Globalisation : Worldwide Vision in the Workplace

In recent years the issues of cross-cultural management have become increasingly urgent. The increasing globalisation urgent. The increasing globalisation of companies has created cross-border organisations where your colleagues, boss or subordinates are very likely to come from a range of different cultures.

The decline of head office functions and the reduction in numbers of middle managers performing traditional co-ordinating roles has led to a big increase in the use of multi-cultural teams to resolve business issues. Cultural issues are compounded be the physical distances between team members and the relative infrequency of opportunities to meet.

HR people are often involved at an early stage, facing urgent demands to find an Italian designer or a Russian salesperson, or to harmonise policies with sister companies. In the need to respond, it is all too easy to dust off UK procedures and assume that what works in Purley will work in Peking.

In developing cultural awareness, the approach developed by Fons Trompenaars, and outlined in Riding the Waves of Culture, specifies a number of distinct phases which organisations tend to go through. The first is to develop awareness of the nature of cultural differences and generate a desire to reconcile the different perspectives into a new and more effective style of doing business internationally.

The final stage in cross-cultural competence is to realise that the differences you see in others are also present, if less developed, within yourself. When you see a Japanese colleague say "yes" to a proposal they oppose and have no intention of implementing, you know that there is a cultural reluctance to say "no" bluntly to appear rude, but you can start to see the logic of the situation and the underlying similarities we share.

The first stage in developing the competencies of working across cultures is always awareness. Without awareness of the nature of the differences between cultures, we tend to measure others against our own cultural standards ( the normal way of doing things ). An early and sometimes painful lesson is that all cultures have their own, perfectly consistent but different, logics.

Culture is a dynamic process for solving human problems. It is dynamic because it changes as circumstances change, and it has evolved in a way that is logical to the people inside that culture to help them solve their regularly occurring problems.

The model developed by Trompenaars builds on this understanding by exploring seven major dimensions on which cultures differ. Five of these dimensions relate to solving problems in human relationships.

They look at how different cultures balance the everyday dilemmas of dealing with rules and relationship; the individual within the group; how status is given and earned; how emotions are expressed; and what is considered private and what public. The sixth dimension deals with how cultures relate to their environment: do they seek to control it, or to accept and adapt it ? the seventh looks at how different cultures relate to time; how they perceive the relative importance and degree of integration of the pat, the present and the future; and how they organise time within this.

Each dimension is supported by a research database of responses to 22,000 questionnaires completed by people working in international organisations in 53 countries. The questionnaire enables participants to choose how they would respond to everyday dilemmas in life and business, and show fascinating differences in approach to fundamental issues around the world.

By using this data to put the choices made by participants in a global perspective and exposing them to completely opposite, and equally logical, views from other cultures, we can make people challenge some of their basic assumptions about life and management.

Management literature and practice is overwhelmingly developed and preached by individuals from the Anglo-Saxon world, and unsurprisingly, it is laden with the cultural assumptions of that part of the world. As a result, many of the supposedly "universal" solutions put forward are irrelevant to a large part of the globe.

Much of the world still runs its organisations on a model of human relationships that is more akin to the traditional family than the functionally organised, formal, vision-led type of organisation prevalent in the US and north-west Europe.

The cultural assumptions in management practice and processes run deep. As an example, lets look at the simple HR process; job evaluation. Anglo-Saxon cultures tend to hold what we call a "universalist" orientation. Universalist societies are those where the rules and obligations to a wider society are a strong source of moral reference. Often Protestant in Europe, they tend to follow the rules even when friends are involved, and often look for the one best way of dealing fairly and equally with all cases. As a result, they are fond of universal or global solutions, policies and business models, and nervous about being seen to exercise power in a personal and arbitrary way.

Job-evaluation systems developed in these countries reflect this value. The "best" are so fair that they are based on a scoring mechanism that you are not allowed to understand ( in case you are tempted to influence the result ). The system scores your job description and announces a points score that determines your pay level, job size and position in the organisation.

"Particularist" societies are those where the particular circumstances are much more important than the rules. The bonds and obligations of relationships are stronger than any abstract rule, and the response to situations may change according to the circumstances and the people involved. Relationships are to be protected, even at the cost of bending or breaking rules. Authority is exercised directly and the decision of the boss is seen as perfectly legitimate.

