Vol 6|No 5|February|1997
in the Context
of Cross Cultural Management
by Jon Franklin Ramsoomair
E-mail the author email@example.com
Most university students have access to the Internet. This communication medium allows inexpensive contact with other cultures. This paper documents the sequence of steps taken in setting up a cross cultural management course, and making extensive use of the Internet to add to the reality of the experience for fourth year and MBA students
My area head had the kind of expression that preceded a "cannot refuse this offer" message.." My mission, should I choose to accept it, was to come up with a course in Cross cultural management, to be delivered to fourth year and MBA students - and which had to be ready for delivery in eight months time. Tall order...challenging task. The challenge was much more of an opportunity, to re-do, re-think and question one's belief of secure status quo. How does one go about creating a course? How does one imbue words and concepts with life, immediacy and relevance? How does one animate ideas so they take flight in creative minds, and become catalysed into ways of living and acting that improves understanding?
This paper describes a journey.an evocative journey that assisted me in re-evaluating the way in which I do things, the conceptual underpinnings which guide me, and the way in which technology helped me to realize a dream.
How does one develop a course? The obvious starting point would be that of determining what would be and needs to be achieved. My outlook is that any course should attempt to fulfill a mentoring objective. 'Mentoring, although a ...slippery concept... helps a student to ...get where he or she wants to go... ' (Daloz, 1986, p. ix). The mentoring process in a course, as I see it, refers to the shared journey of realizing new insights. Mentors.seem to do three fairly distinct types of things. They support, they challenge and they provide vision.(Daloz, op.cit., p 212)
There were other notable concepts to consider. The Keller Plan (1969) focuses on techniques to encourage critical self-analysis. This is in itself part of the quiet revolution that has been occurring in teaching. The first revolution was that of the role shift for instruction from the parent to teacher, the second the shift from the spoken to the written word, and the third, the invention of printing (Ashby, 1974). The fourth has been the incorporation of computers into the processes of teaching and learning as documented by the Carnegie Commission's volumes on computers in education (1972; 1975). Teachers need to find techniques appropriate to their courses, and they....need to find ways appropriate to whatever they are teaching to make thought tangible (Eble p.36)
Stice (1987) refers to the need to emphasize the degree of immediacy, relevance and reality of a course in order to bring it to life in the minds of students - a process that Wales and Stager (1977) call guided design The course that I wanted to stimulate students would, therefore, have certain key components. It should be relevant, immediate and real. The relevance pertains to the degree of utility perceived for present or future application. Immediacy refers to the currency of the course in terms of holding interest, and reality alludes to the potency of course material in meeting short and long term needs.
The objectives finally used are shown in Table 1.
TABLE 1 : COURSE OBJECTIVES
The objectives of this course are:
1) Improved cross-cultural communication skills:
It is designed to augment your understanding of common cross-cultural communication problem and to develop skills that facilitate more effective cross-cultural communication. (IMMEDIACY)
2) Enhanced knowledge of specific cultures and related business practices: Lectures, use of the INTERNET, discussions, films and class projects will enable you to become more knowledgeable about specific cultures, as well as, business and management practices. (RELEVANCE)
3) Improved cross-cultural transition skills:
Another important objective of the course is to augment your understanding of the issues involved in working and living in a foreign culture and to use this understanding to develop strategies for successfully managing cross-cultural transitions. (RELEVANCE)
4) Increased cultural awareness:
This course will aim to broaden and deepen your understanding of what culture is and how it affects organizational and business practices. (REALITY)
The request which at first could not be declined was metamorphosing into an opportunity. Here was a chance to stir, to have students feel the ambiguities of cross cultural management, to help the ride the waves of cross cultural communication.
Here was the chance to have them teach as well as to learn. But how is it possible to teach a course that calls for communication and interaction. Cross cultural implies divergence in actions, outlook and communication processes between one group of people and another, inherent differences which have to be experienced and felt. How does one show that there are differences between companies in the same country but none as great as the cross-country differences? (Manchau, 1991)
Every course requires a certain degree of hands-on material, but any discourse about cross cultural management seemed to demand because of the implied sensitivity in your face, interactive events and experiences. My journey on the way to the fount of cross cultural heaven seemed to encounter a fork on the road. Where should we go and how should we travel?
I had been an Internet user for three years, and found that the range of data, utilities and facilities had exploded in volume and depth during the time.
