Brain powerCultural awareness in KM

Cultural dimensions and factors: use and misuse

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles on cultural awareness in KM.

National cultural dimensions theories are frameworks for describing how values are influenced by culture, and they have been developed to assist cross-cultural communication and associated understanding. The theories include those of Hofstede, Inglehart, and Schwartz1, and the GLOBE research project2.

Each of the theories uses a number of dimensions to describe cultural differences. For example, Hofstede has described six national cultural dimensions, being Power Distance Index (PDI), Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV), Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS), Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI), Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Normative Orientation (LTO), and Indulgence versus Restraint (IND).

Other authors have explored further factors in cultural difference. For example, in the 1976 book Beyond Culture3, Hall introduces the concept of the cultural context of communication.

Applying national cultural dimensions theories and factors

As an Australian now living in China, I’ve found cultural dimensions theories and factors to be very useful, for example in the workplace.

In workplaces in Australia, there is typically an induction for new employees involving several hours to a few days of introductory information covering all aspects of the workplace and the job. For office-based roles, there is also generally a workplace intranet through which information is transferred and shared.

However, in my work in China, such as in my current university teaching role, there has been no induction, and there is no workplace intranet.

Awareness of the concept of the cultural context of communication as described in Beyond Culture has provided me with an insight into the basis of these communication differences, considerably softening what could otherwise have been a considerable culture shock:

A high-context (HC) communication or message is one in which most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit transmitted part of the message. A low-context (LC) communication is just the opposite; i.e., the mass of information is vested in the explicit code.

In Australia, communication is low-context (LC), meaning that information is conveyed through electronic and paper documents, presentations, and instructions. On the other hand, communication in China is high-context, meaning that information comes from and through situations. So, rather than receiving explicit job information in advance through an induction, it will instead be conveyed through situations. For example, how the students relate to each other and the teacher in the first class, including the things they apparently expect the teacher to do and not do.

The ecological fallacy in national cultural research

While national cultural theories and factors are very useful in assisting effective cross-cultural communication and related understanding, there’s the potential for ecological fallacy in their use. As discussed by Freedman4:

The ‘ecological fallacy’ consists of ascribing to individuals the characteristics of groups to which they belong, even though the relevant individuals may not share such characteristics.

Brewer and Venaik highlight the ecological fallacy in national cultural research in a recent paper5. They advise that:

Both the Hofstede and GLOBE culture dimensions are derived from individual-level survey data aggregated to, and analysed at, the national level. But their culture scales that are correlated at the national (ecological) level are not correlated in the same manner at the individual or organizational level. To presume they are is a form of ‘ecological fallacy’ that, despite warnings, has often been overlooked by culture researchers

In their paper, Brewer and Venaik show how five research articles in leading journals fall foul of the ecological fallacy in national cultural research by ascribing national-level characteristics to organisations or individuals. They warn that:

The implications of this ecological fallacy include the development of invalid culture-related theory and the persistence of erroneous practitioner stereotyping.

Some tips in regard to cross-cultural communication

If you’re going to engage in cross-cultural communication, a knowledge of national cultural theories and factors will greatly assist you in understanding the cultural differences you can expect and how to respond to them. However, beware of the ecological fallacy in their application.

The recent article Cultural Differences Are More Complicated than What Country You’re From provides useful advice. While national cultural differences matter, it’s not all that matters:

…we’re often surprised to discover that the person in question acts in a completely different way from how we anticipated. Instead of being reticent, our colleague from Asia is actually quite loud and confrontational. Instead of behaving aggressively, our Israeli supplier is mild-mannered. And as we encounter various other people who confound our expectations about cultural differences, we wonder where we went wrong.

Article author Andy Molinsky suggests that we can be better prepared by asking ourselves a set of more focused questions:

Question 1: What do you know about the region? Just as it is useful to learn something about culture norms when diagnosing your situation, it is good practice to learn something about region norms.

Question 2: What do you know about the company or industry? Like countries and regions, companies and industries also have distinctive cultures.

Of course, sometimes the culture of a company will reflect the culture of a region or a country.

Question 3: What do you know about the people? Finally, ask yourself what you know, or what you might be able to find out, about the people you are interacting with.

The role that you are playing in a given interaction matters a great deal as well.

Molinsky suggests that books and articles will be of only limited value in answering these questions. Rather, he advises  that:

…one of the best ways to anticipate what you’ll encounter is by talking with expats: people similar to you who have studied, lived, or worked in the country in question. These individuals have a nuanced perspective on the challenges you’ll be facing and what you’ll experience in the specific situations you find yourself in, along with insight into the people you’ll be working with.

In a second article, Andy Molinsky and Sujin Jang recommend focusing on what you have in common, as opposed to an emphasis on cultural differences.

References:

  1. Schwartz, S. (2006). A Theory of Cultural Value Orientations: Explication and Applications. Comparative Sociology, 5, 137-182.
  2. Grove, C. (2005). Introduction to the GLOBE Research Project on Leadership Worldwide.
  3. Hall, E.T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Anchor Books, New York.
  4. Freedman, D.A. (2001), Ecological Inference, pages 4027-4030 in Smelser, N.J. & Baltes, P.B. (eds) International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, Pergamon, Oxford.
  5. Brewer, P. & Venaik, S. (2014). The Ecological Fallacy in National Culture Research. Organization Studies, 35, 1063-1086.

Also published on Medium.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes (www.bruceboyes.info) is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (www.realkm.com) and currently also teaches in the University of NSW (UNSW) Foundation Studies program in China. He has expertise and experience in a wide range of areas including knowledge management (KM), environmental management, program and project management, writing and editing, stakeholder engagement, communications, and research. Bruce holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction and a Certificate of Technology (Electronics). With a demonstrated ability to identify and implement innovative solutions to social and ecological complexity, Bruce's many career highlights include establishing RealKM Magazine as an award-winning resource for knowledge managers, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee the implementation of an award-winning $77.4 million river recovery program in western Sydney on time and under budget, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support communities to sustainably manage landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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