Clarity on culture

Monday, 29 April 2013 03:21 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Culture is often blamed for most of our wrong-doings. By the term culture, we fundamentally mix up two concepts, national culture and organisational culture. Today’s column of Humane Results will focus on impact on national culture on organisational performance, with emphasis on the Sri Lankan scenario.

Details of culture

The term culture comes from the Latin ‘cultura’ stemming from ‘colere’, meaning ‘to cultivate’. It generally refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activity significance. Different definitions of ‘culture’ reflect different theoretical bases for understanding or criteria for evaluating, human activity.

Culture consists in all transmitted social learning. It is the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret experience and generate social behaviour. In general, the term culture denotes the whole product of an individual, group or society of intelligent beings. It includes technology, art, and science, as well as moral systems and the characteristic behaviours and habits of selected intelligent entities. In particular, it has specific and more detailed meanings in different domains of human activities.

Culture can also be viewed as the configuration of learned behaviour and the results of behaviour whose components are shared and transmitted by the members of a particular society.

Origins of culture

The origin of the concept of culture lies in the ethnographic studies of anthropology, where specific tribes or societies are observed and a set of observation about their norms, rituals, language, physical structures, stories, food, festivals, and social relations, etc. are noted.

This construct has seen its emergence in organizational studies with the movement of US and European firms outside their country of origin and with the increasing diversity of the workforce in organisations owing to the increased migration of workers and the participation of people who were earlier on the fringes. Culture as a construct has been studied at many levels, but one that has been used or extended at all levels is the notion of national culture.

The term ‘national culture’ has been deliberated upon by many theorists. Their studies differ in two ways, first in the use of multidimensional constructs versus single dimensional constructs, and second in the conception of national culture as one homogenous programming versus a heterogeneous programming.

The multidimensional conceptions of national culture are in a true sense the models of national culture. They are more comprehensive and suited to an analysis of national culture. On the other hand, uni-dimensional models find better application in organisational analysis.

Study of national cultures

Gert Hofstede’s classic study (1980, 2001) involving 53 national cultures shed much light on understanding cultures. He analysed a large data base of employee values scores collected by IBM between 1967 and 1973 covering more than 70 countries, from which he first used the 40 largest only and afterwards extended the analysis to 50 countries and three regions.

In the editions of his work since 2001, scores are listed for 74 countries and regions, partly based on replications and extensions of the IBM study on different international populations. Subsequent studies validating the earlier results have included commercial airline pilots and students in 23 countries, civil service managers in 14 counties, ‘up-market’ consumers in 15 countries and ‘elites’ in 19 countries.

From the initial results, and later additions, Hofstede developed a model that identifies four primary dimensions to assist in differentiating cultures – power distance, individualism, masculinity, and uncertainty avoidance. Hofstede added a fifth dimension after conducting an additional international study with a survey instrument developed with Chinese employees and managers. That dimension, based on Confucian dynamism, is long-term orientation and was applied to 23 countries.

The details of the five key dimensions are stated below as originally defined by him.

Power distance: High vs. low

This is the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above. It suggests that a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by followers as much as by leaders.

Power and inequality, of course, are extremely fundamental facts of any society and anybody with some international experience will be aware that ‘all societies are unequal, but some are more unequal than others’.

Individualism vs. collectivism

It means the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. On the individualist side, societies can be seen in which the ties between individuals are loose – everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family.

On the collectivist side, societies are found in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.

The word ‘collectivism’ in this sense has no political meaning: It refers to the group, not to the state. Again, the issue addressed by this dimension is an extremely fundamental one relating to all societies in the world.

Masculinity vs.  femininity

It refers to the distribution of roles between the genders, which is another fundamental issue for any society to which a range of solutions are found. The IBM studies revealed that (a) women’s values differ less among societies than men’s values; (b) men’s values from one country to another contain a dimension from very assertive and competitive and maximally different from women’s values on the one side, to modest and caring and similar to women’s values on the other.

The assertive pole has been called ‘masculine’ and the modest, caring pole ‘feminine’. Women in feminine countries have the same modest, caring values as men; in the masculine countries, they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as  men, so that these countries show a gap between men’s values and women’s values.

Uncertainty avoidance: High vs. low

It deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity; it ultimately refers to man’s search for Truth. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, and different from the usual.

Uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimise the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on the philosophical and religious level by a belief in absolute truth; ‘there can only be one truth and we have it’.

People in uncertainty avoiding countries are also more emotional, and motivated by inner nervous energy.

The opposite type, uncertainty accepting cultures, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side. People within these cultures are calm and contemplative, and not expected by their environment to express emotions.

Long-term vs. short-term orientation

This fifth dimension was found in a study among students in 23 countries around the world, using a questionnaire designed by Chinese scholars. It can be said to deal with virtue regardless of truth. Values associated with long term orientation are thrift and perseverance; values associated with short term orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one’s ‘face’.

Both the positively and the negatively rated values of this dimension are found in the teachings of Confucius, the most influential Chinese philosopher, who lived around 500 B.C.; however, the dimension also applies to countries without a Confucian heritage.

In regard to the diverse views on culture, Newman and Nollen (1996) argued that uncertainty avoidance may be an artefact of the time during which Hofstede did his research and may be not relevant in Asian countries. Pearson and Chatterjee (2001) argued that Hofstede’s five key dimensions of national culture may no longer be suitable because they were developed in an era with different environmental imperatives. According to Heuer (2006), despite the criticisms, Hofstede’s measures are appropriate as a baseline for comparison due to its widespread recognition and application.

South Asian status

Considering South Asia in general, the culture appears to be a collectivistic one with high power distance and low long-term orientation, who is willing to face uncertainty. As Chakraborty (1995), observes, development of personal relationships was essential for the sustenance of a community culture through the sharing of resources as well as of knowledge and experience.

According to the norms of the community-culture, an individual’s identity as well as status was determined in relation to the community to which he/she belonged. Thus, an individual was expected to be aware of his/her rights as well as obligations to the community. (Ranasinghe, 2007). The deeper implication is the recognition of collective effort as well as individual empowerment.

Way forward for Sri Lanka

We are proud of our culture. At the same time, a conscious awareness of the shortcomings associated with certain cultural practices needs to be rectified.

It is easier said than done. As culture is “collective mental programming”, it takes time to re-program with the right mindset. Sri Lankan leaders have a challenging task ahead in building a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and a multi-skilled nation.

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