Keith May 7th, 2010
As part of some training material I have been writing for a client, I have revisited some related work I was engaged in some years ago. One of the other authors I was working with then wrote a chapter on culture. This work quoted a piece called Cultural variations in the cross-border transfer of organisational knowledge: an integrative framework, by R S Bhagat and others, from a 2002 edition of the Academy of Management Review.
This work describes national cultural patterns, and how they affect knowledge sharing. Here is a simple summary diagram I have put together of the four basic types they described:
Both types of culture in the left column are independent and individualist, and predominantly Western.
The top left quadrant is the domain of the rugged individualists. They are mostly found in France, Germany, the UK and USA. These people see each other as unique, and accept inequalities. Thus they can naturally accept a social class structure. They tend to hoard knowledge, and see this knowledge hoarding as power. They like theoretical analysis.
The horizontal individualists in the bottom left domain see themselves as equal in status with each other. Bhagat et al state that they also have “a relatively high tolerance for ambiguity and complexity”. They are mostly found in Denmark, Sweden and Australia. This is of particular interest, and will be discussed further.
The collectivist cultures represented in the right column are mostly Eastern. These collectivists are interdependent, and tend to be much better at sharing knowledge than the individualists. They historically share knowledge by storytelling, and have persistence – they are happy to let time take its course.
At the top right, we have the culture of duty and conformity found in China, Korea, Singapore and India. People in this cultural pattern respond to hierarchy and authority, and believe in service and sacrifice for the benefit of the group. At the same time, individuals still see themselves as different from each other. This pattern is particularly evident in the caste system in India. Another feature of this cultural type is favouritism shown to family members – seen in some developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Finally – and perhaps most interestingly – is the horizontal-collective pattern, shown in Japan and the kibbutzim in Israel. People in this pattern tend to have similar tastes and preferences, and strong group customs and relationships. They have an ideal of equality as “oneness” with the group. They are independent thinkers, yet prefer to make decisions by consensus.
Individualist cultures prefer working with explicit knowledge; collectivist cultures are comfortable with tacit knowledge. There may also be a left brain – right brain analogy here as well.
Application of the model
I would suggest that this particular view is a somewhat blunt instrument – there are many other distinctions between cultures. However, George Box’s maxim “all models are wrong, but some are useful” applies here. Even at this coarse level, this model is useful for increasing our understanding of the impact of basic cultural types not only on knowledge sharing, but on many aspects of how the world operates.
The main intent of the model was to understand the barriers to knowledge sharing between different cultures. Knowledge sharing between the cultural domains is easiest up and down the diagram (individualist to individualist or collectivist to collectivist), more difficult across the diagram (individualist to collectivist or vice-versa) but most difficult along the diagonals.
Looking at the nationalities exhibiting these cultural patterns, this highlights the great difficulties involved when attempting to take knowledge across some borders, such as, between Japan and the USA. Similarly, it may also explain that even though Australia may be geographically part of Asia, we struggle to be seen as culturally belonging.
It is also useful in attempting to understand some of the basic differences in cultural context – the differences that cause global conflict. People in one culture have difficulty with even a basic understanding of how people in another culture view themselves and the world. This shows why attempts to impose universal moral standards generally fail.
For instance, the concept of democracy is attractive to some cultural groups; less so to others. It is not that some people “like” it more than others; it just makes more sense in some contexts than others. Democratic cultural groups see democracy as an absolute, to be sought after regardless of context. They cannot understand why people in other parts of the world would not want to be democratic, nor can they understand that these people may not see democracy as an absolute, but only as another aspect of a foreign culture – as much to be sought after as fast food restaurant chains.
I also find the impact of these cultural types on knowledge sharing and other activities within the culture just as interesting.
It is interesting to look at the model through the Cynefin lens. Individualist cultures in general are represented as having an affinity for ordered systems, and collectivists as more comfortable with complexity. This is perhaps reflected in the problems that Western cultures have in coping with complexity. It seems that we still persist in attempting to use analysis and other ordered systems approaches to solve complex problems.
So how well does Australia fit into the horizontal individualist pattern? “Australian culture” can be interpreted in a number of different ways. There are also people who would claim that the term itself is an oxymoron.
Traditional Australian culture, as typified by “bush” culture or the Anzac legends, is the culture of mateship, of the “fair go”, of “she’ll be right”. It is the culture of the larrikin or ocker, with scant respect for authority – or at least for authoritarians. This is horizontal individualism at its purest – “I’m just as good as you are”. (Even the grammar defies conventions!)
It is the dry, black humour born of the hardship of the pioneering days. The original title of this blog was based on a typical Australian story dating from World War II. It is interesting that this culture of equality was born out of a rigid class system – the history of squatters (landed gentry) and convicts.
Even the exalted position of the Anzac in Australian culture is interesting. The Anzac legend was born from the crushing World War I military defeat at Gallipoli. Even though the Anzac spirit is all about the sacrifice and the journey, the stories of the time are full of irony and self-deprecation. Today’s pomp and ceremony seem a little out of place when you read these stories.
The Australian sense of equality is so ingrained that whenever people from vertical individualist cultures address me as “sir” I feel slightly offended, and find it hard to take them seriously.
Successive waves of immigration have also added to and strengthened an amazingly rich multicultural nation. Where else can you walk into your local Turkish restaurant to see a wedding reception in progress where the groom is Maltese and the bride Malaysian?
This culture has many laudable characteristics, but it is a coin with two sides. It can also be racist (even if usually in an offhand, non-malicious way); it can also be misogynist. It has historically ignored the existence of the indigenous inhabitants of the country that gave it birth – or looked on them with misguided pity or worse. The concept of universal equality gives rise to the “tall poppy” syndrome, where even our loved heroes are eventually torn down to same level as the rest of us. This indicates a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. In some ways, maybe we are still not comfortable with who we are.
On its brighter side, though, this typical Australian culture should give us some potential advantages in the knowledge age. It is a beneficial environment for knowledge sharing, and a natural habitat for social media. All tweets are equal.
But is this the whole story? The culture that we see around us in organisations in Australia today seems to be much more vertical individualist in nature. We have adopted much from the business culture of the USA and UK. This may have been a good idea during the industrial age, but it no longer serves us well.
We have just been celebrating Anzac Day a week or so ago. Let’s see if we can bring back some of the best aspects of the Anzac spirit and strengthen the collaboration in our organisations!