Spanish, Czech, French or other languages.
The complexity of intercultural awareness is steadily increasing. It is not only about awareness of other nationalities but also of genders, religions, industrial segments, departments, teams and finally of the individual. At Škoda Auto the steady internationalization process is endorsed with a simple formula: “Any ignorance about the foreign mentality can be counterbalanced with acceptance, respect and responsiveness while continuing to learn something new“.