9.2 Culture, communication and GSAs


9.2 Culture, communication and GSAs

Researchers in international business have studied cross-cultural challenges to communication quite extensively, though mostly in face-to-face settings. Research has established the significance of communication issues in shaping the nature of business relations and practices. Hofstede s (1980) oft-cited study of cross-cultural differences between nations has also been drawn upon for analysing communication practices (Chesebro 1998). However, these cross-cultural issues take on a different form and level of complexity within the GSA context. The problems are magnified owing to the technical and knowledge- intensive nature of the language that is used and the multiplicity of products, technical processes, tools and methodologies involved. The use of different and often rather complex forms of ICTs, each with their own particularities and level of reliability, makes cross-cultural communication a significant challenge in the GSA context.

Cross-cultural communication research has generally drawn upon the concept of ˜culture in a rather simplistic manner, particularly related to the issue of unit of analysis. Researchers have primarily focused on comparing cultural systems across sin gle or multiple dimensions (Chesebro 1998), using the nation state as the basis for analysis. Liebes (1988) empirically studied how people from different cultural systems perceive the same event (in her case, a TV show) and yet adopt different forms of narratives to describe it. She reported that while the Arabs adopted a more linear form for story telling, the Americans were more ironic and the Russians used a largely political perspective. Other authors have defended the use of the nation state as the analytical unit for pragmatic considerations of data collection (Chesebro 1998), or the need to generate ˜stereotypes as hypotheses of national character (Triandis 1972: 309), or to emphasize the search for universals and similarities, and not just differences, across cultural systems (Edelstein 1983). There is growing and widespread criticism of such research that equates culture with nation, on grounds that it is extremely functionalist and reductionist , and reinforces a ˜nationalist “US-centric model of cultural exchange and interaction (Ono 1998, p. 193). Similarly, Westrup et al . (2001) are critical of the Hofstede genre of research on the grounds that it promotes a static formulation of culture and ignores the processes by which cultures are constituted and maintained .

A functionalist perspective on national culture has also been a dominant orientation in IS research. Culture has commonly been treated from a social psychology perspective as something that differentiates one social group from another (for example, Schein 1984), or conceptualized as a variable that needs to be considered in the systems development process (Ein Dor, Segev and Orgad 1993; Shore and Venkatachalam 1995). Formulated in this way, culture becomes reduced to a set of variables that serve as a causal agent for explaining change. Recognizing such limitations, authors have in recent years argued for a view of culture that is contested, temporal and emergent (Avison and Myers 1995), and have focused on the processes through which culture is enacted, or ˜accomplished (Westrup et al . 2001). One conceptual approach to understanding such processes is developed in the Gowing case discussed in chapter 8, where cultural issues are addressed within a structurational framework that links social structure and agency. Culture is conceptualized in terms of the rules and resources that human actors interpretively associate with the various social systems (for example, family or organization) of which they are members . Human actors draw upon these rules and resources in the process of expressing agency, which in turn can alter (or reinforce ) the actors interpretations of these rules and resources. Examining the reciprocal linkage between culture and action in this way helps to focus on the process by which culture is continuously negotiated and ˜achieved in particular circumstances, rather than being assumed as a taken-for-granted given.

Communication, both face-to-face and ICT-mediated, is an important source of action in the context of a GSA relationship. When communication in GSAs is across cultures, various social structures, each with its own rules and resources, affect the process of expressing and interpreting messages. These messages can be in various forms “ an email message, a telephone conversation, a videoconference meeting or a verbal or non-verbal message in a co-located setting. In choosing the appropriate medium and also in defining the content of the message, actors draw upon their understanding of the rules and resources in the various cross-cultural systems of which they are members. We may draw upon our understanding of whether we think it is appropriate to ring after 9 p.m. in a particular country before actually making the call, for example. Through the process of communication, actors both reinforce and change their interpretations of these rules and resources. Many of the Japan “India GSA relationships that we studied were in an exploratory stage; they had few prior established and shared frames of understanding to guide how communication should take place. In the absence of this prior experience of working and communicating together, we found the GSA staff often drew on their stereotyped understanding of the other to shape their communication processes. In this process of stereotyping, we found that perceptions of the national culture often superseded the organizational or more situated understanding of culture. In the Sierra case discussed in chapter 7, for example, the managers image of Indians as being submissive to hierarchy was an important norm they drew upon in communicating with or about the Indians.

