Company: Papel Paraná, S.A.
The forestry industry in Argentina is mainly located in the northeastern provinces of Misiones, Corrientes, and Entre Ríos. Papel Parana specializes in the production of cellulose pulp, which is derived from pinewood. What makes this case unique is that the home offices are located in Argentine, while the U.S. branch offices only employ around 55 employees. Instead of the typical scenario where American culture penetrates local activities abroad, in this story Argentine culture is learning to adapt to operations in the United States. Claudio Ruiz is the company’s General Manger and as such has a unique vantage point to observe these differences. In this scenario we see how Claudio deals with the way that Americans use humor and sarcasm in their speech. He is also impressed with their insistence on concise, streamlined, and summarized information, but he also see the disadvantages of this focus. Since Papel Parana has operations in over 50 countries, Claudio is definitely in a position to compare the American tendencies with those of other clients and employees from around the world.
It’s one thing to get international professionals to join a multinational company. It is quite another to ask North Americans join a multinational company that does not have its roots in the United States. And in this instance the word “roots” is significant because we are talking about Papel Parana, part of Argentina’s growing forestry enterprise. Papel Parana’s worldwide offices extend its activities into over 50 countries, including a branch in Atlanta, Georgia. The office in Atlanta focuses on cellulose pulp, plywood and panels, and there are about 55 employees who coordinate the logistics of Papel Parana’s shipping in 12 different ports. Claudio Ruiz, originally from Posadas, capital city of the Misiones Province, works in the offices in Buenos Aires and he is the main point of contact for those in the American “branch” in terms of training, video conferencing, and direct visits. As such Claudio has experience interacting with North Americans, but from the vantage point of that of a Latin American company.
Claudio finds himself visiting the Atlanta office around twice a year. And additionally at least once a year representatives from the Atlanta office go to Argentina too. The Atlanta office generally sends 1 or 2 people to Buenos Aires, and they stay for around two weeks. Their time in Buenos Aires is part reward, part a chance to see operations at the home office, part training, and part time to resolve complaints and coordinate plans for the future. Claudio fully realizes that in Atlanta it is a different type of person who is willing to work for Papel Parana. When recruiting they find that other American telecommunications or software companies are often more desirable to recent American MBA graduates. Working for an Argentine forestry enterprise doesn’t necessarily have as big of a draw. In Argentina, however, Papel Parana and forestry enjoy a growing positive image and part of Claudio’s responsibilities includes helping those in Atlanta to sense that image. In Atlanta, although all business is conducted in English, nearly 30% of the employees are Latin American (although not necessarily Argentine). The manager in the Atlanta office, in fact, is Argentine, but most of the Latin Americans in Atlanta are from other countries. Linguistically, none of the North Americans who work in the Atlanta office speaks significant amounts of Spanish. But the truth is that with operations worldwide, English is used almost exclusively for all business communications.
In terms of cultural issues, what things has Claudio noticed over the years? “Do you mean besides the size of the Starbucks?” quips Claudio. What stands out immediately to Claudio is the way that Americans use humor in their speech and communication, and the fact that they are always talking about sports. “Humorous topics are always thrown into the mix and Argentines misunderstand this, thinking that Americans are not being serious about their business.” He adds that Americans often repeat the phrase, “just kidding,” which doesn’t really have a good equivalent in Spanish. “I have to remind my Argentine colleagues that the American’s use of humor is just a way to keep things informal, which is another value that Americans hold dear.” Where Americans use humor, Claudio believes that Argentines use more emotion. As to sports, Claudio notes that Americans sometimes begin their day with 20-30 minutes of sports topics. “It’s a big deal for them.” Of course those of us from the United States wonder if Claudio means that they are talking about the Braves or the Falcons for 30 minutes, because certainly there are not 30 minutes worth of things to say about the Hawks! (And parenthetically, only Americans will get the humor of that sarcastic statement.) At the same time, soccer, and to a certain extent basketball, are a big deal in Argentina too. However, Claudio can’t help but wonder why the Americans, who love sports so much, seem to generally talk about soccer with such distain, almost writing it off as if soccer were totally insignificant in the world.
Another difference is that the Americans have more interaction with different levels of management. It actually makes for easy meetings. In training sessions in Atlanta when Claudio asks questions, everyone shares their opinions openly. “In Argentina we are more guarded about who says what to whom. The Americans are much more open about telling you what they think.” Claudio believes that this creates an atmosphere of less pressure, because things are less formal. Informality, Claudio believes, is one of the major principles that Americans value.
Where humor and sports don’t actually change the way that Claudio works with Americans, the way Americans use information does affect the actual work. That is to say, Claudio believes that Americans want their information streamlined and simplified. “We used to prepare very detailed reports for our American office, but the Americans didn’t like it, saying that they didn’t want ‘all that extra fluff’.” Part of the problem was that Papel Parana would send lots of information far in advance of the actual deliveries. The earlier that information was sent, the less precise it ended up being because things changed along the way. Still, Papel Parana wanted to send the reports to help the Americans prepare for the orders that were being processed. However the Americans understood the data literally and so they felt that they couldn’t depend on the numbers. What the Argentines interpreted as a “margin of error” the Americans interpreted as “misinformation.” “While we were telling them not to worry about the changes, they were asking us not to send them inaccurate data.” In the end Claudio decided to stop sending detailed reports so early. “I still think that they would benefit from more detailed reports, but it just caused too many problems,” he added. “Ironically,” observes Claudio, “the Asians love those reports and study them in great detail.” It’s just a matter of how people deal with imprecise information. The irony, Claudio says, is in the fact that the Americans actually demand quality where the Asian clients are generally more focused on speed. The stereotype is that Americans are less flexible, “and I’m beginning to believe that.”
Similarly Claudio has noticed how much Americans like concise information. They want to know the advantages, commissions, and price, the essential details. But they don’t concern themselves as much with “extra” technical information that is not closely related to their own responsibilities. “I don’t know if it is because they just trust other people in other departments or if they really don’t care about anything except for their specific responsibility,” he adds. They do understand the big picture, but there is a continual pressure to be more concise, to outline and to summarize. There are positive aspects to this of course, but Claudio believes that there are negative ones too. For example, he recently was dealing with a group of potential buyers who were from Asia. As they took a tour of a plant, a couple of people stopped to look at the garbage cans in the room. “They were actually basing their decision on the efficiency of our plant on the type of things that were thrown away in our garbage. I was amazed.” Claudio isn’t suggesting that the Americans should go to that extreme, but he gives the example to illustrate the difference between how detail oriented some can be, unlike the Americans who just don’t focus on that level of detail. On the other hand, the American’s focus on concise information causes them to be very efficient. “I’m really impressed with how organized Americans are. They really are good at maximizing efforts.” For example, Claudio has noticed how when shipments come in two parts, Americans are really good at knowing when to wait to move it all as one big package and when to move things twice.
On balance it has been an interesting situation for Papel Parana to open operations in the United States. “Instead of the Americans opening up shop in our backyard, we have moved on over to their neighborhood.” So next time you are with Claudio, he’ll understand the humor in your sarcasm, he’ll try to talk about sports, and he’ll even adjust the type of data that he presents to you. Just give him a little break and entertain his thoughts about Argentina’s soccer teams for a bit too.