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Can social business thrive across cultures?


It’s hard to dispute that we live in a globalized age, with our workplaces increasingly resembling a global village.  Whether that is down to multinationals having offices in various regions or multiple nationalities congregating in one place to apply their talents for an employer, our workplaces are an increasingly diverse mixture.

Suffice to say, the thought diversity this can bring to the workplace is a tremendous benefit.  It does however represent a challenge when it comes to social business, as not all cultures are as conducive to collaborative working.

A story from INSEAD provides a salient example.  The story comes from an MBA class at the college, whereby students were asked to deal with a conflict between two department heads.  There were multiple nationalities present in the class, but the biggest blocks were from Britain, Germany and France – three countries who happen to represent three different quadrants of Power distance vs Uncertainty Avoidance matrix produced by Geert Hofstede.

The results were fascinating.  The French students nearly all regarded the case as negligence by the manager who was tasked with overseeing the two departments.  The proposed resolution was therefore for this manager to issue orders on how to settle such disputes in future.

The German students by contrast regarded the problem as a systemic one, and proposed clearly defined procedures as the best solution to the conflict.  Who designed these new procedures was of less importance.

The British students differed again, and regarded the problem as a general HR one, with each department head regarded as a poor negotiator.  The solution therefore would be to send each department head on training courses to improve their skills in this area.

It’s an interesting theory.  For the defense however is a study conducted recently by Professor Dave Bartram.  He explored the personalities of some 90,000 employees across multiple countries and organizations to see if there were any trends emerging.  He found that as much of the variance in personality can be attributed to the employer we work for as our nationality.

It suggests, therefore, that whilst we have traits that can be attributed to our cultural upbringing, we also self-select our employer based upon good cultural fit with our individual beliefs.

With multinational organizations attempting to impart and encourage social behaviours in the workplace, it’s an interesting point of discussion, especially with culture increasingly seen as the point of success or failure with social business.

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