A case of intercultural interaction
This essay analyses a case of intercultural interaction, the inefficiency of which, led a teaching agency located in Milan (Italy) to become insolvent.
Section 1: gives an overview of the agency’s business organisation by describing its structure, culture and the broad environment in which the agency operated.
Section 2: delineates the changes implemented and the reaction of the teaching personnel.
Section 3: offers an explanation based on the relevant cultural dimensions developed by Hall, Hofstede, and Trompenaars; while section 4 lays bare the objections to such dimensions, and explains up to what extent these can facilitate effective communication in a multicultural work context.
Finally, the conclusions suggest possible approaches which could help businesses to avoid intercultural misunderstandings.
The English Learning Institute (ELI) was an agency which provided English native speaker teachers with a QTS (Qualified Teacher Status) which they could use in high schools in the greater Milan area.
The agency was founded in 2005 when its two co-founders saw an opportunity in the target market to supply qualified mother tongue English speakers to private institutions.
Even though the agency started out as a small business, only two years later it was already employing seventy members of staff, twenty of whom were assigned to management and administrative tasks, whilst the remainder made up the teaching staff.
To meet the high demand for British English, the majority of teachers employed were native British English speakers. Usually, the agency offered full time contracts, however, a few teachers opted to work on a part time basis.
The ELI was located in a picturesque, historic building in the Milan’s centre, and boasted an innovative and remarkable resource area supplied with the most up to date English language teaching materials. In addition, it offered a spacious canteen which provided free meals to its employees.
Even though one has to consider the dangers of oversimplification when defining organizational structures, it can be said the ELI was described as the combination of both “simple” and “bureaucracy” models (Robbins 1998). The “bureaucracy” model applied to the two co-founders, management and administration staff who were all Italian nationals, while the teaching department, formed by the British teachers, was representing the “simple” model.
The roles in the administration and sales-marketing departments were strictly defined: their members had a restricted autonomy and responded directly to the management who, in turn, reported to the two co-founders who owned the agency. These departments showed the characteristics of a “role culture” (Handy 1978).
Conversely, the teaching staff had a wide span of control, reporting to the Director of study – also a British expatriate – who was proud of recruiting qualified teachers with a great deal of experience and able to adapt to the Italian schooling environment. The Director of studies would maintain direct relationships with them by visiting the schools on a regular basis and, above all, by organising monthly social events.
For the co-founders and the management, the priority was to keep the loyal relationship established with their clients; however, given the fact that the work carried out by the British teachers was essential for the smooth running of the agency, they were provided with a wide range of benefits.
Among these benefits there was:
- the access to outstanding teaching resources
- free meals at the agency’s canteen
- permanent contracts
- very generous holidays of 9 weeks per annum (more than the average holidays the Italian teachers are entitled to) and free monthly social events.
Since the establishment of the agency in 2005, there had been a series of major changes in the world economy. ELI was founded in a secure and serene economic scenario, where business contracts were based on the personal relationships between the owners and the clients.
Nevertheless, with the global recession in 2008 due to the US subprime mortgage crisis, the economic environment had become increasingly unstable and competitive. Given this scenario, the number of students who could afford private education decreased significantly, resulting in a plunge in the request for teachers.
Initially, ELI had only a few competitors, however, over the years, more of them started entering ELI’s target market. Consequently, by 2008, ELI started losing contracts as its competitors were using an abrasive penetration pricing marketing strategy. Despite this, ELI’s financial situation was still reasonably stable.
2. Implemented changes
In order to react to these dramatic market changes, ELI implemented a range of drastic measures aimed at reducing costs. The resource area was entirely redesigned: its space was significantly reduced in order to create rooms for private tuition, the canteen was totally shut, and no more free meals were offered to those employees who were not part of management.
In contrast, the latter was entitled to “buoni pasto” (food stamps) which could be used in the majority of restaurants and supermarkets of the city. Moreover, the administration department was given new guidelines according to which the marketing team now had to target not only existing clients in the education field, but also new clients within the corporate environment and consumer fields, for private tuition. In order to obtain the desired results, the staff were overloaded with extra tasks and paper work which obviously required longer hours of work.
