Cultures and Organizations

Sep 10

One of the assigned texts for my current course in global management is Cultures and Organizations, which carries the catchy subtitle Software of the Mind. As they setup the book they naturally provide details about the quantitative methods used to analyze the data presented. This includes both the methods and the models, as well as the evolution of the same throughout the research.

What’s more interesting is their take on nurture vs. nature, which is to say that they explore the relationship between genetics and social influence. At the foundation they place values, which they argue are learned extremely young. Building on this foundation of values are practices and objects such as rituals, heroes and symbols. The research focuses primarily on the statistical trend, leaving analysis of deviations to a minimum.

Diluted Values & Cultural Relativism

In the introductory chapter, The Concept of Culture, they highlight some of the ways in which culture change, both over time and with respect to other cultures. One concept they identify is Moral Circles, going further to define some common boundary markers for moral circles. A moral circle is a peer group within which all members have a common moral agreement. Typical demarcations for a moral circle are religion or philosophy. A very interesting observation they put forth about moral circles is that they have a tendency to expand to include more and more people, or even non-people as members. They caution that such vast circles dilute the rights and duties of all members, concluding that “Most empires have disintegrated from the inside.”

In contrast to this warning about overly inclusive moral circles, they argue in favor of cultural relativism quoting Claude Lévi-Strauss as saying:

“Cultural relativism affirms that one culture has no absolute criteria for judging the activities of another culture as “low” or “noble”. However, every culture can and should apply such judgment to its own activities, because its members are actors as well as observers.”

In this they mean to suggest simply that while within a culture or moral circle, a group may be subjectively critical of itself, it is not as easy to be objectively critical of another group or culture. Comparison of values and norms across cultural boundaries, if it’s done at all, should be done with great sensitivity.

Dimensions of National Cultures

The main research of the book is segmented in to sections which cover perceptions of power, gender differences, group dynamics, uncertainty, time and well-being. The initial two chapters and part IV read much like a narrative. The bulk of the research presented in part II may be taken in isolation. It is therefore useful as a reference, especially when interacting with other cultures and groups included in the analysis.

Power Distance

The section on power distance explores the concepts of equality and opportunity. This analysis includes views into social classes and their relationship to education and occupation. Social relationships, especially those of family, factor heavily into power distance. Individual analysis of power distance in government, education and professional settings is explored.

Individualism

The section on individualism covers the different ways in which cultures encourage or discourage individual or collective perception. The sense of individualism is heavily influenced by expectations of accountability and independence. As with power distance and the other sections, individualism is examined in various contexts, including school, home, work, etc.

Gender Roles

Genders and gender roles are examined as well as masculinity and femininity. These dimensions of culture are then evaluated with respect to some of the other sections, such as masculinity vs. individualism, and later by age. The role of masculinity and femininity are considered in a consumer context as well as professional and educator contexts.

Uncertainty Avoidance

While a discomfort with anxiety may be somewhat universal, the cultural response to uncertainty and the methods employed to avoid it exhibit differences. The authors point out that risk avoidance is not the same thing as uncertainty avoidance. A review of how masculinity, religion and health factor in to uncertainty avoidance is presented.

Time

The section evaluating cultural perception of time focuses on long-term vs. short-term orientation (LTO)and compares this to what was known as the Chinese Value Survey (CVS). The effect of LTO and CVS on planning and problem solving are presented. These are also reviewed from a standpoint of family relationships and economic growth expectations, and how those factors influence actions.

Well-being

Finally, the section on well-being explores the contrasting concepts of indulgence vs. restraint. Naturally, much of this has a subjective focus, but effects such macro items as birthrates, health and consumer attitudes. Also included are more localized impacts such as the importance of friends and sexual relationships.

Application to Organizations

The two chapters included in part III draw moves away from the research presented in part II and begins to explore the relationship of cultures to organizations. This covers topics such as structural, interpersonal, leadership and governance. It goes further to examine competitive advantage based on cultural differences and understanding and individual perceptions of organizational culture.

Implications

The final two sections of the book review the research and provide specific conclusions as the research informs organizational decisions. These observations and conclusions span a broad range of organizations, including government, schools and the workplace. The book concludes with additional exploration of how cultures evolve and change over time.

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