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Managing Cultural Differences

Author: Philip R. Harris and Robert T. Moran
Copyright: ©1996
Publishers:Gulf Publishing Company. Houston, TX
Book Review by: Cathy Bernatt

Managing Cultural Differences

"For leading-edge organizations, globalism means the creation of a culture that embraces diversity to maximize the potential of personnel, especially through cohesive work teams." (Harris & Moran, p. 171) In November last year I designed and directed a 3-day Corporate Teambuilding program for an information technology company in Japan with employees from twenty-six different countries worldwide. All were computer and high-tech wizards. This was the common bond employees and top management shared. The company was founded on this strength and a definite market need defined. Their business was to provide high-tech information solutions in the form of projects, both big and small. Most projects were run at the client sites. Some of those projects had not been successful and they wanted to find out why. One intercultural skill they needed to develop was isomorphic attribution (putting oneself in another's shoes). They identified in an early exercise that communication breakdown occurred both inside the company and with clients. People worked from assumptions based on their set of values that were often not the same as the other people's assumptions they were working with. As Blaise Pascal says, "There are truths on this side of the Pyrenees which are falsehoods on the other." (Harris & Moran, p. 18)

Although it was started as a Japanese company, top management is predominantly N. American and although they have, to their credit, managed to attract such a diverse workforce, their tendency is to operate from the framework of a low-context culture, low-synergy framework. Their core clients are mainly Japanese corporations and some multi-nationals. The strategy for dealing with only those two client groups requires two very different approaches. For such a culturally diverse company dealing with culturally diverse clients, cross-cultural training is essential. At minimum, skills in acculturation, cultural sensitivity, cross-cultural communication, flexibility, change and conflict management, ability to make isomorphic attributions will be needed to increase the chances of the company achieving their corporate and personal objectives.

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In the early years of this company, outsiders (non-Japanese) would go into Japanese companies and attempt to provide IT solutions. The people sent in were experts in providing IT solutions. Yet projects were failing. Why? Because, what defines success goes far beyond expertise in one's field. Of course that should a given. After that, there is a whole range of other "human relationship" skills required to successfully manage any project never-mind culturally diverse ones. This company operated in their early days as an ethnocentric corporation, which prevented them from successfully providing service to many of their Japanese clients. Identifying this problem, they began a program to bring in Japanese nationals and provided a fast track highly structured training program for them. But the employees from the other 26 countries were not provided with any kind of equivalent training program. They were simply brought in from near and far (Romania, India, Nepal, Ireland, Turkey) for their technological expertise and thrown together into project teams to begin work immediately. Consistency and support to provide employees with minimal cross-cultural training and time to acculturate to their new environment did not happen.

The expectation of the president, a New Yorker, was that people take maximum responsibility (self-directed) and an ownership attitude (suggesting solutions for identified problems). For those from a low-context culture, this approach may have worked. But for those from a high-context culture, this approach was alien. Edward Shein describes what resulted in this company based on the president's expectations, "...communication failures and cultural misunderstandings... prevent the parties from framing the problems in a common way, and thus make it impossible to deal with the problem constructively." (Harris & Moran, p. 4)

Time and again during the OB course we found this to be true. Those from low-context, low-synergy cultures were very vocal and competitive, jumping into leadership roles even when we assigned leaders from high-context cultures. Listening skills, even more critical in a culturally diverse organization, were seriously lacking. In the debriefs, when these issues arose, the first tendency was for those from the low-context, low-synergy cultures to become defensive and to not allow enough space and time for those from high-context cultures to contribute their ideas and opinions. Once pointed out, a commitment was made to try and improve on these issues. In only three-days, reality was that awareness was perhaps increased, but dramatic change would require a more systematic long-term approach to cross-cultural training with a focus on enhancing cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork.

For this company a "Do in Rome as the Romans do" needed to subdue the "Ugly Foreigner Approach" that was prevalent. (Harris & Moran, p. 95) Once clear cross-cultural training goals are set, a process of cascading those goals down through the company might be successful in eventually transforming them into a true "global" company.

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