Culture as a factor: fact or fiction?

BY The Delphi Network

How useful is culture as a tool for analyzing management challenges?

`When I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver`

Germany’s head of the Luftwaffe Hermann Goering did NOT in fact say those famous words, which actually come from a Nazi playwright of the 1930s. But the sentiment nicely captures my frustration when a French retail company asked me to discuss ‘Asian Business Culture’. Indeed, I was not really sure culture is a fit subject of enquiry – rather like when you make generalizations about countries or women. It may be tempting but it can get you into trouble.

After some thought, I came up with 3 levels of sophistication to approach the culture question. The lowest level is when you respond to a business problem by saying ‘it’s the culture’, without further elaboration. That is tantamount to saying ‘I don’t know why I am not making progress, but blaming the locals is easy since after all they are don’t understand global business like I do’. The next level is when managers say ‘it’s the culture’, but they come up with an economic, political or social explanation.

This can often be almost as crude as level 1, as when a manager tells you the Japanese are ‘infantile’, not even aware they are echoing General Douglas MacArthur’s notorious comment

when he headed up the US occupation of Japan after 1945. It is surprising how often people quote discredited cultural theories from many decades ago without even realizing it. Thankfully, I have not heard about the one about inadequate toilet training in Japan for a while. That was popular during and for some years after WW2.

The final, highest level (akin to Buddhist enlightenment) is when the manager doesn’t even mention culture.

Rather, he picks his way through the experiences he and his colleagues have gone through and tries to come up with a reasonable explanation. At this level, the manager knows his market and his customers very well, and does not need to even mention culture. He just states problems that are possibly all the more challenging because they may be restricted to Asia. That makes them hard to identify for an Asia rookie but s/he should not use culture as excuse for not making the effort.

Yet having just written that I am suspicious using the term ‘culture’ in intelligent conversation,
I am forced to admit that I do think in terms of culture when explaining a country.

The verbal form of culture is ‘to cultivate’ and I think we all feel in our bones that the place we were cultivated in gives us a special ‘flavour’ or outlook on life. We know we are the product of specific influences – whether our Roman Catholic school, or military service, or English boarding school, or university – take your pick.

I don’t think this feel should necessarily be dismissed out of hand, and further, that you can justifiably make comments about culture when discussing a country. Let’s use a fairly common definition of definition of ‘culture’ as a ‘a set of deep value systems and reflexes which are hard to de-programme and which you share with your broader community.’

However, I will add a vital caveat, namely that these deep systems and reflexes are the result of specific events and choices and are not inherent, inexplicable or unchangeable. The most important specific event over the past 200 years is surely Asia’s experience of Western imperialism. Being colonized or exploited by the West has been a traumatic experience for countries such as Japan, China, Vietnam, Burma, India, etc.

The Western encounter represents a total and accelerated experience of great physical and psychological violence. The only possible comparison is with a science-fiction film, of earth being invaded by a more sophisticated civilization, amidst blood and fire, and without the happy end.

Today I visited the Showa memorial museum in Kudanshita, and I tried to put myself in the shoes of citizens who went through a catastrophic total war and grew up as a pariah nation in many ways, with their elites paraded around as common criminals after they lost.

The encounter with imperialism is the great caesura both inside an Asian nation and between nations. Thus, it is very easy to sneer at southeast Asia for being sleazy, corrupt countries whose main industry is sex and tourism, notably in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and soon likely to be joined by Burma. These countries just seem unable to pull themselves together in the same way as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

It’s thus tempting to say that the Confucian, group-oriented, manufacturing-focused, disciplined, frugal, hard-working, education-worshiping north Asians have superior cultures relative to their feckless, uneducated, corrupt and lazy counterparts in the south.

Yet such an analysis of the region thus is quite wrong, for at least two very good reasons. The first is the importance of outside factors. Thus, the US played a vital role in the future prospects of north and south-east Asia when it emerged as the local hyper-power in 1945. Initially, it encouraged effective land reform in north Asia, which created rich, peaceful farmers and a domestic market for the goods being made in the cities. But as the Cold War cast its shadow, the US retreated from policies which could be interpreted as Socialist by the anti-Communists back in the US. The lack of US pressure on effective land reform in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand condemned those countries to exploited farm workers and huge inequalities. You only have to look the problems in Thailand today as an example of the dangers emanating from a miserable and downtrodden agricultural sector.

Second, is the importance of individuals. The type of leader who comes to power when his country is at a cross-roads is of paramount importance, and owes a great deal to chance. Park Chung-hee in South Korea was a brutal dictator but he was also extraordinarily ambitious and genuinely patriotic in his plans for creating a manufacturing superpower. He used his position to terrify the spoiled plutocrats who had emerged after the Korean War, and force them to concentrate on domestic manufacturing prowess, and on exports. Japan, through a complicated alchemy of Japanese ‘reform bureaucrats’, American prodding, land reform, organizational practices learned in the war, and a tamed big business sector, achieved similar manufacturing and exporting success.

The big counterexample, the man who almost propelled his country to greatness only to end up an absurd figure ranting against Western conspiracies, is Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia. As Joe Studwell shows in his utterly brilliant book ‘How Asia Works’, Mahathir failed to discipline his tycoons through pressure to manufacture goods for export and through competition, and failed to build indigenous technology. Despite his professed admiration for North Asia he failed to follows their precepts. Today, Malaysia is one of the strangest countries in Asia, where you can pick up a copy of Henry Ford’s diatribe against the Jews and copies of the anti-semitic tract ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ at the KL airport bookshop. However, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand barely even tried to keep up with the north Asian success stories.

All this means is that if it culture is the product of specific events, then culture can change. I experienced this first hand in China, from friendliness so extreme I knew it could not last in the early 1990s to the xenophobia you met in many quarters in Beijing by the time I gratefully left in 2008.

Japan famously went from an extremely racist, cruel, brain-washed and militarist culture in the 1940s to the polite, honest, high-tech, democratic and deeply pacifist country which branded itself such so effectively during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Changing circumstances obviously result in different cultures.

The final thing you have to think about is whether you personally can change the way of doing things in your immediate company environment. Remember, your company’s culture is far more likely to be the result of specific event in its past, than because of any link to the national culture.

You can overlay these micro-issues with the macro and historical issues described above – but I suspect the micro, local issues are more liable to analysis and fixing than the national,historic ones.

Yet foreign managers often fixate on the national, cultural issues. This is likely because of the initial disorientation foreign managers in Asia often feel in Asia – that everything is very different. This makes them overlook the overwhelming similarities that all advanced economies have.

Foreign managers often proceed to over-react to these perceived differences. The Japanese workforce of an under-performing foreign company, for example  is often blamed for being excessively deferential, uncreative, indirect, not profit oriented and sly. Western managers respond to this  perceived cultural difference by feeling the need to assert their own perceived cultural credentials – of being direct, forceful, masculine, tough and ‘in charge’. Soon, you really are generating a culture clash, even if this had nothing to do with the actual problems causing the under-performance, such as poor marketing, products and services, leadership, HR practices, etc.

Still, If you have clarified all the issues above in your mind, then you are well on your way to a more authentic understanding of your host country. That should surely make use of a revolver for any reason unnecessary.