The need to study indigenousness and indigenous knowledge is growing in importance within cross-cultural management studies (Jack and Westwood, 2009) as emerging economies such as China and India come to the fore and countries, societies and organizations within the global ‘South’ increasingly find a voice on the world stage; and, as regions such as sub-Saharan Africa become more integrated into a changing global economy (Carmody, 2011). It is perhaps because of the view that indigenous knowledge is backward and not relevant to modern management (Marsden, 1991) that its serious study has been previously neglected in the management literature. There appears to be three main problems as this reference to indigenous management is increasing in the literature.
Firstly, within this literature, it is not really clear what ‘indigenous’ actually refers to. This term has been used extensively in the international management literature with little explanation. To give just one example from an article that is expounding more ‘indigenous’ research where Stening & Skubik (2007: 115) state that there are ‘..moves to create indigenous theories and research instruments in management’ there is within this article no attempt to discuss what this concept actually means. Much of the current interest in ‘indigenous’ management may not be focused on the indigenous at all, but on what may be regarded as ‘endogenous’ which conveys a meaning of arising from within the society (Maruyama, 1981) or organization (Schuler, Dowling & de Cieri, 1993). In the wider social science literature ‘indigenous’ conveys a relationship between the local and global, with indigenous people or knowledge being marginalized from the global. Hence, to have a concept of indigenous as being defined by its localness (Tsui, 2004) is too simplistic, as indigenous knowledge and indigenous people are always such within a power relationship in a globalized world, and one defined by its colonial history. Hence those who wish to steer clear of such a global relationship may be better to use the term ‘endogenous’.
Endogenous refers to that which comes from within a given society (Maruyama, 1981), and refers to the specific characteristics, values, ideas, knowledge, institutions and practices that pertain within a society. It is normally distinguished from exogenous aspects (e.g. Schuler, Dowling and de Cieri, 1993) that come from outside the society being studied. Such examples could be a focus on concepts like guanxi or ubuntu, or on specific countries (e.g. China) or parts of countries, but sometimes continents (e.g. Africa), that are regarded as emerging or developing, although not excluding First World countries.
Indigenous, on the other hand, refers to the on-going product of a relationship between geopolitical control and local resistance, of marginalization of a society or people with common interests, values, knowledge, institutions and practices, and defence of these against encroachment from global or national control. Researchers may find the much understudied, yet huge (and hugely important) informal economies, as fruitful sites for indigenous research.
Secondly, a problem appears to have emerged with the upsurge in interest in indigenous management and organization, originally with an upsurge in interest in China in the 1990s and particularly with the appropriated concept of guanxi (for example Tsang, 1998, asking in the title of his article: ‘Can guanxi be a source of sustained competitive advantage for doing business in China.’) is the commoditization of ‘indigenous’ management concepts. Ubuntu has more recently been thus packaged to show its commercial usefulness to a Western management consumer context, giving rise to titles such as ‘Building competitive advantage from ubuntu: management lessons from South Africa’ (Mangaliso, 2001) in Western management journals. This isn’t necessarily a negative, yet it may submerge some very real issues in developing a more informed and critical study of the nature and role of indigenous management thought. It may serve to disguise the dynamic nature of the indigenous within a global and changing world arena.
This brings me on to a related third problem. Anything regarded as ‘indigenous’ cannot be considered frozen in time, although often it is. ‘Indigenous’ knowledge is not an artefact to be preserved (Briggs and Sharp, 2004), nor one that can easily be packaged for Western consumption (Briggs, 2005). Rather it is part of a dynamic within a cultural interface that constantly produces new knowledge and social forms (Jackson, 2011) albeit through geopolitical power dynamics that have a profound effect on this production.
Sorry, but again this brings us onto some very important political, and probably ethical issues, which cross-cultural management scholars appear to shy away from. By studying indigenous management we are not just looking at contextualized local knowledge and practices as Tsui (2004) appears to suggest. We are looking at a global-local dynamic driven by power relations that seeks to impose a dominant view, which itself is partly accepted by weaker voices, but often resisted. The purpose of indigenous research should be to give those weaker groups more voice to speak out, not just as subjects of research, but in formulating the purpose and use of such research, and greater agency to affect policies and practices that impact on their lives (e.g. Smith, 1999). Those management scholars who want to avoid the political stuff should stick to endogenous research.
Briggs, J. (2005) The use of indigenous knowledge in development: problems and challenges, Progress in Development Studies 5(2):99–114
Briggs, J. and Sharpe, J. (2004) Indigenous knowledge and development: a postcolonial caution, Third World Quarterly, 25(4), 661-76
Carmody, P. (2011) The New Scramble for Africa, Cambridge: Polity
Jack, G. and Westwood, R.. (2009) International and Cross-Cultural Management Studies: A Postcolonial Reading, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jackson, T. (2011) From Cultural Values to Cross-cultural Interfaces: Hofstede Goes to Africa, Journal of Organization Change Management, 24(4): 532-58
Mangaliso, M. P. (2001). Building competitive advantage from ubuntu: Management lessons from South Africa. Academy of Management Executive, 15(3), 23-33.
Marsden, D. (1991). Indigenous Management. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 2(1), 21-38.
Maruyama, M. (1981) Endogenous research: rationale, in P. Reason & J. Rowan (eds.) Human Inquiry: A sourcebook of New Paradigm Research, Chichester, UK: John Wiley.
Schuler, R. S., Dowling, P. J., & De Cieri, H. (1993). An integrative framework of strategic international human resource management. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 4(4), 717-764
Smith, L. T. (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, London: Zed Books
Stening, B. W., & Skubik, D. W. (2007). Do International Management Researchers Need a Code of Ethics? Management International Review, 47(1), 103–126.
Tsang, E. K. (1998). Can guanxi be a source of sustained competitive advantage for doing business in China?. Academy of Management Executive, 12(2), 64-73
Tsui, A S (2004) Contributing to Global Management Knowledge: A Case for High Quality Indigenous Research, Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 21, 491–513.