Does Global Work Mean Culture Clash?

"Crossing Borders? Then Expect Culture Clashes" states the title of a recent article on managing globalization in the International Herald Tribune. But this advice does not reflect my own experience. For the past twenty years as a business anthropologist I have been both studying and working in global networked organizations. While I do observe many instances of cultural differences in workplace practices, I do not see a lot of culture clash. Quite the contrary. Instead, people are acting and interacting in ways that help them negotiate multiple cultural arenas in complex and evolving business conditions. What I am observing are forms of cultural hybridization and culture creation at the intersections of global organizing.

Since the 1990s anthropologists have been writing about and investigating the modern notion of globalization as a world system and the movement of information, symbols, capital and commodities in global and transnational spaces. Nowhere is the process more evident than in the multinational corporation that is an ever-changing network of connections enabled by communication technologies and the mobile worker. Individuals and groups of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences are brought into contact to accomplish shared tasks on a daily basis. Culture is being changed and produced through interactions in the daily life of these global workers and in the meanings these interactions take on for the people engaged in them. One automotive global team involved Sweden, Germany, the UK, Brazil, and Japan and multiple cultural groupings, if one counts organizational, occupational cultures in addition to national cultures. The members quickly discovered they had different ideas about what was important and how they should organize and do their work when they began to discuss how they would create a chassis that could serve as part of a global car platform. They watched one another, questioned and listened, and even without knowing much about each other's beliefs and normative practices, they began to surface their differences and also their commonalities and to start crafting a new way of working. The new practices were a hybrid of the diverse values and approaches they all brought to their work, for safety, relationships, money, and process. As I observed this team over the next year, I watched them negotiate meaning and common ground, more often than not new ground, and evolve into a new cultural group with a shared identity, shared values and norms that eventually became taken for granted. The team members took this newly created cultural identity with them when they left the team, adding to the cultural repertoire of meanings and practices available to them for their next global assignment. Perhaps they acquired some skills in cross-cultural adaptability and a more pluralistic cultural identity.

This global teaming story is one of many. It reminds me of the importance of practice as generative and reflective of complex organizations, modern global society, group identity, cultural difference and cultural change. Traditional approaches to culture as static and relatively unchanging no longer help me understand what I see happening in the global workplace. As the global team members showed me, people use their immediate cultural understandings in order to make sense of their lives and in this way confirm that their cultures are bounded and knowable. At the same time and for the very same purpose of making sense of their lives, people also adopt from other cultures, and therefore show cultures to be in a constant process of hybridization.

We do not have to abandon synthesizing notions that help us organize the way we think about the world around us. However, we do have to construct some new notions or recondition some old ones if we are to say or do anything useful about the heterogeneity in which we are now living and working. There are great cultural traditions that are rich, distinctive, and historically deep in virtually all parts of the world, and that have "identities" we can recognize, but that also exhibit multiple differences and divisions that create a jumble of identities within them. When people are asked who they are, the answers they give do not sort themselves into an orderly structure, nor a stable one. The simple notion of culture clash is not valid.

Doing anthropology in the context of global networked organizations has meant that I have had to rethink the culture concept and locate it in historically changing, imperfectly bounded, multiple and branching social alignments. The concept of a fixed, unitary, and bounded culture has given way to a sense of the fluidity and permeability of culture as a process of continual negotiation and change.

Written by Julia Gluesing

Julia Gluesing is President of Cultural Connections, Inc. and is a business and organizational anthropologist with more than 25 years of experience as a consultant, researcher and trainer in global business development focusing on global leadership development, managing global teams, and cross-cultural communication. From 2003 - 2011 Julia was a Research Professor in Industrial and Systems Engineering at Wayne State University where she served as co-director of the Global Executive Track Ph.D. She has published professionally in journals and books, most notably as an editor and contributing author of Mobile Work Mobile Lives: Cultural Accounts of Lived Experiences (Blackwell 2008), Virtual Teams that Work: Creating Conditions for Virtual Team Effectiveness (Jossey-Bass 2003), Handbook of Managing Global Complexity (Blackwell 2003), and Crossing Cultures: Lessons from Master Teachers (Routledge 2004).