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Cultural barriers to innovation in Sri Lanka


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Cumaranathunga Munidasa, one of the great sons of the soil, once said the nation which does not create new things continuously does not rise in the world; when it is impossible to beg further it bogs down after singing the swan song. It is doubtful whether his vision was really appreciated in its true value in Sri Lanka rather than limiting to the literary meaning to his words. The basic ingredient of innovation is the ability to challenge the status quo. The individuals who changed the world such as Buddha, Jesus and Marx challenged the status quo and took steps to change the same. They were rebels in the true spirit. When a question was asked by the Kalamas from the Buddha that there are several spiritual teachers and they are uncertain to what to believe, the Buddha responded as follows: “Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskilful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’ — then you should abandon them… When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skilful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.” (Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) Ultimate authorisation of free thinking This is ultimate authorisation of free thinking. Although the majority of the country is supposed to be Buddhists, cultural values prevailing in the country are not in line with that thinking. In contrary to what the Buddha recommended, in Sri Lankan society the status quo is hardly challenged. What are frequently challenged are phenomena within the status quo. Sri Lankan society is plagued by power distance. Power distance between the rulers and the general public; bureaucrats and the common man; managers and the employees; priests and the laymen; teachers and the pupils; and parents and the children. This distance creates a hindrance to challenge the status quo. The first Vice Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University Rev. Velivitiye Soratha Thero, a great scholar the country has produced, once said that the university students should be researchers and revolutionaries, non-violent of cause. Power distance Power distance was defined by Geert Hofsted, a Dutch sociologist, as follows: “Power distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” Hofsted’s original theory dealing with cross cultural issues discussed in the book ‘Culture’s Consequences’ published in 1980 proposed four dimensions along which cultural values could be analysed. Those are: individualism-collectivism; uncertainty avoidance; power distance (strength of social hierarchy) and masculinity-femininity (task orientation versus person-orientation). Subsequently he added a fifth dimension, long-term orientation, to cover aspects of values not discussed in the original paradigm, mainly in relation to the Chinese culture. In the 2010 edition of ‘Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind,’ Hofsted added a sixth dimension, indulgence versus self-restraint. In Sri Lanka the power distance between the parents and the children is interpreted as obedience and the same between teachers and pupils is interpreted as respect. When the children are more obedient to their parents and express more respect towards their teachers, creativity would reduce to the same extent. In the societies where obedience and respect is in abundance, children and students in those societies who question the status quo are rare. They try to follow the existing system due to their inherent obedience to the system and respect to the system. They do not question teachers in the lecture hall or class room. In the societies where power distance is high teachers teach and in the societies where power distance is low students learn. "Although the majority of the country is supposed to be Buddhists, cultural values prevailing in the country are not in line with that thinking. In contrary to what the Buddha recommended, in Sri Lankan society the status quo is hardly challenged. What are frequently challenged are phenomena within the status quo.  Sri Lankan society is plagued by power distance. Power distance between the rulers and the general public; bureaucrats and the common man; managers and the employees; priests and the laymen; teachers and the pupils; and parents and the children. This distance creates a hindrance to challenge the status quo" Power distance between managers and the employees can be interpreted as intention to follow. Employees want to follow the instructions given by the managers without questioning the reasonability of the decisions taken without giving a feedback, which creates ‘one way traffic,’ which is a hindrance for growth of any organisation. Fear factor Power distance between people and public officers and also people and politicians can be interpreted as fear. In the countries where power distance is high, people fear to work against the wrongdoings or malpractices of the politicians and the public officials. When there is no strong resistance from the general public, politicians and the public officers do not hesitate to carry out their wrongdoings. They dare to threaten, intimidate, bodily harm, make disappear and kill those who work against them in order to establish the fear of people of them. In addition to this they give various concessions to those who oppose them and get their support as well. Sometimes there can be a power distance among main political institutions, Executive, Legislature and Judiciary although the prevalence of such a situation is not expected. This comes out in the form of submissiveness. One pillar of the basic governance structure should not be submissive to another but the inherent power distance in the society supported by the other conditions may pave the way for this unfortunate situation. Elimination of power distance The starting point of the elimination of power distance basically and the associated fear, submissiveness, intention to follow, respect or obedience secondarily is the understanding by the weaker party of the relationship of the underlying reason of this which is the backwardness of the attitudes. It would be difficult to take away these attitudes of the people which were in existence over a long period of time. But this can be done since the power distance was created by the weaker party of the relationship not by the stronger party according to the definition of Hofsted. Elimination of this would pave the way for the much needed innovation which is essential for a society to flourish. Suggestion to reduce power distance could be interpreted by the cultural authorities as disrespect to the hierarchy. It is not disrespect at the personal level but lack of respect at the ideological level. When one is having ideological lack of respect only one can challenge the status quo. It is a democratic process against an authoritarian process hither to prevail. Therefore Sri Lankan society should seriously be aware of this cultural aspect prevailing in the country although the culture of a country cannot be changed over a short period. This awareness itself might bring the desired results. (The writer is a Chartered Accountant by profession and holds a Master of Business Administration degree awarded by the Postgraduate Institute of Management of University of Sri Jayewardenepura.)

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