Although we understand and agree with the criticism made by academics of equating nation and culture and treating culture as some kind of a ˜given and ˜objective fact , we argue that the tendency of managers to equate nation with culture cannot be ignored as the nation serves as an important source of rules and resources that they draw upon in the process of interacting and communicating. Taking these perceptions seriously is also emphasized in Anderson s (1983) argument about ˜imagined communities , that nations exist only in socially constructed imaginary spaces . While this perceived or ˜fictional world is ontologically different from the world in which we live, it is significant in influencing our actions, including processes of communication. The quote below by a communication consultant advising firms in the GSA area reflects the importance of perceptions about national culture, used as a basis to develop communication strategies in GSAs:

As I am sure you are aware, different nationalities have their own inherent beliefs, attitudes, social systems and idiosyncrasies in the way that they operate and communicate. These differences can sometimes cause misunderstandings, and any company working in the international forum will encounter challenges in this area. (Shewell 2000: 7)

In GSAs, the structure of knowledge and the manner in which it is shared between group members is dominant in shaping communication processes. As argued in the Sierra case, the complexities of sharing knowledge about products, processes and practices is a significant and ongoing concern in a GSA. Based on a study of cross-cultural collaborations (between Japanese and UK firms) in the high-tech sector, Lam (1997) has argued that the socially embedded nature of knowledge and organizational systems can impede work and the effective transfer of knowledge across national boundaries. Lam s argument is based on the distinction between ˜organizational and ˜professional models of knowledge. Lam describes the organizational knowledge of the Japanese as being created internally in the firm through on-the-job and long- term training, similar to an apprenticeship where the focus is on an experience-based understanding. Such ˜knowledge of experience (Nonaka 1994) tends to be extremely tacit and context-bound, making it difficult to communicate easily to people outside the social and geographical context.

In contrast, Lam associates the professional model followed by the British with the existence of an external labour market where the focus is on acquiring general and standardized knowledge applicable to different contexts. The principles of learning are based on formal education in institutions, and tend to be more theoretical and abstract. The ˜knowledge of rationality (Nonaka 1994) is more standardized and explicit and thus easier to communicate in different contexts than in the case of organizational knowledge that tends to be more effective in face-to-face settings. The structure of organizational knowledge is more group-based , but the professional model emphasizes the individual. This distinction has implications for the coordination of work and the manner in which communication takes place to enable it. In the organization model, coordination takes place primarily through team-member interactions and is human network-based. In the professional model, however, knowledge is stored with individuals; there is strong reliance on documents and databases as a basis for communication. The discipline of software engineering can be seen to provide a guiding frame for such knowledge (Sharp, Robinson and Woodman 2000).

The organizational and professional models differ fundamentally in the degree of tacitness of the knowledge that needs to be communicated. Hall (1976) has previously attempted to relate the tacitness of knowledge with information required to convey meaning. Hall would argue that organizational knowledge is more tacit and context- based. It is, therefore, more difficult to communicate to members outside the social context than professional knowledge that is more explicit and context-free. Lam s empirical analysis drew upon the distinction between the organizational and professional models of knowledge to trace the asymmetries in knowledge sharing across the collaboration. Studying the processes by which knowledge is formed and organized within a community helps us to appreciate the asymmetries that exist and the challenges in communication to which they give rise. Inspired by the structurational framework described earlier, we differ from Lam, who treats the asymmetries as fixed and given, and instead conceptualize them as constantly changing and being renegotiated in and through the act of communication. Because of the cross-sectional rather than longitudinal design, we have not been able empirically to trace the mutual and changing linkages between knowledge structures and communication processes. The structuration perspective, however, sensitizes us to focus the analysis on the processual and situated nature of communication . We explore the processes of communication between the Japanese and Indian GSA members; we address the complexities that arise, how they are dealt with and how revised understandings develop. An analysis of this process can help to develop insights into the process of evolution of GSAs.