The management role
Management itself became much more involved with academic issues and assumed the responsibility of running the private tuition business. Instead of a pay freeze, the management team received a slight salary rise for the new duties undertaken.
Conversely, with the teaching staff, the preference was given to part-time work, and all the new teachers were now employed on a fixed-term contract only with holidays reduced to 4 weeks pro-rata per year. The existing teaching staff, experienced a cut of their vacations from 9 to 5 weeks per year, and they were allocated more teaching hours together with new teachers, having to cover not only the private institutions, but corporations and private tuition clients. It was evident that the agency’s ultimate goal was to utilise its teachers as much as possible.
Opposition to change
The only resistance to these major changes took form of a complaint letter signed by the teaching staff and delivered directly to the management and the co-founders of the agency. There was no opposition on the administration department as their members feared losing their job in such an unstable economic climate.
On their side, teachers complained that they should have been involved in the decision making. They also claimed that the new management’s pay rise and perks were absolutely unfair.
Unfortunately, for the agency’s reputation, this general discontent was spread by the teachers in schools and corporates too. Even though the teachers expressed the wish for a general meeting in which to discuss the changes, the management team only sent out a written memorandum to inform all the parties concerned about the changes implemented.
The teaching staff was kept mainly updated by the Director of Studies who realised that unsurprisingly the teachers’ morale was very low, with the long-term teachers no longer displaying loyalty to the agency.
As a consequence, performance plummeted and absenteeism increased massively. In the long term, the majority of teachers left the agency for its competitors with the new teachers only working for a few months. With time, the agency was forced to employ inexperienced teachers who eventually dropped the agency standards so low that it lost its major clients and was forced to declare bankruptcy.
3. Cultural values dimensions
From the vast body of intercultural research, three major names stand out in the field: Hofstede, Trompenaars and Hall, whose investigations have been fundamental for studying cultural dilemmas in the workplace. In light of their studies which revealed different cultural values dimensions, it is possible to explain up to a certain extent, the misunderstanding between the British expatriate teachers and the Italian management and administrative department, which led ELI to bankruptcy.
The Power Distance Value
The first difference to be noticed in the ELI case is in the Power Distance (PDI) Hofstede’s dimension, which measures how much a society respects a hierarchy model where inequalities amongst people are acceptable. This construct is also present in Trompenaars’ Equality versus Hierarchy cultural factor.
In the mentioned ELI incident, all the teaching staff came from Great Britain where society aims at minimising power distances, in contrast to the owners, the management and the administrative personnel (including sales and marketing staff) belonging to a higher PDI dimension. In fact, according to Hofstede (The Hofstede Centre 2014), Italy sits in the medium rankings of PDI, in contrast with United Kingdom which scores significantly lower points.
How management failed to recognise an important culture value difference
Therefore, according to these rankings, the reason why the management team put a strong emphasis on distance between them and their subordinates is understandable, and so to is the reason why it was regarded as normal to receive special benefits that employees at lower levels were not entitled to, as this represents a characteristic of high PDI.
Moreover, although complaints were expected, the management did not anticipate a complete change in attitude towards the company which resulted in a significant increase in the rate of absenteeism and a plunge in performance.
The management reacted by increasing the distance and delegating teachers’ concerns to the sole attention of the Study Director, leaving the teaching personnel even more inclined to regard the Italian management as distant and formal, while from a management point of view, the teachers were considered too informal.
While the teaching staff was seeking direct confrontation by asking for a general meeting, the management team responded by circulating a brief written memorandum describing the changes imposed, without involving its employees in the decision making process (another characteristic of cultures which score high PDI).
High context and Low context factors
In addition, as they perceived the memorandum to be too short, teachers felt that the changes were not elucidated enough; their reaction can be explained by Hall’s (1976) high context and low context cultural factors. In fact, in high context cultures like Italy, messages are usually covert and implicit, leaving individuals to read between the lines, helped by the many contextual elements embedded in the culture.
