Professor Moran's class at the American Gaduate School of International Management is one of the more memorable experiences at that unique multinational training institution. While the school draws students from throughout the world, as an American, I feel justified in admitting that those who grow up in the United States are generally poorly prepared for cross-cultural relationships. Although the lessons I learned in that course have held me in good stead throughout my career and personal life, parts of it were a struggle. So is it with the latest edition of the course's text book.
A clue to this can be found on the title page which, in place of an editor, lists an "Editorial Coordinator." This book could benefit from some serious editorial rigor. It is marred by many typos, including such unfortunate ones as, "the Qur'an, the scared book of Muslims." Virtually every page has a totally useless pullout, quoting some profound phrase from that page. Selectively used, pullouts are supposed to increase the reader's interest in the material, but when it is carried to this extreme, it just wastes margin space that could otherwise be used for jotting down notes. One short but deadly paragraph manages to use the buzzwords 'empowered,' 'actualize, 'synergy,' and 'connect', which a good editor would have surgically removed. In spite of these execution flaws, I do feel that the book has merit, and recommend it for those who are interested in being more effective in cross-cultural situations.
The book is divided into three units. Curiously enough, the first two units both have the same title, "Cultural Impacts on Global Management." The first cultural impacts unit begins with an introduction building the case for greater cross-cultural skills on the part of managers. It concentrates on the particular problems that American managers have working outside of their culture. The chapter on communications starts getting into some real meat, introducing concepts such as communication context. Anthropologist Edward Hall's illuminating concept of high -- context vs. low -- context communications is described here, and used throughout the book. (This concept was particularly significant to me, and I have also reviewed Hall's book, "Beyond Culture," on Amazon.) The chapter continues with descriptions of important communication conventions that differ between cultures, and concludes with a set of practical guidelines on how best to make yourself understood when speaking with people whose native language is not your own. The unit continues with some management cultural ideas that are not necessarily limited to multi-ethnic situations, but are applicable to any large organization. This was interesting to me, although it is oriented specifically towards managers who have direct reports.
The second cultural impacts unit begins with a section on common characteristics that typically vary from culture to culture, such as appearance, food, sense of self, beliefs, and time of consciousness. The concepts discussed here are applied in the final section of book, so this provides important background information. The unit includes a section on culture shock, and re-entry shock, which should be mandatory reading for all overseas assignees and their managers. I found a checklist of desirable characteristics for foreign employment candidates especially useful, and several of the expatriates I work with agreed that it was consistent with what they had observed. This is followed by a very nuts and bolts section on preparing people for international assignments. The next chapter is entitled "Managing Diversity in the Global Work Culture." I have to say that I found the book to have a persistent politically correct theme, and I'm not sure that it is necessary to constantly harp on the value of diversity. This was a very popular HR activity at the time this book was written, but I found it distracting.
The final unit, which at 200 pages amounts to one-half of the book, is entitled "Culture Specifics and Business/Service Abroad." Choosing several representative cultures in each continent, it provides detailed discussions on their unique characteristics, along with helpful tips on dealing with people within that culture. This is similar to those books you may have read on "how to deal with X," but unlike those books, it is built on a strong foundation of sociological, anthropological, and organizational behavior disciplines that are introduced in the first two units.
Interestingly, the first chapter is on doing business with North Americans, which through self reflection, can help American readers better understand what it is like to look at a culture from the outside. I'm sure the chapter would also be helpful to non-American readers, but the book is generally aimed at North Americans. While constantly pointing out how important it is to avoid generalizations, each one of the individual cultural studies contains information on the people within those cultures that could be considered just that. One of the balances that I was never able to manage in professor Moran's class, was maintaining a safe distance between sensitivity and prejudice. Attempting to apply these lessons over 15 years, I've learned that cultural sensitivity can help you understand why someone acts in a particular way, and it can also help you anticipate their feelings or reactions, allowing you to better connect with them. The trick is in avoiding either value judgments, or in assuming that cultural guidelines will always be predictive. This helps explain why it is difficult in a book like this to highlight cultural characteristics that may be considered negative. Continuing their politically correct agenda, the authors identify several cultures as being "hard working." No culture was identified as being lazy, so presumably everyone is above average. A difficult balance, but a necessary one.
Such a whirlwind tour really obviously can't do justice to an entire world. It isn't meant to cover the entire world--it is meant to help you apply the lessons in the book yourself, and it succeeds. Although the treatment of various cultures is somewhat uneven, I did find this a very useful and helpful unit, and I will keep if for reference. I do think there are many flaws in this book, and I don't find it particularly easy to read, but in spite of that, I strongly recommend it for everyone who finds themselves in a multi-cultural situation. If you will be dealing with a multi-cultural environment, I recommend reading this book first, and then finding several books on the specific culture you will be exposed to. I highly recommend also finding the time to read Edward Hall. He's entertaining and enlightening.