Cultural Differences and Improving Performance: How Values and Beliefs Influence Organizational Performance

Development and Learning in Organizations

ISSN: 1477-7282

Article publication date: 28 June 2011

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Citation

Hopkins, B. (2011), "Cultural Differences and Improving Performance: How Values and Beliefs Influence Organizational Performance", Development and Learning in Organizations, Vol. 25 No. 4. https://doi.org/10.1108/dlo.2011.08125daa.003

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Cultural Differences and Improving Performance: How Values and Beliefs Influence Organizational Performance

Article Type: Suggested reading From: Development and Learning in Organizations, Volume 25, Issue 4

Bryan HopkinsGower, Aldershot2009ISBN: 9780566089077308 pp.

Book synopsis

This book is an excellent resource for practitioners. It is “aimed at anyone in a management role” (p. 5) and for those who wish to help their units and organizations improve their performance. Hopkins stresses that the process of improving performance through problem solving is not linear and that a broad understanding of the issues using different techniques and tactics helps generate ideas that provide valuable solutions. He points out that 90 per cent of social and organizational theories that are of interest to the modern businessperson have been created in the USA (Gelfand and Christakopoulou, 1999). But he warns that such ideas and theories might not work in other parts of the world.

The book includes 12 chapters and is divided into two parts. Part one includes chapters 1 through 5 and provides a theoretical framework for the book with an overview of theories related to culture, performance, and systems thinking. Chapter 1 starts with “How do cultures differ?” and looks at the meaning of culture and how scholars in the field of social psychology dissect culture and categorize aspects of it, followed by “Analyzing performance” where Hopkins draws on the ideas of Thomas Gilbert (2007) to provide a framework for the process of analyzing performance, and calls for moving away from prescribing training as a solution for performance issues and suggests following systemic problem solving techniques.

Chapter 3, “Culture and workplace activities”, looks at how cultural differences affect work-related activities and at the importance of cultural awareness, not only in dealing with related problems, but also with developing effective work environments. In chapter 4, “The systems approach”, Hopkins draws on the work of Peter Senge (1993) in describing how thinking of organizations as systems provides a better understanding of organizations. Hopkins also introduces diagramming techniques that are used heavily in the second part of the book. In chapter 5, “Solving workplace problems”, Hopkins discusses obstacles to finding effective solutions to organizational problems, and provides an outline for the seven-step problem-solving methodology used in the rest of the book.

Part 2, chapters 7 through 12, is a practice guide where Hopkins describes the seven step approach to improving performance. “Step 1: define the problem”, looks at how to identify, define, and develop problem statements. “Step 2: collect data”, discusses types of information needed to solve problems, how to collect relevant data, and who should be involved in this process. “Step 3: analyze the problem”, provides a selection of simple graphical tools for effective data analysis in order to identify root causes of problems, Hopkins calls for involving people with different cultural backgrounds to make better understanding of the data. “Step 4: generate ideas”, provides strategies to generating ideas to solve problems identified. Hopkins suggests the use of both creative tactics (such as brainstorming) and systematic techniques (such as performance flowcharts and force field analysis), to identify potential solutions. “Step 5: select solutions”, calls for evaluating ideas generated from data collected and choosing most appropriate solutions following rational methods. “Step 6: implement solutions”, looks at cultural factors at organizational and national levels that affect design and delivery of training solutions. Hopkins suggests using “potential problem analysis technique” (p. 288), in anticipation of what might go wrong. And finally, “Step 7: evaluate effectiveness”, a very short chapter that looks at evaluating the effectiveness of the whole change process through estimating the seriousness of the original problem.

Evaluation

In evaluating Hopkins’s work, I will examine both the content and structure of the book. This section will start with evaluating systems thinking, followed by culture theory, and ending with evaluating book structure.

