Fons Trompenaars while pursuing his Ph.D. tried to understand how national culture influences corporate culture. He then wrote many books to manifest culture in different forms like marketing across culture, HR across culture and managing change across culture. In a candid conversation with Madhavi, Fons Trompenaars shared his valuable insights around culture and diversity; few key points have been summarized herewith:
Is culture like onion?
Fons talked about analyzing the structure of culture and compared the culture with an onion which simply posits that as an onion has many layers, culture also has many deep facets which need to be unpeeled to make better sense of it. Fons is hugely inspired by Edgar Schein who has done remarkable work in the field of culture.
As onion has many layers, culture also has many deep facets which need to be unpeeled to make better sense of it
On being asked “what are some of the implications of cultural differences”, Fons responded by saying that “in all the cultures we have similar dilemmas created by the culture”, for instance, high touch vs. high tech – Americans are known to be high-tech whereas Indians and Japanese are more high-touch where they take their people very seriously. Another example is of standardization vs. customization - Americans love to standardize while Indians love to customize. With a dash of humor, he pointed out the fact that in India, while signing books he came across so many different names while in America one ends up finding so many Peters and Johns. On being asked, “what can be done to standardize the customization”? He answered it by giving a brilliant example of ‘pizza’ which boasts of the standard bottom but customized top. He beautifully integrated this example within the context of culture and stated that “we have the same dilemmas and different starting points and these starting points are dictated by culture; however, he said that the dilemmas should be beyond culture. As India treads on the path of customization, Fons advised India to focus on education and take full advantage of diversity in the form of different languages, religions, and groups. He also urged India to safeguard the sanctity of the biggest democracy in the world.
Dealing with cultural biases and concept of ‘Servant leadership’
When being asked about dealing with ‘cultural biases and differences’, he said that lot of things which we do in business is either Anglo Saxon or Japanese like quality management which comes across as a culturally biased practice. Now the need is to find models and approaches which go beyond culture for instance, ‘Servant leadership’ is an easy concept which can be applied universally. It simply states that a leader should care for its people like parents do for their children. Parents’ love is universal and beyond any cultural norms and practices. Culture norms are implicit in most of the things which have developed so far and we need to go beyond that.
Dealing with cultural differences
Fons also reflected about the transition of culture owing to gender or generational changes and stated that different generations or genders carry different world views and it will be unwise to box people, rather it’s time to start pondering about “how can one facet reinforce the other”. The mix is always better and it is no longer suffice to just explain the differences rather we need attention in terms of how do we deal with the differences and how do we take advantage of those differences and also how can we be helped with the technology. At present, there are a lot of technological support available to deal with the differences. There is a need to bring in the human side to technology and integrate culture with that of business rather than separating the two.
He further stated that multiculturalism and the lack of understanding is one of the causes of trouble we have in the world; people don’t understand other cultures, their political movements. Everything seems to be polarized because we don’t have any clue about how to appreciate differences in others. He went on to say that most of the available models are bipolar and we should avoid it.
HR as ‘culture keeper’
Fons also shared his insights around the changing role of HR – he said that the main aim of HR is to understand the business and by transferring their role to where it belongs i.e. in the leadership. HR should act as a coach or a facilitator who provides the right tools to the leadership. He concluded the talk by saying that we should aspire to “turnaround human resources into resourceful humans”
Fons has authored over 14 books on various topics; his recent book titled ‘Riding on Waves’ beautifully describes 7 dimensions of culture which are - rules vs. exceptions about individualism vs. Group, expressing emotions vs. holding them, analytic vs. synthetic, bottom up vs. and top down, control the environment vs. go with the flow and organizing time in sequences vs. in parallel. The other part of the book looks at the corporate culture which talks about connecting the same with that of 7 dimensions of culture. Also, there is a part based on the concept of Lama Reconciliation which urges us to deal with differences effectively.