Last week, over a cup of coffee with a dear old friend, we tussled over one of the most debated issues on the culture of organisations- the impact of national cultures. As we know, every large organisation tends to engender 'sub-cultures' - sometimes based on function, product division, geography and so on. However, is the difference created by the specific culture of a nation really significant for organisations? For a large multinational, how different would the organisation culture be in India, from China, from France?
Obviously, local cultures would have a big impact- but is there a way to understand the why and how of that impact? More importantly, successful organisations still manage to have one 'unifying culture' across countries- and how do they manage that?
To understand the broad cultural orientations of a nation, there is no better resource that Geert Hofstede. The Hofstede research on India is quite an interesting piece of work. He identifies 5 key variables that determine differences in the cultures of nationalities. Compared to the world average, India is higher on Power Distance- we are accepting of the inequality of the distribution of power in the society. We are also more 'Masculine', with the men's values of assertiveness and caring being different from women's- perhaps leading to more competitive people. Moreover, we are accepting of Uncertainty, having less rules to deal with normal issues that come up. Lastly, we are more persevering and parsimonious, which Hofstede labels as Long Term Orientation. The one area, surprisingly, where India is not different from the world average is our focus on Individualism vs Collectivism (I would have thought that we are more familial with large support networks, but apparently at heart, we are still as individualistic as the average person in the world!)
So what does this tell us? Yes, on some basic orientations and values, Indians may be different from the rest of the world - and this impacts the culture. While I am loathe to generalise, but putting the Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance together, we can surmise that we would tend to be more hierarchical, and maybe less respectful of time, especially of junior people. Within a homogeneous culture group this may be fine, but may create issues if people from other cultures are part of this environment.
So how do some companies manage such seemingly different cultures? My guess is that most have realised that cultures are different, and that others have to make allowances for these differences- a sort of 'empathise and live with it' approach. To do so, a lot of awareness and cross cultural sensitivity training is needed. At the same time, organisations also work on the 'Practices' end- the framework of routine activities and practices that drive certain behaviours. By introducing non-negotiable practices, you could slowly change the behaviour, even if the cultures are different. That's why Practices are so critical in driving culture. The 6Sigma and Session C practices in GE are great examples- of driving a specific culture even in places that would not naturally take those up. These practices need time and sustained leadership focus- and soon they can change the culture! Voila!