The Google Dilemma. National Differences and Cross-Cultural Theory

“Good enough for our transatlantic friends … but unworthy of the attentions of practical or scientific men.”

Good enough for our transatlantic friends?

This was the verdict of a British Parliamentary Committee , on the implications of Thomas Edison’s new electric lamp, which had been patented in the US in 1879.

In the gloom of the gas-light they couldn’t see the significance of Edison’s invention. But equally they misunderstood national differences. If the lamp was ‘good enough’ for American use, why would that change just by crossing an ocean? And if it really had no ‘practical or scientific’ worth, why wouldn’t practical or scientific Americans be able to spot that flaw just as well as their British counterparts?

I’m exploring differences across national boundaries, specifically with reference to Geert Hofstede’s Cross-Cultural Theory, which is explored most fully in his book, Cultures and Organizations. Software of the Mind. I’m doing so to try to discover whether the recent argument between Google and the Chinese Government on censorship comes down to cultural misunderstanding, or something else.

Cross-Cultural Theory

Based on research he undertook among different national offices of IBM, Hofstede identified four, later five essential dimensions of culture against which nations can be measured and compared. Each country analysed gets an aggregated score against each of the five scales. If there is such a thing as national culture, Hofstede has the figures to show it (1997; 2005). Hofstede’s approach has been widely adopted in industry, but has been questioned in the management literature (McSweeny 2002), most recently by Galit Ailon, who researched cultural differences in the Israeli takeover of an Israel-based American business and claimed to find Hofstede’s approach lacking (Ailon 2008, cf. Prasad et al 2008). In the to-ing and fro-ing of academic claim and counter-claim (Hofstede 2009) the image of a mirror is used and re-used. The metaphor suggests that researchers on national cultures are tricked by their methodologies into seeing what they set out to see. Like the wicked queen of the fairy tale, they already know who is the fairest of them all and they aren’t about to accept any evidence to the contrary.

Questions for Cross-Cultural Theory

This web site focuses on a different theory that deals with a different kind of culture. From a Grid-Group Cultural Theory perspective differences across national borders and within nations, cities and households are at least as significant. From this perspective there are some obvious questions:

  1. What is essential about national boundaries? For example, Hofstede gives clear scores for an Australian national culture, and certainly there is evidence of a programme of ‘Australianness’ within the country, with annual recognition of Australia Day as a public holiday and active media interest in questions of what constitutes the Australian spirit or the true Australian. Is it OK, for instance, for a leading supermarket chain to sell a t-shirt that reads ‘Australian born and bred’? In 1990 the now leader of the Federal opposition said:
    “The issue is the sort of Australia we want our children and grandchildren to inherit. Will it be a relatively cohesive society that studies Shakespeare, follows cricket and honours the Anzacs; or will it be a pastiche of cultures with only a geographic home in common… Race matters – but only because it usually signifies different values, attitudes and beliefs. The real problem is not race, but culture. ” The political exploitation of anxieties about national culture demonstrates that perceptions of nationhood are far from settled. Note also the impoverished account of cohesion (Shakespeare, cricket and ANZAC is a recipe for cultural sclerosis, rather than something to celebrate). Since approximately 40% of the population of Sydney, Australia’s largest city, was not actually born in Australia, the boundary between Australian culture and non-Australian culture is, to say the least, more permeable than Hofstede seems to allow for.
  2. What grounds the five dimensions of culture identified by Hofstede? They appear to have been intuited first, then empirically confirmed. But there is nothing to say there aren’t ‘really’ four dimensions (as Hofstede used to claim), or six, or two. CT at least attempts a logical rationale for four cultural biases, based on two measurable scales.
  3. What makes a culture homogeneous, either within an organisation (like IBM, Hofstede’s main subject) or within a nation? CT suggests cultures are multilayered, with different cultural biases in evidence at different scales of observation.
  4. Like the Parliamentary Committee examining Edison’s lamp, we might further add: What practical or scientific use is Hofstede’s theory? It appears to have found a market among globalising firms seeking to ‘localise’ their working practices, marketing, public relations and so on. It is, surely, helpful for there to be some reflection of the question of whether all places and peoples are the same, or whether there are differences. It seems evident that there are differences, and if so there is likely to be a market for those who claim to be able to explain and codify those differences to the benefit of someone’s bottom line. An interesting use of Hofstede’s work is found in an analysis of web sites (Marcus and Gould 2002).The authors sought to classify different web sites along the lines of the five dimensions of culture elaborated by Hofstede. Interestingly, though the web sites they considered ack at the turn of the century now look distinctly dated, on returning to the same web sites in 2010, one finds, more often than not, the same kinds of underlying features, with no more than a superficial makeover.

    Information bias: as much national difference as we care to see

    Cultural Theorists Michael Thompson and Aaron Wildavsky claimed that organisational cultures can be defined in terms of their ways of accepting information and also rejecting it. So among what kinds of cultures might it make sense to have distinctive national characteristics? And conversely, which cultures might want to reject such a claim? (Thompson and Wildavsky 1986).

    Read more in part two, coming next…

    4 thoughts on “The Google Dilemma. National Differences and Cross-Cultural Theory

    1. There is very little that can be said to be “essential about national boundaries” now that the genie is out of the lamp. I think the guardians of these boundaries, including the academics, will always lag behind. They are already beginning to look pathetic. The nation, as they used to say, ain’t got a chance.

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