About Culture

3. Today's Culture Challenge


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3. Today's Culture Challenge
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Globalization, Diversity and Speed!
   
Classic culture studies have played a primary role in harmonizing cultural differences during the past decades of globalization. It is no exaggeration to say that without them, international business cooperation and multicultural organizations would not have enjoyed the success that is evident today.
 
Nowadays however, while these studies, their resulting theories and application remain valid, they are no longer sufficient by themselves; the reasons are 'diversity' and 'speed'.
    
DIVERSITY
 
The term diverse simply means a multitude of diverse elements (be they what they may). However, as concerning 'cultural' diversity, I define the term as follows:
 
"A culturally diverse environment is an environment whose members bring a multitude of diverse cultures and practices."
 
And that is an increasing challenge that we face today when working with diversity as compared to not so long ago, when classic culture theories were developed. For while earlier globalization implied the need to 'collaborate' with other cultures – normally in the form of separate collaborating organizations from different     cultures agreeing and coordinating their activities to achieve their purpose – modern globalization with its increasing demographic mix have resulted in an increasing cultural diversity within many organizations of all size and types (see figures below).
    
Figure A illustrates a classic scenario whereby three organizations (or divisions) of three distinct cultures need to collaborate together. An example would be a manufacturing company in the US (X), whose design division is based in Germany (Y) that has a supplier in China (Z). Each of these organizations has a homogeneous culture within, which is dominated by its local national culture and significantly differs from the cultures of the other two organizations.

In our simplified example, Culture R is a “US large-manufacturer” culture; Culture S is a “German medium-company” culture; and  Culture T is a “Chinese family-business” culture. 
Figure B illustrate a similar scenario but of modern times, whereby two of the organizations are multicultural in themselves. Following the same example, we have the US manufacturer (X) employing Americans, South Americans, Indians, Europeans, Chinese, and so on. While the German design division (Y) employs people from Germany, other European countries, Africa, the Far East, the Middle East and so on. For simplicity sake, let us assume that the Chinese organization (Z) to be a small company with a relatively homogeneous culture.
 
The blue arrows in both figures illustrate the cross-cultural interfaces that can be managed utilizing classic culture theories. That is, identifying the difference between each pair of the main interfacing cultures (say cultures R and S), elaborating possible work implications arising from such differences, and devising a culturally oriented approach to managing and harmonizing these implications.
        
The brown arrows illustrate the interfaces amongst members of the cultural diversity within the organizations, and it should be noted that many members of these organizations are themselves multicultural. That is, their personal and professional backgrounds exposed them to a multitude of cultures that in turn shaped their working practices, alongside their cultures of origins. As a result, they do not fit any cultural archetype and cannot be defined or managed through the use of classic culture theories.

It is from such culturally diverse individuals within and across organizations that modern project teams are built and tasked with the planning, coordination and delivery of products and services. This, which once upon a time was considered an exceptional scenario, is what today for many, constitutes the norm.
 
Although today's cultural diversity provide a wide spectrum of opportunities for their hosting organization (in terms of diverse skills resulting from the diverse cultures), it does imply that classic culture theories are insufficient by themselves to exploit such opportunities.
 
SPEED
 
No mystery there, timescales for delivery are shrinking fast. Drivers being increased competition from the global market, reduced time-to-market thanks to evolving technologies and as an outcome, continuously changing products and services to satisfy an increasingly demanding market. This change that have become the norm, have resulted in rapidly increasing investments in projects and programs as compared to processes.
        
The need to rapidly structure a team tasked with complex delivery within strict timescales adds a clear challenge to any business, and that challenge will multiply if the team is culturally diverse; as is the case with many initiatives today.
 
My point is this; classic culture theories helps us devise a strategy that allows distinctly identified cultures to understand each other and find a way to harmoniously work together through the participative development of a common working culture. This processes is called ‘assimilation’ and usually take many months or years to fully develop. It is with the help of classic culture theories that many multinationals have succeeded in establishing their ventures and businesses outside their original cultures.
 
Today however, ‘many months’ is a very long time. And if we consider multicultural project and programs rather than international ventures, then a ‘many month’ period of compromised performance prior to cultural assimilation or harmonization is most likely to spell the utter failure of the initiative.

M ost international initiatives today involve both cross-cultural and multicultural work (as in the figures above); and if they are to achieve their optimum potential in success, both cultural interfaces must be managed.
 
These complexities of modern times are exactly what drove me to develop my approach to managing cultural diversity at work.
        

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