Notes on Intercultural Communication

Posts Tagged ‘Michael S. H. Heng

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.


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.


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


Practical Applications of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

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Organizational Culture as a Root of Performance Improvement


(Organizational Culture as a Root of Performance Improvement:Research and Recommendations; R.C. Rose, Naresh Kumar, Haslinda Abdullah; Universiti Putra Malaysia – download pdf here).

Map of Corporate Cultures

Nation Branding in Pop-Culture

Sources: (retrieved 22.11.2012)


Somewhere in western Europe a middle-sized textile printing company struggled for survival…

Cloth, usually imported from Asian countries, was printed in multicolored patterns according to the desires of customers, firms producing fashion clothing for the local market. The company was run by a general manager to whom three functional managers reported: one for design and sales, one for manufacturing, and one for finance and personnel. The total work force numbered about 250.

The working climate in the firm was often disturbed by conflicts between the sales and manufacturing managers.

The manufacturing manager had an interest, as manufacturing managers have the world over, in smooth production and in minimizing product changes. He preferred grouping customer orders into large batches. Changing color and/or design implied cleaning the machines which took productive time away and also wasted costly dyestuffs. The worst was changing from a dark color set to a light one, because every bit of dark-colored dye left would show on the cloth and spoil the product quality. Therefore the manufacturing planners tried to start on a clean machine with the lightest shades and gradually move towards darker ones, postponing the need for an overall cleaning round as long as possible.

The design and sales manager tried to satisfy his customers in a highly competitive market. These customers, fashion clothing firms, were notorious for short-term planning changes. As their supplier, the printing company often received requests for rush orders. Even when these orders were small and unlikely to be profitable the sales manager hated to say ‘no’. The customer might go to a competitor and then the printing firm would miss that big order which the sales manager was sure would come afterwards. The rush orders, however, usually upset the manufacturing manager’s schedules and forced him to print short runs of dark color sets on a beautifully clean machine, thus forcing the production operators to start cleaning allover again.

There were frequent hassles between the two managers over whether a certain rush order should or should not be taken into production. The conflict was not limited to the department heads; production personnel publicly expressed doubts about the competence of the sales people and vice versa. In the cafeteria, production and sales people would not sit together , although they had known each other for years.


Different cultures choose different approaches for the dilemma about

(1) the diagnosis of the problem and

(2) the suggested solution

These two dimensions, Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance, affect our thinking about organisations. In addition to the affected business areas listed in the tables below, taking these two dimensions together reveals differences in the implicit model people from different cultures may have about organisational structure and functioning. Organising demands answers to two important questions:

(1) Who has the power to decide what?

(2) What rules or procedures will be followed to attain the desired ends?

The answer to the first question is influence d by indigenous cultural norms of power distance; the answer to the second question by the cultural norms about uncertainty avoidance. Taken together these two dimensions reveal a remarkable contrast in a society’s acceptance and conception of an organisation and the mechanisms that are employed in controlling and co-ordinating activities within it (Hofstede, 1991).

Same researchers have tried to measure the link between the ‘implicit’ models of organisation and objectively assessable characteristics of organisational structure. Inthe 1970s, Owen James Stevens, an American professor at INSEAD business school in France, presented his students with a case study exam which dealt with a conflict between two department heads within a company (Hofstede, 1991). His students consisted primarily of French, German and British students. Inthe graph below their countries are located in the lower right, lower left and upper left quadrants respectively. Stevens bad noticed a difference in the way 200 students of different nationalities bad handled the case in previous exams. The students bad been required individually to come up with both their diagnosis of the problem and their suggested solution. Stevens sorted these exams by the nationality of the author and then compared the answers. The results were striking.

The majority of French diagnosed the case as negligence by the general manager to whom the two depart­ment heads reported. The solution they preferred was for the opponents in the conflict to take the issue to their common boss, who would issue orders for settling such dilemmas in the future. Stevens interpreted the implicit organisation model of the French as a ‘pyramid of people’: the general manager at the top of the pyramid, and each successive level at its proper place below.

The majority of the Germans diagnosed the case as a lack of structure. They tended to think that the competence of the two conflict­ing department heads bad not been clearly specified. The solution they preferred was to establish specific procedures, which could include calling in a consultant, nominating a task force, or asking the common boss. According to Stevens, the Germans saw the organisation as a ‘well-oiled machine’ in which intervention by management should be limited because the rules should settle day-to-day problems.

