Friday, 16 February 2007

Global Management: a Clash of Cultures?

It was in the late 1980s, when I heard the old sociologist Norbert Elias (1897-1990) present a lecture about global civilisation and national identities. He explained that the growing nationalism and tribalism in parts of the world like Africa was an expression of a global civilisation process, in which nation states were increasingly becoming obsolete as cultural and political units. So the growing emphasis on regional, national and tribal cultures should be seen as a rearguard action of groups who try to cling to a cultural past in their quest for identity in an increasingly global world.

This idea came to my mind when I was reading about the globalisation of management. There is a tension between ideas of ‘globalisation’ and ‘localisation’. On the one hand management is becoming uniform across the globe, and on the other we see how management practices continue to be rooted in local cultures. Managers are told to learn about other cultures and to adapt their management tools and management styles to the exigencies of the culture in which they operate. Culture is mostly understood as national culture or regional culture. The applied management literature likes generalisations: Asian culture, European culture, American culture. It also likes simple concepts and a limited number of dimensions, preferably in the form of dichotomies: ‘shame cultures’ versus ‘guilt cultures’, ‘uncertainty avoiding’ versus ‘uncertainty accepting’ cultures, ‘high-context’ versus ‘low-context’ cultures. Management researchers, consultants and trainers provide the international manager with an easy to use and simple frame of concepts to understand national differences.

Why so much attention given to national differences? Elias may have given the answer: national identities are increasingly becoming obsolete and this creates a situation in which people cling to their national identities, and emphasise cultural differences to create the cultural identities which are in fact becoming less clear every day. Managers who operate in this ‘global village’ increasingly find themselves in the company of people who were brought up in other parts of the world, were educated in different educational systems, maybe also look different in terms of physical appearance and clothing. However, they share many things, from organisational principles to accounting standards. This may be a confusing situation in which people may be tempted to create new cultural identities. Unintentionally, management consultants and business schools contribute to this process by offering crude generalisations of national cultural differences. Managers are given explanations for the difficulties they may experience in their contacts with ‘other cultures’, and they are provided with words to describe their own culture. So the confusing world of cross-cultural global management is reconstructed in familiar terms of the 19th century nation-state, where recognisable cultures belonged to ‘nations’ that coincide with the political unit of the state.

So what happens in management is comparable to what Elias saw in Africa: people use anachronistic images to interpret what is happening to them in this rapidly globalising world. Managers even get help here from management consultants and researchers who are working within this obsolete paradigm. This paradigm will not be very useful, however, to deal with a reality that cannot adequately be viewed in terms of a clash between national cultures. An alternative is needed.

For such an alternative, it may be useful for management to pay attention to the work of those sociologists who deal with the emerging ‘multicultural societies’, where, as a result of migration, people with diverse cultural roots (must) live together. The cultural problems of the multicultural society cannot be understood as a clash between static (national) cultures, like conflicts between Turkish and Dutch culture in Holland. To understand what happens between groups with various cultural backgrounds, we must understand the processes in which identities are constructed, how cultures change in this process, how the dynamics of processes of intercultural communication determines their outcomes. In an interesting chapter on cross-cultural communication, Shadid (1998) shows that current concepts of culture cannot deal adequately with cross-cultural communication in multicultural society, because cultures are defined in terms of national and regional differences and communication processes are completely explained by culture, without paying attention to the context and the persons involved. His alternative is an approach that focuses on how people construct culture in communication processes, in which unique persons are involved in a specific context, could be very useful for management. Managers in the global village are not fundamentally different from the multicultural population of Western Europe: they too are creating culture in communication processes with people with various cultural roots. If this becomes a ‘clash of cultures’ or something more creative, depends on how they define that situation! Consultants and researchers in international, cross-cultural management have the responsibility to contribute to a situation in which the construction of defensive and nostalgic identities can be avoided.


R. Shadid (1998), ‘Interculturele Communicatie’, in: Rinus Penninx, Henk M√ľnstermann en Han Entzinger, Etnische minderheden en de multiculturele samenleving. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff, 1998.