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Après un DEA en Sciences Textes et Documents à l'Université de Paris VII, Olivier Breton a enseigné la philosophie et les lettres, tout en se consacrant à l'édition et au journalisme : 1982-1994 ; Président...

Is interculturality an obstacle or a driving force for businesses?


lundi 05 juin 2017
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Issues linked with interculturality are quite new. The reason is economic globalization linked with the integration of new regional economic areas such as Asia, India and Brazil, or the digitalization of communication, which deeply upsets the way we currently live and conceive businesses.


© Andi Weiland
Companies have become global, international, and are faced with an army of cultural differences. An additional challenge is that of the arrival of globalized executives who are forced to follow this international mobility flow. Structural changes lead to an immense mixing of the population, where extremely varied linguistic, social and cultural profiles bump into one another. They can give birth to tensions that jeopardize the company's balance, or to fulfilment, creativity and performance. The emergence of multicultural teams in businesses is altering the traditional work environment and imposing new challenges for managers. It entails more diversity in teams with different ethnic groups, genders, ages, education, religions or technical and functional abilities. These changes call for new team management methods and places interculturality in the center of businesses. Applied interculturality is the force and the issue of the different magazines dedicated to economic and cultural diplomacy, which we develop between different countries, for instance Germany, Iran, Algeria, Quebec, Tunisia, Italy, Belgium, Morocco, and so on.

Research on "the complexity of having people with different cultures work together" is quite recent. The first reason is that globalization is only 20 years old (30 at the most). The second is that researchers who have worked on cross-cultural management (comparative or global management) have all skirted the issue of intercultural collaboration. For a long time, their primary concern was to know whether cultural diversity represented a source of improvement or a constraint for the organization, instead of taking an interest in the very content of the problem - "how to create synergies from multiple cultures."

In this context, modeling or theorizing approaches linked with interculturality relies on a certain form of empiricism. In its own way, our intention is part of this empiricism to the extent that, as cross-cultural content editor, we have been dedicating ourselves to this purpose for about 10 years, with different delights. This constantly forces us to review our editorial policies and represents a fascinating pool of knowledge and research. Nonetheless, at the end of this work, we now have a library of cases in 4 continents, a collection of knowledge, of multiple and varied observations, of accounts of successes and failures, which allow us to release a few guiding principles. In the "exploratory" field, we have seen researchers, sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists of all persuasions compete against one another, or even the rise of a new kind of participant: self-proclaimed "cross-cultural" coaches - simply because they speak the Other's language.

Yet, cross-culturalism bears a certain form of objectification, insofar as it is considered in all the extent of its complexity, with modesty and caution, as the understanding of the Other relies on multiple parameters. Besides, depending on the country in question, it has more or less chance of being positively achieved. In short, at the level of the individual, it can be summarized in 3 complementary dimensions that are linked to each other:  the affective dimension (attitudes, values, sensitivity), the cognitive dimension (notions, knowledge, understanding) and the behavioral dimension (abilities, aptitudes, action).

Given this panorama, the simple fact of speaking the Other's language, or even to share a lingua franca, is definitely not enough (not more than choosing a vernacular such as English, whose limitations are now well known) to report these multiple and complex dimensions. This is why, in our publications, we try to combine two or even three languages at the same time. Likewise, it is clear that the simple fact of exchanging, being tolerant and being open (ideological and political assumption) is not enough and is not a barrier to the lack of understanding of the special management and organization methods of the companies we are referring to.

If the language is the front gate to a national - or even professional - culture; if it allows mastering inuendos, nuances, details; if it is proof of one's will to be integrated when they make an effort to learn and practice it; if it allows one to gain confidence, independence, credibility, mastering and using it are not enough to infiltrate the Other's culture, which is by essence cross-cultural, in one's relation to authority, sexuality, age, religion, family, the society in which they live, history, temporality, the search for results and performance... In all these situations, sensing cultural differences is vital. This is what we are tackling, via different methods.

Indeed, faced with challenges such as managing understanding, adjustment, management, or the optimization of employees in a cross-cultural context, there are several methods, all in the field of human sciences, the only ones that can appreciate the extent and the complexity of what we are facing: understanding differences, otherness, the relation to time and space, communication modes, and so on. Alone, these are the first task to tackle within the framework of any multi-cultural management project. Indeed, they carry stakes of representation, of prejudice to overcome. Though language is important, as we have seen, it is only the formal, visible structure - it is not enough. The body, communication, culture are equally important. Here, culture means "a set of ways of seeing, feeling, sensing, thinking, interacting, reacting, of lifestyles, beliefs, knowledge, achievements, traditions, institutions, standards, values, customs, habits, hobbies and ambitions." (Dictionnaire actuel de l'éducation, Larousse, 1988). 

A cross-cultural approach that would only rely on our ability to place the Other in the initial group to which they belong is a multi-cultural (or pluralistic) system. Admittedly, it comes with recognizing the otherness, the cultural difference. But it is only one of the possible ways of handling diversity. Indeed, such multiculturalism only focuses on the recognition and co-existence of different cultural identities by giving priority to the community. 'Individuals are first and foremost elements of a group. Their behavior is defined and determined by this affiliation. The group's identity takes precedence over the person's identity. The focus is on the recognition of ethnic, religious, migratory, sexual identities. Multiculturalism adds differences, juxtaposes groups and therefore leads to a mosaic view of society. This difference-adding system favors structures, characteristics and categories' (Martine Abdallah-Pretceille). Thus, multiculturalism refers to the juxtaposition of several national cultures within a single group.

