Monday, May 23, 2011

Cross-cultural Management in the age of Cultural Flattening

After 35 years work experience in the US, I taught my first ever course in India on entrepreneurship, and realised that the notion of cross-cultural management, a mainstay of human resource professionals, is an idea past its prime. Superficially, dress, food preferences, language, art knowledge, there are differences, but fundamentally e.g. motivation, values, relationships, people are people.

The monumental change Internet and mobile digital information has wrought,  I would argue, is that the notion of "culture" is rendered obsolete; and this is a good thing. Today, its about being aware of yourself and of others;  its about individual choice more than the culture a person grew up in; focus on what is hard-wired vs. what is social (read culture) conditioning.

Globalization, social media and access to high quality visuals at  Internet speed have had a "flattening"  effect not just on business but also social mores. In  Art Kleiner's Strategy+Business  article A Long-Wave Theory on Today’s Digital Revolution, historian Elin Whitney-Smith observes: "in each new information revolution, decision rights have been pushed lower in the organization. One of the social innovations of the electric information revolution was the train conductor. He was a working-class individual, but he wore a suit and tie and carried a watch. He could say “all aboard!” to an aristocrat and the aristocrat would have to get on the train or get left behind. That was a huge social innovation." That metaphor now applies across countries and cultures. As long as an individual has a vested interest in ensuring long term success of the organisation, in this case keeping trains running on schedule for the greater benefit, decision making overlooks culture defined norms, be it hierarchy, race, and even religion. Information access, whether in a business, societal or personal context, means that culturally defined rights and wrongs just become data points and not defining criterion.

There is a rub though. More so than ever, "cultural flattening" underscore the need to understand practical considerations imposed by geography and economic circumstance because cultural cues that help awareness are now missing. The digital armchair traveller may intellectually understand poverty but cannot experience hunger. A false understanding can lead to wrong decisions.

We say that “cultural awareness does not focus on a specific region of the world, but instead requires general sensitivity to other cultures.” Overall I agree with this– just replace culture with “circumstance” (this is important because circumstance can be changed, culture not so easily). By and large though, from food to fashion, social class to religious custom, "unity in diversity" has changed from a slogan to reality.

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