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It's an Exciting Minefield Out There
on 24 May 2009
Most of the management thinking that has emerged in the last three decades was conceived in the United States and Western Europe. Therefore, a lot of the "management speak" have a distinct Western tint to them. Most of us assume implicitly that what works in the United States must work in Southern Europe or in Japan. However, as many employees of multinational companies can attest, many management initiatives, which were conceived in good faith at the company headquarters in London or New York fail abysmally on the ground in Italy or Nigeria. Why does this happen? Could it be that the Nigerians and Italians are simply perverse and pre-capitalist in their thinking? Why can't they simply get how a modern multinational should be run?
Thank goodness, the answers are not so simple. Messrs Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner explain eloquently in this wonderful book that all cultures differ in their approach to solving the following three problems:
- Relationships with people;
- Attitudes to time; and
- Attitudes to the environment.
There is an inherent tension in the way different cultures solve these problems. The authors use over 30,000 interviews from different professionals from over 50 countries to show how different nationalities resolve the following seven cultural dilemmas.
- Making rules and discovering expectations. Does the culture value universal or particular rules of conduct?
- Constructing and deconstructing. Are phenomena analysed into their parts or are the phenomena integrated and taken as a whole?
- Management of communities of individuals. Does the culture value the rights of the individual over and above those of the group?
- Internalising the outside world. Which are the more important guides to actions; our inner directed judgments or the demands of the outside world?
- Choosing among achievers. How does the national culture assign status? By ascription or achievement?
- Conception of time. Does the culture perceive time as sequential and linear or as synchronous and cyclical?
Without rehashing the minutiae of their experimental method, I found some of the insight fascinating. For example, the authors confirm that status in France is ascribed based on graduation from any of the elitist engineering schools. They also confirmed that "French managers...were more emphatic about "knowing all the answers" than managers from other cultures. This observation rings true with my experience working for a French company.
Most importantly, the authors conclude that the resolutions of the seven dilemmas are not necessarily irreconcilable. As the economies of communitarian cultures like India, Japan and Brazil become more developed, their organisational models will challenge the assumptions of the Weberian, individualistic "Protestant" model that has dominated the literature since the systematic study of management began. The authors remind us that various cultures resolve the same cultural dilemmas in the process of creating wealth as we do. It is a timely message and one that no international-oriented manager can ignore. The book deserves my 4 stars