Contemporary issues: should cross-cultural management scholars study war?

Beyond the so-what? question

Journal editors have always challenged their authors by asking the ‘so-what?’ question about the work they have submitted. Even though a work may be technically sound, is the work important? This is often a question about the contribution of the work to current knowledge in the area being addressed. Hence, does the work really make a new contribution to areas such as cultural intelligence, international leadership, acculturation theory, cultural differences? Should we not go further than this? Should we not question the value of the scholarly work to contemporary issues in our global society? Pandemics, war, these are issues in contemporary life that affect us all and need to be addressed?

An article on cultural intelligence may well contribution to our understanding of cultural intelligence, but is it really important? Does it have an impact on those issues that affect people in their daily lives? At least, does it address fundamental problems of international corporate life? And, stretching this point, is it fundamentally important on a societal level: does it contribute to the wellbeing of life on planet Earth? Perhaps it has this potential, but is this potential realised?

We have a store of knowledge and expertise in areas such as intercultural negotiation and conflict management. But unless we actually apply this to contemporary issue, are they actually important? And, we may extend this knowledge and expertise by addressing and learning from such issues in a timely manner.

Making sense of war

I am asking the above questions in the face of overriding issues that have affected people’s lives in a major way. One of most pressing contemporary issue as I write is the war on Ukraine. This follows closely on the heals of COVID and its impact, which in many ways has not just affected the physical and mental health of many, it has made us rethink the way we work, about local and international travel, about how we relate to one another in corporate and other settings.

This has provided cross-cultural management scholars with an opportunity to apply their knowledge to important societal issues, to undertake research in these area and to develop new knowledge. There are some good example of this within the recent pages of International Journal of Cross Cultural Management. For example Mangla has examined working in a pandemic and post-pandemic period in relation to cultural intelligence. Bajaj, Khandelwal and Budwar has focused on the impact of cross-cultural differences on crisis management during COVID. Nair and Selvaraj has looked at cultural and social identity as a lens for understanding responses to managing COVID. Maybe this pandemic is now over, it has had its time as a contemporary issue. It may now be superseded by the dominance of daily news reports on Ukraine and the war’s wider implications. Certainly this has diverted attention in the UK from the alleged misdeeds of the government and the ending of all COVID restrictions. But it may not be over. At the time of writing, in the UK there has been an increase in cases of 47% from last week. If some countries are opening up, in China at least one province has gone into major lockdown. With rates rising rapidly in many countries, should we now be addressing the next contemporary issue that is changing international business relations and having a huge impact on daily lives?

Is cross-cultural management studies fit for purpose?

The problem with cross-cultural management scholars engaging with a contemporary issue such as war in Europe is not just the relevance of cross-cultural management scholarship, it is a question of its fit for purpose. Firstly, is it relevant for specialists in cross-cultural management to engage with issues of war? Should we not leave it to political scientists or international relations specialists? Do we have any skills that we can offer? Surely we know a lot about international and cross-cultural conflict management. There are a number of example in the International Journal of Cross Cultural Management’s special issue on cross-cultural conflict (Vol. 12, Number 1, 2012). The article by Bercovitch and Foulkes on conflict management and international mediation is particularly relevant. Cross-cultural management scholars are also beginning to developed a literature on migration, a major side-effect of war. This of course has become a major issue in the current crisis with refugees being settled in numerous European countries. Aten, Nardon and Isabelle’s article would seem particularly apt, where migrants’ perceptions of their foreign context are examined as a barrier to settling into organizations and careers.

Yet the biggest problem of engaging with such an immediate issue is that the social sciences generally tend to be reflective rather than pragmatic. They tend to be predictive rather than pro-active. They tend not to make value-judgements (what should be) but rather what is and what will be. When social science depends so often on the retrospective collection of data and its analysis, this may not be enough. It also may not be in time.

Focusing on power

Although critical studies have tended to study power relations, certainly cross-cultural management studies have not usually focused on geopolitical power as the context of its studies and on the implications for conflicts. While the study of conflict is not new to our sub-discipline, as I proposed above, it does tend to focus on the management of interpersonal conflict, or intra-organizational conflict across cultures. Can it and should it study geopolitical power and conflict in the context of war? Certainly the global dynamics have been troubling. At the time of writing NATO has declined to instigate a no-fly zone over Ukraine as this may be seen as an act of war on Russia if planes are shot down to enforce the zone. But is this something we should be focused on? Normally the focus of critical cross-cultural management scholarship on power is at organizational or inter-organisational level. Certainly we would be looking at different aspects of the war to those looked at by political scientists or international relations specialists.

Focusing on culture

Looking at culture in the wider context, we might focus on the depiction of the Kyivan Rus, as the common point of origin for Ukrainian and Russian, and the claim that Ukrainians are Russian; or issues over the linguistic (or power) status of Russian and Ukrainian in Ukraine. These issues have presented problems in political and corporate life in Ukraine .

If, in the view of Harari, imagined realities are the components of culture, surely when these realities are disputed and the disputants come into conflict, a possible conclusion is war.

So we can look at the origins of the conflict (as we could have done, for example, the war on Iraq as an unnecessary war). We can also focus on the processes and institutions that are adapted or created in conflict zones, such as the changing dynamics of hospitals and international volunteer staff, international NGOs, refugee transit organizations. We can focus on the consequences of war, particularly managing huge numbers of migrants entering into foreign contexts, and their integration into society and work. To the above we can apply our knowledge in intercultural negotiation, conflict resolution, cultural intelligence, acculturation and international leadership, at the same time as creating new knowledge.

The immediacy of scholarship

Certainly we can reflect at leisure after the event, apply for grants, collect data and analyse it at length. It may help in conflicts to come, but will not have an impact on the current conflict and humanitarian disaster. Scholarship (including publication) in the area should be more immediate, more pragmatic. We should learn as we go along. In achieving this I have for a long time alluded to the work of Flyvbjerg when he writes that ‘..the purpose of social science is not to develop theory, but to contribute to society’s practical rationality in elucidating where we are, where we want to go, and what is desirable according to diverse sets of values and interests’ (p. 167). I do not think we can stop wars, but perhaps we can begin to make a difference to those that live through them and those that have to manage the fallout and consequences of them.

A version of this post will be published as the editorial of International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, Vol. 21 Issue 1 April 2022

© Terence Jackson 2022

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