Culture and the Failures of our Time

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Thanks to a growing adoption of training programmes aimed at fostering cross-cultural sensitization and understanding, many of today’s managers will have been exposed at some stage in their careers, at least cursorily, to the essential tools of cross-cultural analysis, such as Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. In fact, some of the senior executives who attend business school programmes on leadership and achieving organizational excellence may feel reasonably well-versed in the theory as well as the best practices of managing across cultures.

Does this mean then that cultural literacy and empathy are in good supply, and have become common attributes of good leadership? If the international events of the past few weeks are anything to go by, solid, consistent understanding of the cultural aspects, underlying assumptions and fundamental values that drive the actions and motivations of ‘the other’ continues to be conspicuous by its absence.

On the political front, Daniel C. Kurtzer and Scott B. Lasensky, authors of “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East”, recall the 1978 Camp David negotiations between Egypt, Israel and the United States, and how “the lack of cross-cultural negotiating skills was so acute” that in the end the US State Department had to draft its top Arabic translator. It seems that a lack of expertise on Islam and dynamics of the Arab negotiating style is as prevalent in 2009 as it was 30 years ago. Not even the new, much-heralded US administration has held out much promise of a radical departure from this trend.

In education, universities in the developing world are becoming reluctant to remain on the treadmill of emulating the top-ranked and heavily-endowed Ivy League schools, and to measure success by the size of their graduates’ paycheques. As Henry Mintzberg, management professor at McGill, commented in his paper “Developing countries? Developing leaders? Learning from another place”: “The trouble with the outside-in [development] model is that it is based on imitation, and imitations are often second-rate, because copying is a mindless activity. People don’t learn.” In a recent newspaper column, the Vice-Chancellor of one of Malaysia’s top universities, Dato’ Zulkifli Abdul Razak, noted that Asia must have its own ideas of what a university is about. Own cultural values, indigenous knowledge and historical background are different from those of the West.”

Across domains and disciplines, disillusionment has set in at the visible lack of progress. In his 2006 book “Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working”, author and former World Bank official Robert Calderisi points out that “the world must now deal differently with the continent.” The Financial Times’ review of the book concurred that Africa has been for decades “suffocating under a blanket of well meant concern, ineffectual at best, and harmful at worst.”

Developing countries in particular are becoming more vocal in questioning the relevance of Western rubrics and metrics, many of which were defined in the early days of Europe’s industrial revolution. As the global credit crisis morphs into a full-blown economic crisis, catching Western economists off-guard, venerable concepts like GDP, for instance, are slowly falling out of favour. In addition, many in the Third World are pointing to what they call ‘the tyranny of development’ transforming their countries’ natural and cultural landscapes to make them more receptive to First-World aid, products and expertise.

Then there is the perennial issue of how to go about, once the learning tools have been gained and the goodwill established, actually building bridges across cultures and traditions. In the media as well as in academic publications, one finds lively debates on this topic. The dominant argument at the moment, as expressed by the University of Malaya Centre for Civilizational Dialogue, is that a dialogue of civilizations “allows the drawing upon of common spiritual, cultural and civilizational values.” By contrast, H. A. Hellyer, a researcher at the University of Warwick and a prominent proponent of inter-faith dialogue, suggests that “the bridges must be built between differences, not commonalities,” and references medieval Islamdom where educated Muslims “understood the West on its own terms – but they understood the Muslim world on their own terms as well.”

Without proper tools and methodologies, efforts to induce meaningful communication between cultures tend to prove mechanical and counterproductive. For instance, given its diversity, an MBA classroom at a global business school is by definition a perfect ‘microcosm’ for fostering understanding between different backgrounds and ethnicities. Yet many MBA students come away disappointed from project group work that seemingly ‘brought together’ a healthy mix of nationalities. Trying to work together without setting up a proper context and a set of cross-cultural vocabulary to guide them through the group dynamics, they feel ‘thrown’ rather than brought together. Often, the result is resentment rather than a rich and varied new perspective.

Whatever form an emerging consensus may take, one can argue that underneath most of the major themes – and major failures – that are shaping today’s business and politics, lies a profound lack of cross-cultural empathy and understanding. Therefore, building a strong edifice of cross-cultural communication will be without a doubt one of the biggest, and most challenging, projects of our century.

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