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Anthropologists in cross-cultural management

28 February, 2009

Observing people in Sydney made me quite clear that the dominant focus of cross-cultural academics and practitioners on national cultures is problematic. People from so-many cultural background study and work in closely cooperation at universities and public and private organisations. Looking at your Indian, English, Dutch, Japanese or German colleague as representatives of fixed national cultures will not help you very much in your collaboration. The so-called essentialistic perspective has become very popular in contemporary management literature and consultancy and is highlighted by European authors, such as Hofstede (1990) and Trompenaars (1993). The work of Hofstede and Trompenaars, who have developed ‘cultural maps of the world’ in which each country can be situated based on their score on different indexes, fitted perfectly in the assumption that culture is a (more or less) stable entity that can be ‘engineered’, and managed. However, recent evaluations of these essentialistic cultural programs are not positive in regard to organizational costs and sustainability. The programs use a dramatic oversimplification of the culture concept and make no difference between espoused values and actual behaviour. Consultants of large cross-cultural consultancy firms themselves don’t believe in the value of multi value models. Instead they do use their international sensitiveness and experience to train managers and employees. In our research on the number one consultancy on cross cultural business in the Netherlands showed that a larger part of the consultants were using anthropological tools and methods rather than the corporate developed multi value models. None of them however, were anthropologists.

And this is surprising as international management and the training of managers in cross-cultural affairs should be of the core competences of anthropologists. However, anthropologists are not very good at selling their knowledge and skills to corporations. They are outnumbered by all other kind of professions that have taken up cross cultural consultancy. Only recently I have seen a growth of (small) anthropological consultancy firms, but there could be many more of them. The message that everything is more complex than what our cultural “competitors” bring is of course not a very good argument for selling your services. That could be done better by, for example, showing in a business case the costs of failures and awkward collaboration.

To support managers and organisations operating in a international context, we have explored new directions in cross-cultural management by making managers aware of practices of (cross-cultural) collaboration. The interest is not so much in gaining knowledge of other (national) cultures but rather on spaces and boundary objects in which cross cultural collaboration in daily organizational life takes place. Two weeks ago I was working with a large project management firm that had asked help to manage their large diversity of workforce. The company had employees of more than 35 different national cultures working in complex projects. Instead of training the management on all these cultures we studied collaboration practices at the workfloor from a socio-material perspective which includes spatial settings, materiality and social behaviour. The French anthropologist Latour called this symmetric anthropology. We found that engineers and project employees of both the company and the client gathered around so-called “rollerboards”. These are tables that can roll and have large paper drawings of installations on them. Around the rollerboard 6 different professionals stand, hang and are bending over the drawings. In debating which objects had to be left out, changed or added, each of the 6 professionals got time to explain their view, experience, perspective. If agreed upon, different colours were used to materialize the debate and colour the drawings on spots were the debate was on. The manager was surprised as he wanted to replace the rollerboard by a computer system, which would have ruined this efficient cross-cultural collaborative practice. In this way anthropologists can deliver knowledge and advice that are not given by traditional cross-cultural consultancy firms.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 February, 2009 10:26 pm

    This is extremely interesting. I used to discuss Hofstede and Trompenaars with my masters students at Macquarie, some of whom had anthropology backgrounds while others worked in business (including a few who had to do with IC). We always got to the point where everybody agreed that “things were more complex” than what the Hofstedean weekend trainings suggested. But that’s where we got stuck. One problem was that none of us knew whether companies had found conventional “intercultural trainings” useful. I suspected that such evaluations could not be done in any case, and that they were doing them because it was trendy, but again we lacked information on why companies choose to have them, and why those particular ones. But some students with corporate backgrounds suggested that these trainings were in fact useful for managers without any prior “cross-cultural experience” who were being relocated abroad. The other problem was what should be done instead. It seems that you are answering both questions!

  2. 7 September, 2009 8:26 am

    I wish to protest at a huge assumption made by van marrewijk in his article. At no point have either Hofstede or Trompenaars even hinted that they believe national culture can be engineered and managed. Nor do they say that national culture is necessarily stable. My understanding of what they say, is that their work should be used in developing understanding of other cultures. In my experience, which admittedly is not vast, the biggest obstacle to be overcome is simple understanding, why something is the way it is, why a person behaves in a certain way. Every time I’ve witnessed culture clash, it has been because on one or both sides, this willingness to understand is missing. I respectfully wish to object to your criticism of the works of these two gentlemen. Kind regards, Trevor.

  3. 7 September, 2009 8:13 pm

    Trevor, the problem is that H & T’s method does not help understanding. It simply inculcates stereotypes.

  4. Wali permalink
    27 September, 2012 11:42 pm

    I need more about Managing Across Culture

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