Have you ever read a book and thought ‘I wish I’d written that’. Well, Jasmin Mahadevan’s book A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Cross-Cultural Management (SAGE, 2017) did it for me. This encapsulates a critical management view without trying to be clever – which I think many authors in this tradition tend to do, obscuring the message, and being less readable and putting readers off. This little book is not just aimed at other critical scholars. Nor is it aimed just at mainstream cross-cultural management colleagues or students. It is aimed at anyone doing management in today’s diverse and global environments. In other words, everybody. I wish I’d written this.
She identifies five perspectives in cross-cultural management studies. The comparative perspective and the interactional perspective are well rehearsed in the literature, but to this she adds three more. The cultural perspective, which looks at culture as a whole mainly from an anthropological view, adds a more wholistic dimension and helps us to put into perspective what we are talking about when we think about culture and working within, across and beyond cultures. To this she adds a critical multiple cultures perspective that focuses on diversity and multiple identities. Cultural contexts are not uniform. Urbanisation, cosmopolitanisation, biculturalism for example complicate things and make the modern world more interesting. This perspective examines these aspects critically. The power-sensitive perspective takes this to the next critical level. Historical circumstances such as colonialism affects not only our cross-cultural relations directly, but also our collective psyche, the way we think about these relations. We are not on an equal footing when we relate to others. These relationships are underpinned by power dynamics. Although I think there is some blurring and blending of the conceptual boundaries between these perspectives, I wish I’d written this book.
Mahadevan further discusses the different between the paradigms used in cross-cultural management research, the difference between positivism and interpretivism and the need perhaps to combine these two epistemologies. Even though I think I would have mentioned the critical realism emanating from Roy Bhaskar’s work in this proposed synthesis, because I think this is exactly what he was trying to do, I still wish I had written this book.
She goes on to present a chapter on each of the perspectives that she outlines in her introduction, but not in that order. For simplicity I would have termed these cultural, cross-cultural, intercultural, multicultural and intracultural perspectives.
In the first instance she reminds us that culture involves a specific way of doing things through learning within certain groups (enculturation) , but at the same time this limits universal human abilities. She gives the example of language learning where we are born with a capacity to pronounce every sound a human language might require. This capacity is mainly lost through having learned a specific mother tongue – personally, I can’t get my tongue around the clicks of isiXhosa!
Her treatment of the concept of culture perhaps demonstrates the shallowness of comparative approaches such as Hofstede’s in that the idea of culture embraces knowledge we hold in a society, the meanings we attach to people, things and concepts, the behaviour we exhibit, the way we experience ourselves in the world and our knowledge and experience of objects and technology.
She is right to begin her account with a discussion on the idea of culture, and this is salient for any scholar of cross-cultural management before they embark on any study, defining and describing better ideas of culture in comparative studies in particular.
I wish I’d written this book, but I think I would at this stage have better captured the dynamic nature of culture, particularly in the light of rapidly changing technology and means of cultural communication. But perhaps here I am picking minor holes in an otherwise useful account of what should go into cross-cultural management scholarship, and as a primer to warn scholars that their own knowledge about what they are studying is part of their own cultural understanding, and cross-cultural management scholars are not immune to ethnocentricity.
I’m not arguing here that comparative studies should not be done. Far from it, and Mahadevan’s account of such an approach is informative, and she discusses alternative macro-approaches that appear to try to capture the national character (e.g. Gannon’s cultural metaphor approach). Yet herein lies the problem. I’ve previously pointed out that culturally I’ve probably got more in common with my PhD student from Pakistan than I have with a product of a British public (i.e. private) school, Oxford University and Bullingdon Club and a member of the Chipping Norton set. A treatment of class, in the Marxist sense reflects a critical analysis of power, which is essential in cross-cultural management scholarship. Mahadevan looks at power in more detail later in her book, although very much in the postcolonial tradition. Yet this treatment comes late. Interactionalist scholarship, for example, needs to be informed and criticised from a power perspective. Cultural interactions are not just a matter of negotiating meaning, they involve a power dynamic where all parties to the interaction are not equal. This isn’t just a matter of who defines the reality in an intercultural interaction where one company takes over another in an international acquisition. It is a case of looking at the historical context in a macro cultural interfaces perspective. Neo-imperialism and post colonialism are obvious perspective in looking at who defines the knowledge and the nature of the interaction. Yet critical cross-cultural management scholars have come to this debate rather late in the day, as global dynamics have/are changing rapidly. That is one of the reasons why I am so interested in China-Africa engagement as this can really inform a different discussion on intercultural interaction from a post- postcolonial perspective.
Having really captured the essence of scholarship on identity and how we see our differences to others, she begins to get to the crux of power relations, for example the way race is defined culturally as part of our identity (particularly, I might add, if we are from a minority in a particular country with a different skin colour). And thus on to her main chapter on power. But I cannot help thinking that this chapter should have come first. Ultimately she ends up with a postcolonial analysis of power and its implications for cross-cultural management scholarship. I think this is a good place to start such a critique but not the end point. But this might be missing the point of the book: to get across a critical cross-cultural perspective in a useful, relevant and not overcomplicated way that conveys current knowledge to a wide readership. In this respect the book works well, and I really wish I had written it. But I don’t think I could have written it as well as Jasmin Mahadevan.