This system's biggest limitation is that multiculturalism doesn't solve the problem of relations between the groups or social peace. It even creates an illusion of mutual understanding and can create divisions. By overinvesting the cultural variable, the risk is to stigmatize certain individuals and to emphasize rejection and exclusion behaviors. Multiculturalism, while acknowledging differences, actually focuses on a structure of coexistence, of co-presence of groups and individuals. This is notably the system introduced - on a more or less conscious level - at the beginning of Airbus. There was a lot of tension. It has been changed since.

To overcome the limitations of multiculturalism, our publications opt for an alternative to the treatment of cultural diversity, allowing the fact that each individual can speak from different cultures. The 'inter' prefix in "intercultural" shows that there is a relation and a consideration of interactions between groups, individuals and identities. Thus, while multi-culturalism and inter-culturalism only make observations, interculturality is an approach, an alchemy, a transformation, a change. It is not equivalent to an objective reality. It calls for comparisons, the confrontation of points of view, joint work. Interculturality equals blending and synergies. 

It doesn't simply interact but wants to build, to build together. Actually, our cross-cultural approach does not aim to identify others by confining them into a web of meanings, or to make comparisons based on an ethnocentric level. It must allow more room for individuals as subjects, help them grow within their environment, and not restrict them to their areas of expertise. Likewise, it is not limited to cultural characteristics alone. It commands transformation and doesn't settle for description.

Coming back to the company and on this basis, it is clear that human resources management (or the management of content production) in a cross-cultural atmosphere is special. Geert Hofstede, a Dutch psycho-sociologist, was one of the first to draw up an evaluation grid for cultural differences. It clearly lays things down, and distinguishes between the 5 following elements:

  • Hierarchical distance - i.e. the person subject to power accepting the inequality of power.
  • Control over uncertainty - a culture's level of tolerance in the face of uncertainty linked with coming events.
  • Individualism / collectivism - the degree of freedom (independence) individuals have within a group, the society in which they live.
  • The gender dimension, which shows whether society is sympathetic to emotional, factual factors on the one hand and, on the other, whether it is organized with a clear-cut gender division in everyday tasks.
  • The short-term / long-term ration. Short-term values are: the respect of traditions and meeting social obligations. Long-term values (also known as "truth") have to do with perseverance and the economy.

With this grid, it is possible to draw up a map of a country's cultural approach with these 5 differentiating factors, which can give interpreting keys regarding the behavior of the people coming from these countries, even though it remains close to the multi-cultural approach, as it doesn't really address what drives interactions. Many researchers - including Philippe D'Iribarne - have extended this work and I would rather refer you to them than copy them here. In any case, globalization has not made individuals uniform. It may even be the opposite, at a time of rising nationalism on all fronts.

This is why we always have to explain, repeat. The Franco-German example - a trendy topic - is obvious. Looking at the magazines published in the last decade, I realize how regularly topics appear - this constantly renewed need to come back to different modes of cooperation. Even at the level of corporate communication, there is a need, beyond a common core of content regarding the results, which absolutely does not replace local needs. Thus, Sanofi, like many other multinational companies, at one time tried to establish a single internal magazine in the name of corporate culture, and then came back to a few common pages (the Group's voice), to which were added local editions (more or less comprehensive). This diversity - acknowledged by the UN in 2000 - is a reality and we need to subtly take it into consideration if we want it to be a strength rather than a weakness.

According to the literature dedicated to the management of cultural differences in the last 30 years, in businesses, the cultural factor is more an issue than it is an advantage. It frequently leads to trouble, dysfunction in organizations, which is often detrimental to performance in some companies: conflicts (sometimes violent), misunderstandings, ambiguities, slower production, inability to define joint goals and strategies, and so forth. And it is probably true - in the short run.

Still, many businesses - those that are notoriously committed to understanding interculturality, without prejudice and in the long run - find advantages and results. It requires efforts, work and budgets, as multi-culturalism is a real challenge, and a challenge that is neither natural nor intuitive. It remains empirical, it cannot be ordained; it demands true intellectual and human quality. It is a fascinating challenge that allows those who do it to be reborn, to discover new horizons, and which introduces a new type of social relations. It even becomes obvious in certain binational companies - e.g. Arte. However, it is the result of daily, mutual and respectful communication, and it requires a strong, concrete project acknowledged by all the parties involved.

This is what we, as editors of cross-cultural magazines, are devoted to, adopting a resolutely positive and prospective position:

  • Positive because we belive that sharing our cultures creates added value, which we observe every day through successful joint ventures. Likewise, we deconstruct failures when interculturality is poorly understood, poorly applied;
  • Prospective because it allows us to overcome fleeting bumps and that, in hindsight, we believe that the time factor is absolutely essential for the success of any project - corporate or cultural. 

In short, and going back to Bosch's commitment charter (a Group with nearly 400,000 employees from more than 60 different nationalities): we believe that cultural diversity makes us stronger, much stronger - as long as we understand that it is necessary at the time of a globalized economy.


Speech presented on 18 May 2017 at the 7th Annual European HRD Conference on "Business in Society and society in Business" in Lisbon.
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