For systems thinking, first, the author assumed that the step-by-step approach to solving problems takes place in a climate of openness where political behavior is minimized (Easterby-Smith and Araujo, 1999). This is an assumption that can be questioned. It could be argued that organizations are inherently political and can be seen as coalitions of various individuals and interest groups. Thus, the author needs to take into consideration the political nature of organizations and to explore how managers can make explicit, and work with, political processes.

Second, the author’s strategy to follow a sequence of steps in order to solve problems related to performance does bring with it some problems. Why should things operate in this cyclical fashion? Rather than there being steps, one could argue for involving a number of elements or dimensions working at once.

With respect to culture, first, Hopkins argues that the majority of management theories have been created in the west. He warns that such theories might not work in other parts of the world. But, he falls short of critiquing systems theory that he used for this book. In other words, the systems thinking framework is itself a western created approach to solving organizational problems. Understanding its transferability and applicability in different cultures is yet to be seen. It might work, but the author failed to mention that such an approach, while it might be reliable, needs testing and retesting for consistency and validity in cultures that do not approach problems systematically or systemically! For example, would not people in cultures that are “future oriented” with respect to time think differently about systems approach and about solving problems than people in cultures that are “past oriented” in their thinking (p. 29; see also Gallagher, 2001)?

Second, the author needs to have a meaningful discussion on how different steps of the problem solving process, such as collecting data, generating ideas, and evaluating results, in different cultural contexts could be looked at as obstacles to performance improvement processes. For example, would some instruments used to collect data in the USA (such as surveys or interviews) be obstacles to gathering information in other cultures? Each societal culture has both functional and dysfunctional characteristics that affect the seven-step process suggested by the book. Hopkins needs to address how we can sift functional from dysfunctional aspects of culture and how we can build on and strengthen the former, and to reduce and manage the latter.

With respect to structure, at the end of every chapter, Hopkins provides a mind map diagram summarizing the contents of that chapter. These figures might be helpful in providing a synthesis of the whole chapter but these figures were not clear and did not add much to understanding a chapter’s content. In that respect, these figures might be more meaningful to the individuals who mapped them. Diagrams were also used to illustrate ideas in several chapters. These diagrams could have been presented in a clear and more appealing fashion.

This book provides a practical tool with significant contributions to our appreciation of processes in organizations. It introduces culture to problem-solving processes, a dimension that is usually forgotten in systems thinking (Cummings and Worley, 2005). It provides us with a way of identifying a problem and a possible way of learning our way out through generating ideas and finding most appropriate solutions for improving performance cycle.

In the author’s own words

[…] it is not my intention in this book to make definitive statements about how different cultures in the world behave or how you, as a manager, should go about taking consideration of this into your daily working practices. What I have attempted to do instead is to tie together the knowledge and wisdom of many other people in a way that hopefully make sense and will be useful for others. In my experience, problem-solving is not a linear process that can be resolved by a perspective approach: instead, it is an activity where a broad understanding of many different issues and techniques helps you identify ideas that may well be of value (p. 5).

Reviewed by Khalil M. Dirani, Department of Lifelong Education, Administration and Policy, The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA.

This review was originally published in Journal of European Industrial Training, Volume 35, Issue 2, 2011, pp. 184-6.

References

Cummings, T.G. and Worley, C.G. (2005), Organization Development and Change, Thompson Southwestern, Mason, OH

Easterby-Smith, M. and Araujo, L. (1999), “Current debates and opportunities”, in Easterby-Smith, M., Araujo, L. and Burgoyne, J. (Eds), Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization, Sage, London

Gallagher, T. (2001), “The value orientation method: a tool to help understand cultural differences”, Journal of Extension, Vol. 39 No. 6, available at: www.joe.org/joe/2010december/tt1.html

Gelfand, M. and Christakopoulou, S. (1999), “Culture and negotiation cognition: judgement, accuracy, and negotiation processes in individualistic and collectivistic cultures”, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol. 79 No. 3, pp. 248–69

Gilbert, T. (2007), Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, Pfeiffer, San Francisco, CA

Senge, P. (1993), The Fifth Discipline, Century Business, London

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