From a relatively obscure collection and connection of computers randomly situated, the Internet has become a vast repository and disseminator of a spectrum of information in addition to being a major communications instrument. Corrddry (1994) estimates that over 30 million users populate the Internet. As of April 1994, there were 14,726 commercial enterprises, 6,958 gopher servers, 15 trillion bytes of information transmitted and 2.3 million Internet hosts.
Given the reach, as well as, the potential of the Internet, it is surprising that universities have not been more active users. The trend in institutions of higher learning has been to provide information as opposed to utilizing and interacting with it. Dowlin (1995) suggests that such institutions need to adapt or fall by the wayside. Greater presence by universities will even enhance the viability and reputation of the Internet (Klassen, 1991). The literature suggests the greater participation of universities would be a powerful force for quality improvement (Frazier, 1995; Lucas, 1995; Foster and Jolly, 1994). Barboni's' (1995) study for the National Association for the Management of Information in Higher Education reports that 81% of university administration officers had a campus strategic plan and 47% an information technology plan but that there was a little effort to integrate the two. Additionally, these institutions were less likely to be connected to the Internet.
That the Internet represents exponential growth in the exchange of information and communication in general is a statement that would be difficult to challenge. Yet, the general perspective on this communication tool tends to be, in the minds of many people, an amorphous blob in which specifics are difficult to define. The Internet has general benefits such as rapid electronic mail exchange but there is far more to it that this isolated feature.
One of the burgeoning aspects is the Internet Relay Chat (IRC), often referred to as the citizens band radio of the Internet. It is an adaptation (Gilster, 1994) of the UNIX talk program which allows a two-way, real time conversation to be carried out between computers. The IRC extends this notion to allow multi-user capabilities. The IRC however, is subject to numerous breakdowns, system crashes and the ubiquitous netsplits, in which connectivity is completely lost. The sheer volume of people who participate causes the system to collapse under the load demand.
An individual from New Zealand could log in and have a real-time, interactive conversation with someone from Canada, or can join a main channel to exchange entire files, or discuss various points of interest with any number of people from different part of the world, with the number being limited only by the robustness of the software. There have been efforts however, to come up with IRC type software that is less cumbersome than the traditional. Such software would require ease of handling, stability, dependability and reliability.
The Internet in its different forms was cropping up across dimensions, and its potential to enhance learning appeared to be powerful. The textbook was determined, readings selected, exercises laid out and tests/exam dates settled. But the major component of the courses immediacy would be the Internet, which would be introduced on a phased basis along the following lines:
The course would begin by dealing with topics such as - Understanding Gopher, Usenet and the World Wide Web.
- Harnessing search engines for reference, e.g. Veronica, Webcrawler, Lycos and Galaxy.
- Understanding conference lines. Using conference lines for planned visits
The outline of the course called for addressing the topics shown in Table 2
WEEK ----- TOPIC
1 ----- Concept of Culture Training
2 ----- Cross cultural Communication
3 ----- Intercultural communication
4 ----- Management
5 ----- Joint ventures
6 ----- International HRM
7 ----- Women and CC Management
8 ----- Ethics
12 ----- Presentations (Sessions 9,10,11,12)
The topics were to be supplemented by readings from the text as well as supplementary materials from Journals, experiential exercises, appropriate videotapes and case analysis. Each session would also incorporate an Internet segment, in which students would submit a one-page report of his/her cyberspace activities. Prior to the start of the course, I had contacted Dr. Douglas Moesel, who is the moderator of a LISTSERV group. LISTSERVS are discussion groups involving experts in a specific field ranging from Cross Cultural Education, to Physics. Topics are discussed via electronic mail and responses to issues are garnered from a diversity of individuals across the world. Moesel kindly allowed my students to post messages to the multifaceted list, to ask questions, to respond to issues raised and to bring up topics which were of interest to them. Students also used this forum to seek out mentors from the area in which they were interested, and soon, groups of students had advisors from disparate parts of the world.
One of the group assignments encompassed an in-depth study of the culture and business practices of a country in which they were interested. Needless to say, we had very little difficulty in finding mentors from Brazil, Singapore, Australia, Trinidad and the United Kingdom. The degree of participation was overwhelming, enthusiastic and gratifying. From the second week of our journey, there was a decidedly robust response from students as they freely communicated with their foreign counterparts and mentors. In raising issues and actively participating, not only were students deepening their knowledge of the topic.
More fundamentally, the opportunity was afforded to see cross-cultural communication in action. Some students who were apprehensive about posting comments to a list that would be read by all, preferred to correspond and interact via private electronic mail and in this way, formed their own relationships with experts in the field.
