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Developing a positive organisational culture is part of many companies’ continuous improvement plans–and justifiably so, since it comes with an array of benefits. What might be overlooked, however, is how national culture, or the culture that defines a geographic area, can affect how things are done within organisations.
Improving organisational culture generally involves altering patterns of human behaviour, influencing the choices people make and shifting the attitudes that drive their actions. It can certainly be challenging to make these changes, but it is achievable, as success stories around the world have shown. On the other hand, the culture associated with a given society– social norms, belief systems, values–which every individual absorbs and assimilates from an early age, is, understandably, much less malleable.
This difference between “national“ and organisational culture stems in part from the fact that social mores are learned early and reinforced consistently in every sphere of life, while company culture is encountered in adulthood and does not necessarily extend beyond the workplace. What this means for international organisations and their leaders is that when there is misalignment between a company’s internal culture and the surrounding national culture, it is the organisation that will need to recognise the discrepancy and make accommodations.
An awareness of cultural differences is the crucial starting point. Every one of us has internalised certain messages and mindsets from our native culture that we are probably not fully conscious of. That’s why Geert Hofstedte’s extensive research and insights on national values is so eye-opening and potentially game-changing. Hofstedte identifies 6 dimensions that characterise national cultures, and each country studied receives a score out of 100:
An organisation tends to take on the cultural features of its home country, so an engineering company based in the UK, for example, will likely reflect British tendencies. When a team of British engineers traveled to Ghana to collaborate on a sanitation project with a local organisation, they encountered a national culture that diverged from their own in several key dimensions.
To start with, Ghanaians are much more comfortable with power differentials (PDI 80) than the British (PDI 35) which plays out in very steep hierarchical structures. Decision making is generally concentrated at the top in Ghana, and those lower down the ladder expect to receive direction from above. The British visitors, on the other hand, used to giving and getting feedback from both superiors and subordinates, felt baffled at the lack of communication from lower level Ghanaian employees. Eventually, the UK team learned to adjust their communication style and turn to the head of the local company for answers to questions large and small.
On the IDV dimension there is an even greater difference between the two nationalities: 74 points! When the British team wanted to understand how to make facilities more accessible, they questioned a woman who used a cane. From their point of view, the needs of individuals had to be respected and accommodated. From her point of view, the needs of the wider community took precedence over her individual limitations. Ultimately, the engineers were not able to glean much information from her, and she herself may have felt puzzled and embarrassed by being singled out.
Ghanaian and British cultures diverge substantially in nearly all of the 6 dimensions: Ghana is “feminine” (quality of life and consensus oriented) while the UK is “masculine” (achievement and competition oriented); the British are quite comfortable with uncertainty and even welcome change and innovation, while Ghanaians prefer what is familiar, predictable and rules-based; Ghana’s low score on LTO indicates an extreme deference to tradition, while the UK balances influences from the past with plans for and projections into the future.
Recognising that cultural differences exist, among nations and within and between companies, makes it possible to form better partnerships and build better organisations. With a little prior knowledge about one’s own cultural biases and what to expect from others, companies can plan accordingly, and intercultural collaboration can be effective and rewarding. A spirit of curiosity about the roots of your company’s core cultural features and how your own personal attitudes differ or harmonise with the society and institutions surrounding you is a great place to start.
Author: Lauren Scott, Project Coordinator at DEKRA Organisational Reliability