National and Organisational Culture

It is always interesting to think about where and how cross-cultural communication and competencies comes into project management or organisational success. It is also often a difficult thing to discuss with so many generalisations that are helpful in many ways, but also lead to oversimplification and stereotyping.

Karen Smits talks about her research into national and organisational cultures with some interesting findings from her investigation into a large multinational, multiorganisational project in Central America. She is interviewed by Chris Smit in this audio file at the following address.

3 Tips for cross-cultural collaboration

  1. Have an Open Mind; Know your own culture and be able to understand the “other” culture.
  2. Adapt & Adjust; Or go with the flow. If someone is late for a meeting don’t get (too) upset.
  3. Language; be aware that not everyone can express themselves in a foreign language as well as you might be able to do.

5 Language & Cultural Elements of Karen’s Case Study in Panama

Towards the end of the interview Karen discusses some generalisations around her own Dutch nationality and the Panamanian one she found herself in during her research. She identifies certain important dimensions and made her own observations:

  1. Time – the Dutch are very adherent to time and therefore being late is seen as being a time waster; however, in Panama this is more relaxed and fluid.
  2. language – the Dutch language and therefore behaviour is more direct whereas the Panamanians tend to be softer and smoother and less harsh.
  3. family – the Dutch family involves more immediate family whereas in Latin America it is extended to aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, nieces, nephews.
  4. gender – Karen felt she was able to get access more due to her position in this male dominated construction environment.
  5. appearance – Karen also felt that her blond hair and blue eyes gained her greater access to information and sections of the company – where she might not have otherwise succeeded.

Karen’s cross-cultural collaborations research on the Panama Canal Expansion Program involved a combination of national cultural diversity (Spaniards, Italians, Belgians, Panamanians and Americans working together) and organisational cultures across a number of different organisations all working closely together on the one project.

This showed her that culture needs to be high on the cultural agenda and the reality is that this doesn’t often happen. The reason for this seems to be that there is a strong focus on hard skills like engineering-related tasks and that the perception is that there is no time to spend on the softer skills such as cultural competencies. However, what gets overlooked, is the manner and approaches to work. Karen Smits says that it is not important to find a unified way of working but, in fact, to be aware of the differences so that they can be incorporated holistically into the development of the program in order to avoid conflict, breakdowns and inefficiencies.

She says that it is not necessarily coming from a place of ignorance, but rather that the urgency is underestimated. The ramifications are realised too late after conflict has occurred and this costs the organisation a lot of time and money to rectify in getting the program back on track.

The ideal solution for Karen Smits would be for someone like her to be involved from the beginning – before conflict arises – in order to lay the groundwork, which would be to undertake profiling to know the differences and similarities between collaborators and to instil a sense of equality with a focus on working effectively with these differences and similarities.

For more information on related issues go to Culture Matters.




Are you feeling high or low?

“You don’t have to tell me again, I’m not a child”

“If you don’t understand, you’re…well…hmmm.“

A high-context communicator is someone who uses words in a way that relies heavily on the context in which they are used or, in other words, someone who relies on the things that are not said or rather implied, to communicate the real meaning of what is meant. This often happens in environments that are quite homogenous and often result in languages being formed around fewer words to express meaning because one word can mean a number of things in different contexts.

“Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you have told them”

“If you don’t understand, it is my fault.”

Low-context communicators, on the contrary, do not rely heavily on context and are therefore more explicit in their communication. These types of communicators can come from more newly developed countries that have been built on immigration where many cultures live side-by-side and require more explicit communication to ensure that everyone is on the same page (even as I’m writing this, I feel for that very reason, it’s important to explain that ‘on the same page’ means ‘everyone understanding each other’).

Low-context; rich vocabulary

English is arguably one of the richest languages, namely due to its Germanic origins and historical influences from Viking and Norman domination and more specifically Norman French and thus Latin. The link that I hadn’t made until recently was that rich languages like this are possibly an indication of low-context cultures because so many more words are needed to express explicit meaning rather than the alternative of intuiting meaning by what was not said or ‘reading the air’.

“Sinister buttocks”

Upon reading this article, I suddenly realised our rich language might seem to be laden with choice – many words meaning the same thing and therefore synonyms being readily available – meaning a number of different words can be inserted into a phrase to make it more sophisticated or, more sinisterly, to dodge the plagiarism accusation. This article has some hilarious examples of some awkwardly chosen synonyms and has led, aptly, to yet another addition to the English dictionary – ‘rogeting’…