9.4 Analysis of cross-cultural communication issues


9.4 Analysis of cross-cultural communication issues

  • The Japan “India case study provides an interesting study of contrasts in communication practices and styles, and their implications for the GSA relationship. We now present an analysis of these communication issues based on three key concepts:

  • Lam s distinction of ˜organizational and ˜professional knowledge helps us to appreciate the historical and social structures that shape both the Indians view of the Japanese being ˜typically Japanese and the contrasting Japanese view of the ˜Westernized Indian .

  • We discuss how these different orientations to knowledge and the manner in which it is developed and shared have inherent asymmetries that give rise to challenges and responses to communication. We analyse these challenges using Hall s ideas that relate knowledge, information and meaning as a basis for developing a strategy for communication.

  • The structurational framework already discussed sensitizes us to the fact that these asymmetries are not fixed and given, which can serve as mechanisms to explain change (or the lack of it). In and through the act of communication, these structures are being constantly challenged and negotiated, and new structures are being ˜achieved .

Guiding frames of reference and knowledge orientation

Lam s (1997) distinction of ˜organizational and ˜professional knowledge serves as a useful starting point to analyse the Japanese and Indian frames of reference. Although a lot of literature and experience about Japanese management classifies their working approach as being based on ˜organization knowledge , there is relatively little knowledge about Indian companies. A popular interpretation of Indian organizations based on ˜Hofstede-type cultural dimensions emphasizes the significance of family-based networks, the role of hierarchy in decision making and the high level of aversion to risk taking and innovativeness . Structures that shape knowledge orientation in Japanese and Indian firms are extremely paradoxical; they reflect similarities and yet also marked differences. Both are Asian countries , with some congruence in values relating to respect for elders and family. There are, however, important differences. Khare (1999) contrasts Indian and Japanese work patterns; he argues that business customs in Japan emphasize the needs of the company over the needs of individuals, when relationships have to be preserved. A head office will support a subsidiary by giving it software development projects, even though the economic cost “benefit ratio was markedly less than in India or China. Khare writes that, in general, the sanctity of relationships, although being revered at home, is largely ignored in the Indian public setting. The concept of ˜tatemae which Hall (1984) describes as sensitivity towards others, or the public self, exists within the boundaries of the home and the immediate and extended family, rather than reaching the realm of the company or the nation. Khare s argument suggests that Indian firms are based on an ˜organizational knowledge where skills accumulation takes place in an internal labour market in which social relationships are significant. We argue, however, based on the case studies in this book, that the Indian firms engaging in GSAs have a radically different culture from traditional Indian organizations: the GSA firms reflect a much stronger global orientation and are often based on practices and methodologies from the West and North America. These firms are not based on an ˜organizational knowledge approach, as described by Lam, but reflect more of a ˜professional knowledge model, albeit a hybridized one.

Although we found that Indians see Japanese to be ˜typically Japanese , the Japanese saw Indians to be ˜Indian with a Western influence . The Indians, especially the younger ones who are educated in computer science with a few years of experience in North America, have an initial perception of the Japanese as being poor in English, the spoken form much more than the written. They find the Japanese to be very detailed, taking very long to make decisions, and very ritualistic. Such judgements often translate to the negative view that ˜the Japanese do not understand software . As projects unfold, and the experience of working with the Japanese grows, the perceptions of some of the younger engineers are reinforced. Stories go around that Japanese take 14 hours to conduct a negotiation, or a team of 40 people came for negotiations, or that they are obsessed with quality and line-by-line code reviews. The Indian response, especially among the younger Indian engineers , is to revise their communication strategies in a functional way: by making sentences very short, or writing at the end of the message ˜Please feel free to contact me if you need more information . The more subtle and reflective staff analyse the various nuances , subtleties and differences across situations, companies, projects and technologies. They move beyond the stereotypes of ˜Japanese do not like text to ˜Japanese managers in Firm X prefer graphics to text during requirements analysis . The challenges of communication seem to be offset by the growth of strong social ties as the warmth, personal touch and depth of the relationship becomes appreciated. This appreciation is magnified when contrasted to the experiences of rather cold and business-like relationships with North Americans.