In low context cultures, such as Great Britain, the messages are overt, clear and simple and very little is taken for granted. Therefore, teachers were expecting a longer detailed description of the changes implemented, instead the management message was clearly implicit.
Uncertainty Avoidance dimension
Furthermore, a significant difference has to be noted in Hofstede’s dimension of uncertainty avoidance (UA): “the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations”. (Hofstede 1991, p.113).
The uncertainty of the agency’s future provoked opposing behaviours between the two cultures. With the host culture scoring a high level of UA, the management and the administrative department felt threatened by the unpredictability of events and reacted accordingly by imposing changes studied in detail believed to be crucial for the survival of the agency.
In contrast, the teaching staff coming from a culture belonging to a low UA dimension, did not understand why they were not involved in the decision making process, and further why such radical changes were implemented when the ELI financial situation appeared to still be stable despite losing some of its clients.
In addition, they also did not understand why the administrative department, with the sales and marketing staff, did not pose any objections to these management requests. The latter can be explained by looking at Hall’s (1976) cultural factors once more.
In high context cultures (Italy), bonds between people are strong along with a high sense of loyalty, whilst in low context cultures (Great Britain) the sense of loyalty is very fragile and therefore bonds can be broken easily.
4. Main criticisms of cultural dimensions
Even though Hofstede’s IBM study, which uncovered four culture dimensions, plus an additional one added later, is still regarded as a pioneering investigation by many researchers, it has been also criticised by others. Indeed, it is debatable up to what extent such and other popular taxonomies are useful for explaining cultural behaviour, and for an understanding of the many variations which reside within one culture.
One of the most tenacious opponents to Hofstede’s findings is certainly McSweeney (2002), who criticises acutely the concept of national culture expressed by Hofstede and the methodology applied to his IBM survey.
In fact, according to the scholar, the concept of national culture employed by Hofstede refers to a country or a state and does not take into consideration the several divisions existing within a national population. McSweeney (2002) also identifies a tension in the two notions of national culture sharedness which he considers to be inconsistent.
In effect, according to Hofstede (1980a), since nations are “subculturally heterogeneous”, individuals do not share all common subcultures, but most of them or all of them are believed to share a common national culture. Therefore, according to this notion, each individual belonging to a national population shares a unique national culture.
The central tendency construct
On the other hand, Hofstede seems to create a tension by asserting that a unique national culture is not necessarily carried by all the individuals but it is identified through a statistical average based on individuals’ views. Hofstede (1991:253) refers to this construct with the term of “central tendency” or “an average tendency”.
This concept can be regarded to be part of a large culture construct, condemned by Holliday (1999) who argues: “such an approach results in reductionist overgeneralization and otherization of foreign educators, students and societies”.
In addition to his abrasive judgement on the perceived Hofstede’s national culture concept, McSweeney (2002) aims at deconstructing Hofstede’s category of analysis by severely criticising the methodology used for the IBM survey. As a deep analysis of the criticisms of such a study is beyond the scope of this essay, it will suffice to mention the main well-grounded objections McSweeney holds against such a methodology.
The critics to Hofstede’s IBM questionnaire
A closer investigation on the number of questionnaires used by Hofstede, reveals that the actual average number used per country was scanty, and for some countries it was even miniscule.
Moreover, although the study covered 66 countries, only the data derived from 40 countries were used to determine the “central tendencies” characteristics of a national culture. However, one of the main points of McSweeney’s analysis relies on the fact that even though the questionnaires were given to a large number of respondents, they were all members of an “organizational culture” represented by the IBM company. Furthermore, all the participants occupied positions in sales and marketing and, therefore, they shared the same “occupational culture” (McSweeney 2002).
Analysing the ELI case from this perspective can lead to a different interpretation of the behaviour of the management and administrative departments who were coming from diverse parts of Italy and might not have all shared the same level of power distance towards their subordinates.
On the other hand, Darlington (1996) points out that various scholars re-evaluated Hofstede’s study finding it largely validated, especially with regards to the two dimensions of power distance and individualism.
