Globalization: Bridging Across Cultures or Developing a Global Culture?

When you hear the word "globalization," what image comes to mind?

When you hear the word "globalization," what image comes to mind? A container vessel steaming across the Pacific, full of inexpensive goods from China, India, or Malaysia? Dozens of country-specific Facebook or Google sites, each in the appropriate language? The currency trading floor at Citibank in London? Riots outside the G-8/G-20 meetings? The UN General Assembly or the articles of the Geneva Conventions? (Okay maybe those last two no longer have the associations they once did—let's not get into why.)

For me "globalization" always evoked the image of borderless flows—money, goods, and people moving unobstructed around the globe, forming a global society complete with a universal culture (based, I assumed, on largely American norms) and a universal business language (English, of course!). It was a utopian vision in which demographics, politics, and economics didn't figure, but it felt compelling—particularly the year I finished business school (1986) when the term "globalization" was as hot as, well, Chernobyl. My friends and I, replete with our shiny new MBAs, set off to our manufacturing, consulting, and banking jobs, dedicated to building the new global world of business.

We built global businesses, all right—and some of my classmates even ended up taking over existing ones, like ITT—but in the nearly twenty-five years since graduation I've often reflected that the global business culture we all expected to come about has never materialized. And now I have to wonder, is it still coming? Or is the world on a different path—a meandering, endless journey in which we have to work across American and Afghan cultures today; Brazilian, British, and Bahamian tomorrow; and Canadian, Colombian, Chinese, and Congolese next week?

When we talk about progress, it's often in terms of globalization. It's easy to document the increasing cross-border flows of goods (this has been going on for centuries), money (especially since the financial deregulation of the late 1980s), information (particularly since the advent of the Web) and, to a lesser extent, people. We work in, or at least read about, global firms that have built sophisticated global operations; we watch video on the 'net, or the nightly news, from far-flung corners of the earth; we hear leaders speak about not only international cooperation but also interdependence. We are more aware than ever that there is a big, complex, networked world out there.

But a global society, or even a global business culture? Much as I'd like to be, I'm no longer optimistic. I spend my working days teaching managers from around the world, and they never ask "What will the business culture of the future look like?" Instead, they frequently want to know, "How can I work better across different cultures?" Stories they tell—like that of the British CEO who made a bad acquisition decision, and the Spanish division director who thought he had objected at the time but because those objections were voiced only as questions (a characteristic Spanish behavior) was understood by the CEO as having agreed—are inevitably illustrations of where and how we need to bridge across existing cultural boundaries, rather than clues as to how to transcend or eventually remove them. Bridging across boundaries is an important and teachable skill—and one that is still in short supply—but it is fundamentally different from creating a new culture that sits above, or goes beyond, the existing territory.

You'd think it might eventually be possible, given the connectedness and openness spawned by the Internet, and the interdependence that economic globalization has fostered, to get to some level of cultural globalization as well. But let's not forget that people's beliefs, attitudes, and norms of behavior—the basic elements of culture—are shaped by the geographic and social surroundings in which they grow up. Unless there is deep similarity in those surroundings, which there patently isn't (look at all the material written lately about the Clash of Cultures between the Islamic World and the West), then no matter how much connection or interdependence, you can't expect a single culture to emerge. It's unrealistic to expect Francesca from Rome, who knows that Sunday is a day for family, worship, and relaxation, and Suleiman from Jeddah for whom the corresponding day is Friday, to decide that in the interest of maximizing the effectiveness of their work collaboration they will henceforth agree to do those things on Saturday instead (although Shlomo from Tel Aviv might say it's just fine with him).

So, fault lines exist that militate against the emergence of a global culture. (Yes, many of these have to do with religion, but that's a subject for another blog.) Still, there are some commonalities—more of practice than of fundamental belief—across the diverse cultures of global business. I've come up with the following short list, but I invite readers to add to it:

Common elements in global business practice:

  1. The customer comes first
  2. Quality standards matter
  3. Owners/shareholders deserve a fair return in the medium term
  4. Legitimate businesses play by the rules

(N.B. this last item doesn't mean "Do things in a standard way." It means "Don't violate the terms under which your business has been allowed to operate—by regulators, customers, investors, employees, etc.")

Note there is nothing here about the kinds of things we normally associate with culture—individual versus collective orientation, patterns of activity, work habits, dress, language, gender roles, hierarchy, view of time, communication practices, tastes. No, this list has only a few basic elements that, it might be argued, are necessary for any business to succeed.

There might be one more element, however, which, although hardly characteristic of many businesses, arguably should be a common element: The discipline of bridging across cultures. I am not being tautological here; rather, I'm saying that unless and until the critical mass of businesspeople around the world agree that bridging across cultural boundaries is an essential part of what business is about, and become reasonably good at it (and the common elements above are potential points with which to bridge), there is little chance we will ever have the opportunity to create any kind of global business culture.

The new global manager needs not only to think globally and act locally. She also needs to be able to think locally and act globally, depending on the market and the issue at hand. Simply put, professionals in the contemporary work context have to be able both to integrate across differences and to understand (and at times even underscore) the few common global threads of business practice.

There may eventually be a global culture, but I'm not holding my breath. For now, I'm just going to work on understanding business practice as it evolves—at different rates in different places—and on bridging and integrating across the gaps, old and new, that keep us from working together effectively. That should keep me, and most of us, busy for a good long while.

Maury Peiperl is Professor of Leadership and Strategic Change at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he teaches in the MBA program and the Orchestrating Winning Performance Program, as well as directing and teaching on tailored executive education programs for numerous companies.

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