The Japanese perception of ˜Indians with a Western influence is guided by what they see as the Indians professional knowledge model of software project management based on structured and formal methodologies that emphasize documentation and process milestones. Typically, the education of Indian engineers is grounded in American and European management styles, especially in computer science where the methodologies learned originate from North America. This orientation to Western education is further reinforced by their organizations emphasis on CMM and ISO certification processes, that have their origins in North America. This ˜Western orientation is in contrast to the Japanese system where students primarily use books that help them understand their own management styles and work environment (Khare 1999). We found the Japanese perceptions of ˜Indians being too Westernized and ˜insisting too much on formal documentation like the Americans, while we believe in discussion quite strong. These perceptions potentially influence the decision of whether a Japanese firm will go to India or China for development work, since the Japanese view the Chinese as sharing similar communication styles. We saw some of the Indian firms becoming sensitized to such issues, as reflected in this quote by an Indian manager: ˜We are trying to modify our software development methodology and give it a Japanese flavour for the future. However, examples of such reflexivity are still rather limited in Indian firms and the sheer weight of the use of structured development methodologies and the NorthAmerican experience seems to impede these reflexive attitudes and cause radical redefinition of project processes. These different knowledge orientations have some inherent asymmetries which have implications for communication. The asymmetries are primarily in terms of the different degree of tacitness of knowledge and the associated difficulties in communicating and interpreting it. We now analyse these issues, drawing upon Hall (1984).

Knowledge asymmetries and implications for communication

An interesting conceptual frame to examine communication issues arising through tacitness of knowledge is provided by Hall (1984). He argues that despite having made rapid advances in computers, effective linguistic translations are still not possible. The problem is not in the proper analysis of syntax and grammar, but in the relationship of the linguistic code to the larger setting of the scientific field that describes the context in which each word, sentence and paragraph is set. He argues that a communication transaction is affected by the cultural context in which it occurs, and this ˜contexting is an essential aspect of any communication and the meaning it conveys. Hall examines this process of ˜contexting through the functional relationship of information, meaning and context. Writing in Beyond Culture (1976) he gives an example of a couple living together for many years. When one of them comes home from a day of work, without a word being spoken, they can both understand very well what kind of day the other person has had. In contrast, in the court of law, nothing can be taken for granted and everything must be spelled out and a lot of information provided. There is thus a fundamental relationship between information, meaning and context that needs to be managed in developing a strategy for communication .Togivepeople too much information is to ˜talk down , and to give too little is to mystify them. In high-context situations, meaning is conveyed with minimum words while with low-context situations, detailed information has to be provided with specific words to make sense of the message. Information in high-context situations is provided not so much with words as through context.

Rules of communication vary from culture to culture. Hall gives an example of a North German who places a high value on doing things right and takes detailed, meticulous and low-context approach. While learning a foreign language, she/he will take pride in speaking correctly and following the rules of grammar exactly. It comes as a blow when a high-context Parisian corrects her/his French even though it is grammatically correct. Hall suggests that sometimes the rules of communication are embedded in advertising. ARolls Royce advertisement may just say ˜enough while a Mercedes description would be packed with information, including a lot of performance statistics. Based on many years of empirical analysis and practical consulting, Hall has analysed why North American businessmen have a difficult time operating in Japan, as reflected in the common complaint that ˜we don t know what the Japanese are getting at .

In Hall s analysis, Japanese represent the high-context tradition where they do not get to the point quickly and provide a lot of contextual information. The North Americans, in contrast, take an approach that is based on logic, where a systematic analysis based on rules is the guiding basis. Inherent asymmetries are created because of this different logic, and these can give rise to different communication challenges. The Indian GSA firms represent a different breed than the traditional organizations that adopt more of a ˜Japanese-like organization knowledge approach. Operating in the global environment, and strongly oriented to the Western marketplace , the Indian firms operate with a toolkit of strong professional knowledge certified and standardized by global institutions. Such professional knowledge emphasizes documentation and a focus on a process that specifies milestones, deadlines and deliverables. The problem of attrition in the software industry means that the tenure of individuals in organizations is often limited; organizations try to manage this problem and to reduce the dependence on individuals by resorting to different kinds of computer-based knowledge management systems. They use techniques of ˜shadowing and ˜backing-up employees to reduce the shock of disruption resulting from the departure of an individual.

The communication challenges raised through the asymmetries described above are met in various ways, from the selective use of ICTs to the simplification of sentence structure, predetermined use of particular phrases in a message, the use of graphics versus text and the minimization of the transaction volume. Operating within a ˜high- context situation, the Indians, who professionally favour a ˜low-context orientation, are forced to revise their method of communication by reducing the amount of words they use, and by being very conscious of the meaning they convey through both structure and content. These are conscious revisions to a communication strategy that previously relied on more verbal and written communication, probably associated with lesser richness of meaning. The US manager sending long congratulatory emails or having elaborate parties with caps and T-shirts to mark the completion of a project is in stark contrast to the Japanese responding to a successful project completion with just a brief ˜thank you . Although the information conveyed is much less in the Japanese message, more meaning is associated with it: to the Indians it conveys a high degree of happiness, satisfaction and warmth. The Japanese ˜thank you could reflect an endorsement of future projects being given to the Indians without any questions being asked. In contrast, the North American manager, despite the effusive celebration , could quite possibly cancel the next project if he can get it more cheaply completed in the Philippines than in India. This may be less likely in a Japanese relationship.

