National Culture's effect on E2.0 Implementation

A while ago I wrote this post about culture and its effects on Enterprise 2.0 implementations.

In the meantime, Mark Masterson wrote this cracker on his ideas about English versus German cultures and if Social Software would work the same in non-Anglo Saxon cultures.

This morning I was talking with Emanuele Quintarelli from Rome about the impact of cultures on Enterprise 2.0 success and his concerns that the local corporate culture had more impact than the national one did.

My discussion with him turned into a bit of brief description of Culture-as-Cognition and how it can be applied so I thought I would copy them here for you all.

Hofstede's work is totally brilliant, eminently usable and absolutely wrong!

Here's the thing. There is no such thing as "culture". It is not a thing in the same way that a river is not a thing. We look from a distance and see a flow of water, but actually, that water you see now will never pass that point again.

There are flows in the current that form eddies and turbulence that are static in the way they fill the space and exert forces on things that come in contact with it, like a boat.
You can describe generally how the boat will react, but there is no way of knowing for sure from minute to minute and even in 2009 we have many boating accidents.

A while ago, this site grabbed my attention. Have a read. It is about how a snow flake forms and it is almost identical to the cognitive science view of culture.

Each snow-flake is individual, however thousands can look almost identical if they individually go through the exact changes in temperature, humidity and pressure as they fall. Their life journey.

In the same way, people as just people, but they interact mentally with the world in a way that create common attributes (like the arms of a snow flake or the standing waves in a river rapid).
You can gauge these commonalities (that's what Hofstede's tools do), but in the end each individual is capable of anything, so it is easy to fall into an "ecological fallacy", where we assume the attributes of the individual based on the average of the group they belong to.

The power of the corporation is that it tapped into the large currents. The beauty of social computing is that now all those little eddies and changes in currents can be tapped into and surfed on.

What this means for me, is not that Social computing will work or not work in a given country, like Mark says, but more that how those tools are used will be different in the different environments. A different part of the river will have a totally different landscape and therefore different external forces working on the current. Likewise I have seen different companies using the exact same wiki software in TOTALLY different ways. Ways that for them make sense. That is why the concept of sense-making is far more important than outmoded concepts like Best-practice or Six Sigma when it comes to complex systems. And as Snowden says, any system with people involved is a complex system.

To use a more collectiveist defintion of the word colture. The enterprise "culture" is often stronger, especially on the negative side if there is distinct lack of trust or taboos about corporate communications at a social or informal level.

  • The key is not to talk about how we in engineer an E2.0 system to work in a certain culture.
  • The key is to talk about how we engineer an E2.0 system to adapt and evolve into whatever that microculture (using the term loosely) will find beneficial. It is about managing the evolutionary capability of the company (to quote Snowden again).
This is one of the reasons I have a problem seeing the tool and the adoption process as separate things. In my mind they are tightly coupled in a complex space. We need to focus on the adaptive capability of both which is why I tend to talk about the company rather than the tools of the projects that implement them.

So, what's wrong with Hofstede?
Well nothing for top-down strategic appraisal of national-level cultural commonalities. But the real world of culture is bottom up. Each man for themselves!

We already know that social tools like this perform sub-optimally when implemented from the top-down rather than organically from the bottom up.

The problem with generalising tools like Hofstede is that they can stop people trying in the first place because they assume the average culture will not suite the tool or system. No trying means no experimentation, no experimentation means no adaptation, no adaptation means no novel applications or beneficial outcomes.

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Anonymous said…
Well put. I certainly agree with the remarks about the limitations of Hofstede's framework (and others like it). And as I remarked in my response to your recent comment on my post, I agree completely about not wanting to engineer a static solution to cultural differences. Indeed, I think we agree that it's more or less impossible to design such a thing.

So we're agreed that a system (the word "tool" feels inadequate to me) must be adaptable to each distinct culture. I actually think that applies to a lot of levels of abstraction -- in the sense I'm thinking of it, this applies just as well to the difference between the sales and the R&D folks as it does to the differences between Korea and Texas. I suspect you agree?

But I am concerned about a macro-issue that your discussion here doesn't seem to touch on... Let's assume that we have such a system in play. Let's further assume that several distinct cultures have it in use, and have successfully adapted it to their needs -- they are, indeed, successfully using it to collaborate within the culture.

What happens at the macro level one step higher? Where these distinct cultures collide to interact with one another? What happens in a situation where (as in a large, multi-national enterprise) the introduction of such systems brings these distinct cultures in direct contact with each other for -- essentially -- the very first time?

I understand that this is the same problem that bodies like the United Nations exist to solve -- with arguably limited success. I understand the scope of it, therefore. ;) Nevertheless, to the extent that these sorts of systems (or "tools") are the thing that is suddenly driving such interactions in organisations (like mine), they serve as a forcing function -- they force us to pay attention to the problem. What I'm wondering about (and it's no more than that) is how to cope with those sorts of issues, and whether the systems themselves can help.
Stuart French said…
OK, I see where you are coming from Mark, and BTW, yes I agree that internal cultures can play as large a part as national ones.

Here is the thing. I am a little suspect (sorry Luis!) of anybody saying these tools replace more controlled ones like email, Intranets and even forums. There are times where you do want controlled, scheduled, bounded communications, especially where transactional of process information is in play.

As for your question of two successful groups interacting, I didn't mention it specifically because I don't see the difference. In fact I see social tools and their ability to adapt and continually try new ways of communicating as the best way possible for two disparate groups learning how to communicate with each other and meet each other's intangible needs.

I don't think the way they interact has to be the same as either of the systems used by both groups, however it may include parts of mash-ups of both of them. I saw a small example of this in my wiki research. One system used in very different ways by the Melbourne and Sydney branches. However it formed a small conduit and I saw some evidences of shared ideas between them.

Thanks for the post back Mark. Enjoy the conference mate!