Other sessions of class were devoted to understanding the search engines of the Internet. The advantage here was that of a vast amount of information. Students were feeding in keywords to Veronica, Jughead and the Webcrawler, and coming up with enormous volumes of material. A side benefit of this exercise was that they seemed to easily learn the difference between useless and unsubstantiated information, and to consign junk to the cybertrash bin.
It was the country project the that elicited the most interest. Students were required to select a country with which we had dealt, either in discussion or case analysis. The project also called for establishing and maintaining a relationship with at least one business expert from that country. The primary thrust was that of the mechanics and vagaries of setting up a joint venture and the additional requirements were:
-Interviewing business people in the country under study
-Interviewing Canadians who worked in or had attachments to the country.
The power of the Internet Conference Line proved to be indispensable and invaluable in this regard. The Line could accommodate up to 60 people at any given time. The facility, more popularly known as a talker in Internet jargon was a pet project in which I had modified the embedded UNIX talk program to allow for multi line conferencing in real time. Students would make appointments with their mentors, telnet to the site*, and conduct their discussions in the main discussion room, or could go to private rooms and secure the channels, thus prohibiting general access. Thus, the live and interactive nature of the tenet facility allowed for Stice's (1978, op. cit.) underpinnings of immediacy, reality and relevance.
The meetings on the talker simulated as realistically as possible, actual, physical meetings with the experts around the world. Once per month in this three month course (twelve weeks), I would initiate a general conference in which students and mentors would come together via the telnet site to discuss problematic issues and to share insights.
The case for a global perspective is increasingly evident in our shrinking world. On a philosophical level, Lear's (1988) comments on Aristotle's concept of epistemophia are germane when he says,
We cannot gain self-knowledge by turning our gaze unto ourselves...it is by looking outward on to the world that man's soul maps the structure of the world...because we are at bottom systematic understanders, self-understanding must be to some extent indirect (p.8)
Systems thinking is the directed and structured thought with its roots in general systems theory (Morgan, 1986). Senge (1990) refers to systems thinking as a framework for seeing interrelationships and patterns, rather than moments frozen in time. The assignments which were handed out, such as a case analysis, are useful from the point of view of having students delve deeply into root causes of problems and issues.
Yet, such assignments represent a photograph, taken, and although well developed, is stationary in time. In the situation of the study of cross-cultural management, there is need for a greater degree of dynamism, not from the point of view of fireworks and glitz, but from the perspective of reality, immediacy and relevance. Weatherby, (op. cit, 1992) proposes that the thinking process in cross cultural education can be heightened by providing students with the opportunity to practice.
Bateson states this concept differently by noting that understanding is best aided not by the nature of objects in a setting, but by the role of the actor in a structure of relations. The perspective is supported by Cooper an Fox (1990) Weick (1979), who proposed the value of learning through ongoing relationships. In this regard, the Internet and the Internet conferencing line proved to be the star. The search engines such as Veronica, provided the means to access up-to-date and immediate information and information sources.
The Conferencing line proved to be invaluable in affording an immediate, real and novel method of meeting experts, who themselves enjoyed their time with the students.
Cross cultural management essentially calls for a move from ethnocentrism to cultural relativity (Bennett, 1986). There is an urgent demand for people to understand that here are many valid centers of the world other than their own (Adler, 1977; Batchelder, 1977). Benett (op. cit, 1986) notes that moving from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism does not occur without encounters with another culture. The Internet and the attendant features are powerfully poised to help bring about the paradigmatic shift that is necessary to understand the vagaries and intricacies of cultural differences.
There were additional benefits. Students learnt about the mechanics of electronic mail, were comfortable about using it; they also became quite adept at exploring the Internet to the point at which I needed to implore them about excessive time spent in cyberspace. A student evaluation at the end of the course gave some insight about the meaning of the course. Two comments are particularly useful.
"I came into this course expecting a routine set of lectures and the usual business school stuff. I wasn't ready fr what hit me when I learnt about the impact of the Internet. Not only did I make friends in other parts of the world, but I experienced a new way of life through their eyes."
"It blew my mind. I now feel very comfortable about Chile
and would like to visit there soon."
(Al Shanab, 1995)
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I teach management and organizational behaviour at Wilfrid Laurier University and also consult. I've been teaching for 9 years now, and before that, worked for a division of The Royal Dutch Shell Company ("Shell") as their Human Resources Manager. My research is focused on Cross Cultural Management and the Internet.
The editor would like to add that Jon won the WLU "Teacher of the Year" Award for 1997.
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