Through this constant revision of knowledge of context, information and meaning, both sides are potentially revising the structures of understanding that shape their communication processes. As experience of working together develops and the initial boundaries of uncertainty and experimentation are crossed, social ties seem to grow extremely strong roots to provide the basis for radically redefining the communication processes. In and through the process of communication, we thus argue, the structures of knowledge are being constantly renegotiated, providing the potential to reshape communication processes. This structurational process is now described in more detail.

The structurational process

Structuration theory provides a conceptual frame to reciprocally link the micro and macro levels of communication. Through repeated action, patterns of interaction become established as standard communication practices in social systems that are reified over time. Drawing on a structurational perspective, Orlikowski and Yates (1994) have described communication as ˜an essential element in the ongoing process through which social structures are produced, reproduced, and changed (1994: 541). The structurational process, of which communication is at the heart, involves an ongoing process in which managers draw on the rules and resources for communication. Through the instantiation in communicative action, these rules are redefined. Here lies the core of our argument against functionalist and deterministic accounts of culture that treat cultural variables as causal agents for explaining change. We believe that the interpretations that people have, even if they promote national stereotypes, cannot be ignored as they are important determinants of action. We believe, however, that through the process of action, actors can revise their understanding of what they should or should not do. A static view of culture is fundamentally flawed as it ignores the implications of what people do in the everyday working of the GSA and how that influences their understanding. In Giddens terminology, it ignores the fundamental capability and reflexivity of human beings.

This structurational analysis has interesting implications for the debates on globalization and the thesis of homogenization versus hybridization and localization. In chapter 2, we argued for hybridization as contrasted to either homogenization or localization. The question remains how hybridization takes place in situated circumstances, rather than whether or not globalization is about homogenization or hybridization. The structurational analysis of communication provides us with insights into the mechanisms by which processes of hybridization can take place. This is because GSA relationships cannot be conceptualized in an exclusive one-to-one state (such as India “Japan or India “

North America) but as a network of relationships (India “Japan “North America). The same Indian firms and individuals are working or have worked with North American clients and are now doing so with Japanese firms. They bring meanings, understandings and methodologies from one context to the next and vice versa. An example of this is the manner in which software development methodologies are taken from one situation to another, adjusted, redefined and then re-exported. Communication helps us to understand these processes of hybridization in communication, and the manner in which the language and practices around it are taken into a context (such as formal and detailed specification documents), the processes by which they are resisted (Japanese complaining of ˜too much documentation ) and the manner in which methodologies are being redefined (with a Japanese flavour).

Another implication of our analysis is the use of the electronic medium, the Internet above all, which is popularly assumed to be able to normalize cross-cultural differences in communication. Such a perspective disregards the social and historical embeddedness of technology, even though the Internet is a communication medium with its own logic and language and not confined to one particular area of cultural expression (Castells 1996). There is always a historical and social specificity of the communication system and the use of it by people to do everyday things. Communication is embedded in social practice. Because the Internet is a medium for cultural expression and the encoding of ambiguity, it opens up a diversity of interpretation far greater than mathematical and formal reasoning. Castells (1996) description of the relationship between new ICTs and social orders as ˜ problematic has interesting implications for our case:

The inclusion of most cultural expressions within the integrated communication system based in electronic production, distribution, and exchange of signals has major consequences for social forms and processes. On the other hand, it weakens considerably the symbolic power of traditional senders external to the system, transmitting through historically encoded social habits, religion, morality, authority, traditional values, political ideology. Not that they disappear, but they are weakened unless they recode themselves in the new system, where the power becomes multiplied by the materialization of spiritually transmitted habits. (1996: 406)

The Japanese firms have shown a relative reluctance to embrace the new ICTs in the course of working with GSAs. This can be seen as one of the reasons why Japan in general has not wholeheartedly taken on board the idea of GSA, despite its potential and the realization that they need to respond effectively to demands for software development. The historical structures of employment, family and education, all contribute to shaping attitudes and perceptions about working with people from different countries, or using new ICTs. These structures are being challenged and placed under pressure to change in a variety of ways. In the GSA context, the next few years will be crucial for determining whether the Japanese enter more meaningfully into the ˜GSA network .