The majority of the British diagnosed the case as a human relationship problem. They saw the two department heads as poor negotiators who would benefit from attending, preferably together, a management course to improve their skills. Stevens thought their implicit model of a ‘village market‘ led them to look at the problem in terms of the demands of the situation determining what will happen, rather than hierarchy or rules.



A society’’s position on these two dimensions does seem to influence the implicit model of the organisation in that society, and the kinds of co-ordination mechanisms that people in that culture would tend to rely upon.

Employees in high power distance and low uncertainty avoidance countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia tend to think of their organisations as traditional families. The patriarch, or head of the family, is expected to protect family members physically and econo­mically in exchange for unwavering loyalty from its members. The most likely co-ordination and control mechanism for the family is a standardisation of work processes by specifying the contents of work – who does the chores.

Employees in countries such as France, Brazil, Portugal and Mexico that are high on both dimensions tend to view organisations as pyramids of people rather than as families. Everyone knows who reports to whom, and formal and activating lines of communication run vertically through the organisation. Management reduces uncertainty and provides co-ordination and control by emphasising who has authority over whom and in what war this authority can be exercised.

Where high uncertainty avoidance and low power distance are combined, in such countries as Israel, Austria, Germany and Switzerland, organisations are perceived as well-oiled machines; they are highly predictable without the imposition of a strong hierarchy. Uncertainty is reduced by clearly defining Tales and procedures. Co-ordination and control are achieved primarily through standardisation and certification of skills, specifying the training required to perform the work.

In cultures where there is low uncertainty avoidance and low power distance, the relevant organisational model is a ‘village market’. Countries such as Denmark, Ireland, Norway, the UK and the USA are representative of this model. People will feel less comfortable with strict and formal rules or with what would be perceived as unnecessary layers of hierarchy. Control and co-ordination tends to take place through mutual adjustment of people through informal communication, and by specifying the desired results.

Download an introduction to Hofstede’s theories here or online at – retrieved 24.11.2012


More Applications of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

Intercultural Management

Having or Making – The Transformation of Danish Culture and Chinese Culture in Sino-Danish Business Settings in China by Xiaomin Li  Click here to download the PPT or get it in the internet:

AM+A used Hofstede’s system for an analysis of website design in different cultures/countries. Get the .pdf here or visit the website

Xiang-Hua Lu of the School of Management, Fudan University (China) and Michael S. H. Heng of the National University of Singapore did a great work on applying Hofstede`s theory on the Chinese/Asian approach to IS (Information Systems: all systems related to the information exchange by computers). Get the .pdf here.

C. Becker and S. Palmer compared Mexican and German approaches to decision making and found out, that often “the type of business indicates more how decisions are made rather than the impact of national culture.”  Download the essay as pfd here or online from provides more quality stuff about Hofstede:

International business negotiation in the South and North China online or download as pdf here.

(retrieved 27.01.2013 at


Sexual Harassment

Using Hofstede’s cultural dimensions to explain sexually harassing behaviours in an international context

Vipan K. Luthar and Harsh K. Luthar, Using Hofstede’s cultural dimensions to explain sexually harassing behaviours in an international context, Int. J. of Human Resource Management 13:2 March 2002 268–284 or download pdf here or online at – retrieved 24.11.2012


Nation Branding in Pop-Culture

Pavinee Potipan and Nantaphorn Worrawutteerakul from the Malerdalen University in Sweden wrote their master thesis about the financial and cultural background of modern Thai, Korean and Japanese culture. Using Hofstede’s Cultural Onion they examined Asian pop cultures. It describes how Korean pop culture “Hallyu” has an immense success by serving all layers of the onion. Download the full pdf here or download here (retrieved 24.12.2012)


See more about the importance of Nation Branding at Simon Anholt`s website or the GFK Custom Research North America


reviewed 27.01.2013

Written by NoToes

08/01/2010 at 21:49

Posted in All Articles, China, Collectivism and Individualism, Communication, Comparing Cultures, Cultural Dimensions, Germany, Hofstede, Intercultural Economy, Intercultural Management, Sexuality, Surveys, Uncertainty Avoidance

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