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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

U.S. style of marketing at odds with other cultures, November 11, 2007, 2D.
(this is a really bad title for this article)

In my graduate International Human Resource Management class at the International University in Vienna this past summer, I had 15 students from 12 different countries.  The students came from China, India, Spain, and many countries of the former Soviet Union.  They sought out graduate business education at IU Vienna because of its American style of education and its international emphasis.

I taught from books that addressed the course topics from international perspectives.  The readings sparked fascinating discussions among students about how the concepts applied to their particular countries and cultures.  I also showed a collection of videos on the management philosophies of Frito-Lay, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, and IDEO.  All four videos provided clear examples of contemporary American management theory in action.  The videos showed organizations that valued the input and participation of workers, emphasized employee empowerment and involvement, and encouraged workers to question current ways of doing things and to offer suggestions for ways to improve operations.   The CEO of IDEO said that he intentionally hires people “who do not listen” to their bosses.

The management practices and philosophies portrayed in the instructional videos, as I discovered, were extremely foreign to most of the students in my class.   Many students found it amazing that lower-level workers could offer input to their higher-level managers.   To question higher-ranking workers or to be involved in the decisions of the firm was seemingly forbidden in the organizations with which they were familiar with back home.  In many of the students’ national cultures, there was an emphasis on command, hierarchy, and authority.

Geert Hofstede, in his research on the influence of national culture on management theory and practice, gives explanation for the reactions of the students in my class.   Hofstede identified four dimensions on which national cultures differ.  The first, individualism versus collectivism, refers to whether people prefer to act as individuals or as members of groups.  The second, masculinity versus femininity, refers to whether assertiveness, performance, success, and competition are preferred over quality of life, warm personal relationships, service, care for the weak, and solidarity.  Uncertainty Avoidance is a dimension that refers to the degree to which people in a country prefer structured over unstructured situations.  Power Distance, the last dimension, is the one that explains the students’ bewildered reactions to the management videos.  Power Distance refers to the degree of inequality that people in a culture regard as normal.  It ranges from relatively equal to relatively unequal.    American culture is on the “relatively equal” side of the continuum.

Many of the students in my summer class came from countries with national cultures high on power distance—that is high inequality.  In those cultures, managers and workers are not viewed as equals.  It would be inappropriate for lower-level workers to question or offer recommendations to higher-level workers.   In today’s global economy, it is important to understand and appreciate differences in national cultures and their influences on organizational performance.  Things commonplace and natural in one culture might be viewed as wrong in other cultures. 

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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved