Notes on Intercultural Communication

Cultural Aspects of Information Management in China

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Cultural Aspects of Information Management in China (Abstract)

Collectivistic Background

Chinese culture is a collectivist culture which stresses the interdependence and long-term mutual obligations between individuals and organizations. People are expected to follow group values and initiatives. As found in the study of western ecommerce diffusion in China, Chinese people prefer small group based operations with emphasis on long-term relationship, interorganizational collaboration and re-negotiation. Another ecommerce study also indicates that collectivist features like clubs, chat rooms and family themes have a higher percentage occurrence on Chinese websites than on US domestic websites.

Chinese collectivism, however, differs substantially from those prevailing in other Asian countries. They are individualistic collectivism where small group or family value is emphasized, rather than society oriented. In contrast to Japanese society, which may be considered as a block of granite, the Chinese resembles a tray of loose sand, where every grain is a family.

This opinion is consistent with the finding of Martinsons and Westwood (1997) that the Chinese power structure is perhaps best represented by a series of concentric circles or “family” with the patriarch in the center. The traditional family values are emphasized in this circle. The Chinese collectivism can be either an inhibitor or enabler of IS practices. Most information is gathered and processed in Chinese environment is intended to support the top managers of various small circles, which results in many independent systems and data that are hard to integrate or share. Such behaviors actually make Chinese collectivism a negative factor in ERP implementation. From above analysis, Chinese collectivism may be seen as individualistic collectivism.

Hierarchical Power Structure

Chinese management philosophy is characterized by centralized authorities as well as directive and hierarchical structures due to the long power distance and paternalistic tendency. The position of top management in Chinese business is overwhelming. No other champion is needed because such a champion would be seen as a challenge to the authority of top management, which often leads to power conflicts. And both top managers and lower level staffs are not comfortable with empowerment because they are accustomed to the practice that key decisions are made by top management. It is also natural that Chinese business leaders use their authorities to facilitate modifying subordinates behaviors in change management.

Unfortunately, Chinese top managers do not appear to realize the importance of IT and IT management. Consequently, they commit less on IT management. Problem arise when Chinese managers rarely accept knowledge input from their subordinates, and when the IT decisions by top management are seldom made with due consultation with end users This may be helpful to speed up IT decision and IT implementation, but such bureaucratic and arbitrary organizational culture is seen as one important cause of IT project failures.

The hierarchy management structure also helps to explain the correlation between power and information in China. Information control is one of the predominant sources of power in China. Critical information in China is selectively preserved instead of being distributed widely. Information is often treated as an individual property and critical information controlled by individual can be used to preserve discretionary power in Chinese organization. It is quite obvious in e-government practices in China where branches of government purposely hold back some information and obstruct large-scale information sharing in order to keep their power and interests.

Uncertainty Tolerance

Uncertainty tolerance is the extent a person feels comfortable in unstructured situations. It is commonly accepted that there are two different cultures, namely, uncertainty avoiding culture and uncertainty accepting culture.

The former tries to minimize uncertainly by taking strict laws and regulations, or risk control measures. The later tolerates ambiguous situation, and tries to live peacefully with it.

The majority of the studies, however, argue that the Chinese culture is uncertainty tolerant. Martinsons (1997) and Lam et al(2005) show that East Asians, especially Chinese people are more comfortable with unclear information. This corresponds with the informal communication path among Chinese that relies more on personal experience. They keep more information among themselves, rather than explicitly express it. It is common in China that you need to guess the “true” meaning of conversation beside the surface information, because Chinese people like to use allusion to tell something they think you should know and would understand.

Based on authors’ own understanding about uncertainty tolerance as native Chinese, the uncertainty avoidance mentioned in the literature is mainly because of the importance of information for the power, rather than unable to tolerate the uncertainty. So the idea that Chinese culture is uncertainty tolerant is supported. Contrary to the traditional thinking that Chinese people are more conservative in regard to change, the literature demonstrates that Chinese people’s attitude seems to be more positive toward change and towards new technology when they come to experience it.

Both Collis (1995) and Brown et al(1998) conclude that people from China hold more positive attitudes on change and new technologies than those from countries that they compare, namely, UK, US and Japan.

Intuitive Decision Making

The way that Chinese people make decisions or solve problems is relatively unstructured compared with westerners “the Chinese’s decisions are comparatively implicit, relying on analogical and correlative thinking, rather than on rational and analytic thinking”. Although Chinese managers refer to information or data to support decision making process, only a few data analysis is used even when deciding the most important issues.

The entrepreneurial model of strategy making that relies on personal knowledge and intuition rather than objective criteria or formal and quantitative method is dominant in Chinese decision making. Therefore, “the decision making process usually involves few people and takes short time to make”.

The decision making of Chinese people is also characterized to be highly contextual. Regulation and rules may play important role in directing the decision, but in most situations, Chinese people like to adopt “the individual-policy-for-individual-issue approach”, which means that the executors of rules usually can find some room for themselves to make flexible decisions.

Cultural Aspects of IS in China
Xiang-Hua Lu / School of Management, Fudan University
Michael S H Heng / National University of Singapore

Download the full pdf here.

The PACIS (Pacific Asia Conference on IT Systems) has tons of other interesting material and is worth a visit.

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The I Ging – structure in East Asian Collectives (Natural Order)

This Matrix defines the Relationship Layer (Ranking/Relation) and the Appeal Layer (Distance/Approach). Still many Asian companies follow this structure.

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Download an introduction to Hofstede`s theories as pdf here.

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One Response

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  1. How does Lam and Martinsons’ study support that China has a low uncertainty avoidance index? One is talking about computer use in businesses, and the other is about cultural differences in predicting events in the future and whether people from different cultures will overestimate the impact of future events will have on their emotional reactions.

    LisA

    17/09/2012 at 19:36


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