Managers in these cultures ( Latin, Asian, Arab and African ) ask: "What does the person who designed this system know about my business ?" If they decide someone should be the new director, then the decision is theirs to make. If the manager works in the Italian subsidiary of a US company they may well add: "Don't forget to go to personnel and keep filling in the job form until you get it up to 1,700 points!" It is good to keep head office happy, after all, even if it bears no relation to the realities of doing business.

When people have reached a certain level of awareness about the nature of cultural differences, they can begin to appreciate the benefits of another culture's point of view. In training, we often make participants prepare a negotiating position while role-playing a culture very different from their own. It is surprising how well they come to understand and appreciate a point of view that they would never have developed from their own cultural stand point - indeed, it is sometimes hard for them to switch back after the exercise.

Once there is respect for different points of view as equally valid, there can develop a genuine desire to create new ways of working together. So long as individuals only accept the validity of their own view of the world, international working becomes a battle to get the French to follow the systems or to explain again to the Chinese that you are working to a deadline.

With respect for each other's logic, we start to look for ways to reconcile our different views of the world into an entirely new way of working that builds on the best features of each culture. Reconciliation is not compromise - it is creating a rich new synthesis that is more valuable than either of the preceding approaches, not a pale average.

In developing pay for performance systems globally, for example, we quickly run into major cultural differences in whether we should recognise and reward individual or group contributions.

Individualistic cultures, such as those in the US and Britain, choose the individual and pay the price of impaired teamwork and the tendency to push for personal objectives even when they damage the team as a whole. Collective cultures, such as that of the Japanese, choose the group and often pay the price in a submerging of individual initiative and creativity.

In developing a global approach, it is tempting to try to choose one or the other; but if you choose one extreme, you lose the benefits of the other. Many companies choose to have separate policies for different regions and develop enormously thick sets of global principles and policies.

It is a good rule of thumb that the quality of a global principle is inversely proportional to its length. The real question in seeking to reconcile differences is not how to choose or how to add together the approaches; it is rather how to achieve the one through the other.

If you are operating in an individualistic culture, by all means recognise the individual, but why not do it on the basis of their contribution to the group ? In a collective culture, motivate the group, but why not do it on the basis of how well it develops the individuals within it ? We can harness the strengths of each culture to support the things they are less good at while pursuing a common goal.

Global organisations have an advantage in that they operate in an enormously rich environment. They have the whole world to learn from, and nearly every culture has unique solutions to offer. Nearly every major human problem has already been solved somewhere in the world - the trick is to find out where, and transfer the learning quickly to the places still struggling with the same problems.

An understanding of national and corporate cultures and the dynamics involved in managing them is becoming essential in business and career effectiveness. Whether managing cultural differences will be the latest fad or will drive a fundamental change in the way we run our businesses, only time will tell. I hope and believe it will be the latter.

Almost without exception, faced with mature and 'developed' markets, major companies are turning to Eastern Europe and Asia as the source of their future growth. If they fail to find ways to work in these very different cultures, the most significant opportunities of the next 20 years will be lost to them.

The lessons of managing cultural diversity, but I would like to inject a word of caution on what is becoming a hot issue. Much of the literature and thinking about issues of diversity carries a strong US legal assumption of 'equality as sameness'. The essence of the US approach has been that everyone is and should be treated the same, and if you do not agree, I will sue you.

In the sense that sameness is the opposite of diversity, this could actually be seen as an anti-diversity approach. I think there's an evolving European view which says everyone is not the same - and thank goodness for that. It would be a dull world if the Italians behaved like the British.

A Dutch participant on one of our training programmes said: "Sometimes when I hear my company talk about harmonisation, I think they want us all to play the same note. Well, I am a musician, and let me tell you that harmony doesn't mean that; it means that we all play different notes, but together we sound beautiful.”

This to me is the essence of diversity, whether from culture, gender, race or age - the freedom to be equally valued for that difference, and the freedom to come together to create something more than any one of us could have done alone.


© 2003 Global Integration

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