What’s Missing in Cross-cultural Management Studies? Balancing Academic Elitism and Unmediated Knowledge

There was a time, perhaps, when ‘academic’ knowledge could go unchallenged, as it was the result of highly educated and intelligent scholars, undertaking sometimes expensive research in revered institutions of higher learner. Things have changed as there are many challenges to previously held assumptions about how knowledge is created, disseminated and applied. Cross-cultural management scholars most of all should know this. For some years they have been harking on about the dominance of Western knowledge over non-Western knowledge (or at least they should have been if they had taken notice of the more critical element in Hofstede’s work).

Things have definitely changed. We now find students (and sometimes authors submitting to scholarly journals) quoting directly from Wikipedia. At the same time, at least in the UK, resources are being increasingly concentrated in fewer research intensive universities, with similar trends in other countries: for example in the United States with richly endowed ‘Ivy League’ universities producing the cream of research outputs. So, there appears to be two opposing trends in knowledge development and communication, which affect the way we view scholarly knowledge and how this is changing. This is likely to have a significant impact on both the academic world and those, such as policymakers, who (in theory) rely on the generation of scholarly knowledge.

A trend towards academic elitism

Scholarship itself, increasingly, is considered the preserve of academic elites, mostly in Western Europe and North America, produced in elite universities and published in elite journals. This is certainly reflected in the UK government policy to concentrate research funding in fewer research-led universities, and assessing outputs on very narrow criteria that appear to fit ideas of what scholarly output should be, and indeed what journals this output should be published in. This must have the effect of reinforces ideas of what scholarship should be and appears to lead to a lack of diversity, innovation, and a reluctance to upset the status quo, particularly among younger scholars seeking promotion or tenure. It may also lead to greater specialization as scholars remain within their comfort zones, and are wary of venturing too far away from the accepted paradigms, theories and ideas of what scholarship should be. Logically, there must be a positive to this trend, to provide its rationale: providing resources to high performing scholars and universities; digging deeper into areas that are important to policy-making and business leadership; meeting more directly the needs of governments and businesses; doing more focused and better scholarship; providing low-risk and better returns for money invested in this process.

A trend towards unmediated knowledge

At the same time, there is a trend towards the propagation of unmediated knowledge through digital technology, which is pulling in the other direction. Social media may have the potential to provide better representation of under-represented and marginalized knowledge. This also has the potential to increase diversity within knowledge generation, but also to challenge elitist views of the world. In this connection the Arab Spring and the use of digital media to inform and organise is much cited: communicating a message that might otherwise not have been heard. The developing and communication of knowledge in this way has certain implications. It is unmediated and therefore does not go through the normal checks and balances that academic communications are subjected to. This means that it is quick but possibly dirty (to coin a phrase): it is difficult to assess the quality of information. Yet academic communication has suffered from this issue, despite going through apparent rigorous peer review. An interesting blog post by Heidi Lane does a very good job of disabusing many well-held myths about the value of journal publishing: the average article, within the myriad of articles and journal, is only read by a small handful of people, so we may find a better dissemination tool in the Internet; discussion among peers is very limited for journal articles, but not so on Twitter, Researchgate and blogs where their is much academic discussion going on (the rubbish is quickly identified); journals often do not do a good job of keeping up standards through peer review: the number of retracted articles, which scholars continue to cite, is significant; impact factor as a measure of academic merit is extremely limited but appears to provide a criterion of what is regarded as a good journal, if not necessarily scholarly excellence. Novelty and innovation does not appear to correlate directly with high citations, but well known authors are and review articles (which save academics time and effort) are.

Yet when taken outside academia (with definite implications for academia) the potential for more assessible knowledge creation and dissemination is significant. It holds the possibility of becoming more inclusive, more diverse and sharing information and creating knowledge from a majority world that largely has been excluding from mainstream scholarship.

Hence my own interest, as a cross-cultural management scholar, in indigenous knowledge, which of course is largely ignored in scholarly work on international management, and shouldn’t but is mainly excluded from cross-cultural management scholarly research: despite interest in the difference between etic knowledge (from outside a particular cultural context and what, for example, Hofstede brings to the table) and emic knowledge (knowledge from within the cultural context, normally through rich qualitative data). Yet these concepts, in common use in extant scholarly cross-cultural management work don’t come close to understanding the dynamic nature of indigenous organisation and management, its political nature vis à vis ‘global’ knowledge, and how it can be integrated into scholarship and how it can be disseminated and assimilated into policy and leadership decisions. I’m not going to deal here with the area of indigenous research (read: Linda Tuhiwai Smith), other than to say that including ’subjects’ in the research agenda is a first step towards designing outcomes that are more culturally and politically relevant to those subjects, and more appropriate to policy.

I am, however, going to mention the dynamic nature of indigenous knowledge and how this might be understood by researchers and how this might be more effectively disseminated through social media, although I have alluded to this elsewhere.

I believe this is important as not only is social media such as Twitter and Facebook changing the way academics communicate (in their quest for greater visibility and hopefully impact), the same tools are available to those we seek to study (‘subjects’, ‘indigenes’). Conversely, our traditional academic tools are not available to those in the majority world who, as cross-cultural scholars, we should be listening to (not just studying). I’m not saying that social media completely levels the playing field, making knowledge sources and its applications more democratic (we can’t completely ignore power dynamics within wider global society and within academia). But I do believe it changes things: how we study, the tools available, the way we use these tools, the fact that our ‘subjects’ have access to the same tools, the fact that we are dealing with competing types of knowledge and using this to enrich the value of academic research.

Above all, I believe that the job of a cross-cultural management scholar is to learn from other cultures, and to help and convince others who are working in different cultural contexts, and working with those from those different culture to learn from them. The history of western civilisation is paralleled with a modernising project, right up to the present day. Roughly 80% of the world is subject to being told what is best practice (to couch this in management terms). This runs through the theory and practice of international development. It is similarly implicit in international management scholarship and practice. The increasing elitism, and its associated conservatism, of scholarship and academia intensifies this. The ascendancy of unmediated knowledge challenges this. One way or another we must understand this and incorporate it within our scholarship. Cross-cultural management scholar, above all, should understand and incorporate this.

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