In fact, these two dimensions show a positive correlation in all the most recent surveys. Notwithstanding, Darlington (1996) suggests interpreting Hofstede’s scores with much care as they do not reflect the reality in some cases. Also, Dorfman and Howell (1988), critique Hofstede’s Uncertainty
Avoidance dimension by highlighting that the three items used to identify it, reflect incongruent concepts: the degree of stress experienced, the length of time the person believes they will stay in the current company (IBM), and the beliefs regarding whether rules should be always be respected or could be broken. Hofstede considers his cultural dimensions to be independent and bi-polar, therefore contrasting to each other.
Sophisticated stereotyping can be helpful only up to a certain degree
The issue with bi-polar taxonomies lies on the ground that one position directly oppose the other and therefore do not include room for any possible co-existence. Indeed, not only Hofstede’s but Trompenaars and Halls’ cultural dimensions can lead to sophisticated stereotyping when strictly applied in a bi-polar manner.
As asserted by Osland and Bird (2000), sophisticated stereotyping can be helpful only up to a certain degree, as most of the time individuals working across cultures experience cultural paradoxes which do not appear to fit into the descriptions of the cultural dimensions they have learned.
A cultural paradox is defined as “a situation that exhibits an apparently contradictory nature”. For example, even though Italians are considered to be, according to the most used cultural dimensions, highly individualistic, they might indeed be in some situations, while they could be collectivists in other contexts . Above all, it can be said that there exists a main division between Northern and Southern Italy.
In the latter, individuals are much more inclined to collectivism. The danger of reducing cultures to minimum terms dictated by bipolar continua culture value dimensions is, therefore, to create perilous stereotypes, even though they are considered to be “sophisticated” and increase the “otherization” phenomenon already cited by Holliday (1999).
The Triumping construct
Therefore, it seems appropriate to look into Osland and Bird’s construct of triumping which explains: “in a specific context, certain cultural values take precedence over others” Osland and Bird (2000). In this manner, culture is considered to be embedded into a context and this context has to be carefully studied and not restrained to the judgement of set restrictive norms.
Even though there seems to be a general consensus among scholars that cultural dimensions are useful to explain cultural behaviour, their extensive limitations are hence also recognised. Hofstede himself recommends to use cultural dimensions wisely and correctly. Additionally, Osland and Bird (2000) suggest that they might be more useful for comparing two different cultures than helping understand the distinctions existing inside one culture.
Consequently, it would be helpful to acknowledge the existence of those numerous nuances forming a culture and learn them progressively, in order to make sense of the bigger picture. In fact, Osland and Bird (2000) compare culture to a giant jigsaw puzzle, whose distinct pieces have to be to put together to complete it.
In this way, no matter how laborious it could be, cultural nuances would have to be studied in a pro-active way in order for them to fit harmoniously within each other, making sense of the overall culture. Yet, in most cases, pro-active learning seems to stop with individuals able to access a survival stage, maybe due to an instinctive inclination to want to simplify an intricate world.
Having taken all these considerations into account, it remain dubious to which degree cultural dimensions can really facilitate effective intercultural communication in a business setting.
As revealed from most literature, cultural dimensions represent a stepping stone for the understanding of cultural behaviour. Notwithstanding, scholars recognise their vast limitations contained in the coined term “sophisticated stereotyping”, which might also derive from a between culture study approach.
Despite the fact that most cultural approaches in management use an etic approach (comparing two cultures or more), it would be useful to address the study of intercultural communication by focusing more on an emic approach (the in-depth study of one culture’s distinctions), in order to grasp a culture’s inner variations.
Furthermore, it appears logical to assume that increasing the awareness of cultural paradoxes and studying the complexities surrounding cultural dimensions, augments the possibility of being successful in intercultural interactions, instead of settling for an over simplistic cultural comprehension.
Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that cultural dimensions should be the beginning of cultural learning and not the end of it. Businesses should hire an intercultural facilitator, who has pragmatic experience in the target culture.
Moreover, returning expatriates giving briefings about their own experience would certainly enhance the firm’s collective cultural awareness. As per the ELI case, the strategic help of a cross-cultural trainer would have most likely avoided the agency’s insolvency.
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