1. Management and Organizational Theory

Human behaviour is value driven, and managers and leaders carry their own value programming into the organisations they lead and manage. In fact, management strategies and decisions are often a reflection of the values of managers who themselves represent a particular mode of mental programming—unique to their culture of orientation.

So, while the functions of management are almost accepted as universal, the way in which the manager performs and integrates these processes varies enormously from society to society, from economy to economy, within one society, and from sector to sector. What is considered appropriate practice for one culture may not be suitable to another. In fact many scholars have criticised the bulk of management literature for attempting to enforce a Western value orientation in many non-western based business contexts.

For those of us who are involved in management studies, there is a need to search for theories and concepts that are sensitive to the different power differentials of many diverse groups in various global scenarios. As organizations become more exposed to business globalisation, managers have to exhibit more culture-sensitive styles in managing people. This means indigenous perspectives are expected to exist side by side with the globalisation of business, i.e., the influence of local values and assumptions on managerial practices will become a major determinant in measuring their effectiveness at the workplace.

Cultural Detective is one tool that can be used to get beyond this reality, as the CD method defines values using indigenous terminology and explanations rather than imposed categories, and encourages participants to get to know people and understand their behavior in context.

Universalism-Particularism Dimension

One of the most significant dimensions in understanding globalisation is the focus on the cultural continuum of universalism and particularism.

The universalist's stand is that management and organisational best practice can be transferred anywhere regardless of their cultural orientation. Ultimately, all cultures will form one gigantic international work culture, rendering cultural differences irrelevant.

The particularist respects diversity and a plurality of ideas, technologies and institutions based on the assumption that there are many distinct ways to reach a goal. No one culture's way is better than that of any other; each represents equally valid and effective logic grounded in differing contexts, experiences and heritages.

While the debate on convergence/universalism and divergence/particularism continues to engulf our thoughts and actions, a tentative conclusion can be reached at two levels, both of which are incorporated within the Cultural Detective approach:

  • The macro level is more often associated with the structure and technology of the organization, its tools and services.

  • The micro level looks at the uniqueness of behaviour of people within organizations.

2. Importance of Context

With the current emphasis on diversity management, particularly in global project teams, there is now a realisation that the hidden dimensions of culture influencing how members perform their roles and achieve tasks has to be addressed.

The value orientations of all team members have to be identified and located within the context of the culture where development is to take place. After all, a human phenomenon can only be accurately interpreted when there is an attempt to look for the hidden and deeper patterns of thinking, feeling and acting in which people do not readily recognize.

This is exactly what the Cultural Detective Worksheet encourages us to do, in a visual, holistic manner.

3. Understanding Indigenous Approaches

In attempting to explore this line of thinking and its potential contribution to the field of management studies and human resource development, the following questions may be able to provide some direction:

  • HOW do we describe management in a particular non-western context?
  • WHAT are the unique and distinctive features of managing in this culture?
  • CAN we talk about many recipes for success?
  • IS there a particular branding of managerial style that is typical to our culture?
  • WHAT makes the multicultural workplace in our culture unique?
  • WHAT do we need to make our organizations world class? Who do we benchmark with?
  • HOW different are managers in our culture from their counterparts in another culture?
  • WHAT are the values of managers in the local workplace?
  • HOW are we responding to the forces of globalisation?

Can trainers and educators take pride in and describe to others their own particular way of managing people? If so, what would be the essential ingredients? Or do we still refer to ideas and theories in managing people based on non-indigenous constructs to strengthen our efforts at organisational transformation, managing change, resolving conflict and delivering even customer service? How many of us in non-western work settings still look to our counterparts in the West to provide answers and recipes that seemingly have all the magic potion?

This is where our Cultural Detective tool can fill in the vacuum and highlight a standard template that is applicable to many particularistic contexts, each with its own indigenous constructs, values and practices.

4. Balancing Global and Local

In attempting to evolve a set of managerial practices which are appropriate to multiple contexts, the following implications are suggested:

Firstly, there is a need for local academia and management practitioners in a particular culture to decode its own epistemology in the context of organisations. To substantiate any form of quantitative research, they may have to also use “emic”  (locally developed) tools of participant observation to study how individual managers articulate their roles, make decisions, solve problems and relate with others. A more “particularistic” brand of management “recipe” aligned with the values and assumptions of the local culture could be included in their teaching and or training agenda.

Secondly, managers themselves could benefit from their own interpretation of the culture of social organisations in light of the advances made in information technology. In striving for greater homogeneity of basic human values, tastes and behaviours, what is much needed is a model of local organisation that has to be reconceptualised and aligned with global values of speed, flexibility, integration, innovation, customer focus, and productivity. In fact there has to be a clarification of the universal values like efficiency, humanity and integrity, which are valid in all cultural settings but articulated in many different ways.

Finally, managers with the use of a 360 degree feedback tool may find it necessary to do their own “cultural surgery” by discarding behaviours that are an extreme interpretation of their values if perceived to be dysfunctional. The over-emphasis on the values of harmony, control, task, relationship, shame and guilt, hierarchy and equality, and high and low context has to be examined. In some cultures, the practice of not wanting to give and receive feedback for fear of causing disharmony, too much emphasis on hierarchical relationships, and a tendency to wait to be told by superiors have to be downplayed. Perhaps the challenge for all of us is to harness the values of our own particular culture to enhance high performance teamwork, effective task completion, a competitive mindset, and highly ethical conduct.

Change can be made more meaningful when there is an attempt to examine our own particular “software programming and operating system”. As we move forward we have to learn to recognise the roots of the tree from which we’ve grown so that we can anchor our new behaviours to what we most revere. While our roots cannot be removed or changed, we can modify the soil, change the fertilizer or climate and even prune its branches to evolve our own unique cultural capital in management development. Our response to particularism must be one that will allow us to assimilate aspects of globalisation to enrich our way of life and at the same time be able to preserve our cultures from being erased by the homogenising forces of global capitalism. It is my sincere hope that Cultural Detective: Malaysia might be of some small assistance in this regard.

It's time we surface and put on centre stage those particular, indigenous and culture-specific values and practices which are aligned with our own cultural context and that are equally effective and efficient in both local and global settings. We need to work together to generate unique, distinctive and innovative responses to the new global work scenarios by capitalizing on everyone’s inherent strengths, demonstrating a willingness to learn, reflecting from our own experience, and accepting the fact that tension and conflict are inevitable in a context of globalisation.

Dr. Asma Abdullah is co-author of Cultural Detective: Malaysia and can be visited at http://culturematters-asma.blogspot.com/.