Epidemic of Cultural Blindness

Even very intelligent people sometimes mistakenly take culture of a country to be some sort of yardstick to measure other cultures. By doing so, they get utterly confused since they find most of it out of sync.

Then they commit another terrible mistake. They blame it on the culture for a country’s failure to achieve economic progress or to raise their standard of living or something else by ‘benchmarking’ another country. 

Many organizations also commit the same mistake. They feel if only some cultural changes can be brought about everything would change overnight. And most of their ugly problems would never resurface. They believe that attitude of the people would change which would enable them to think differently, talk differently and work differently. Management of such organizations go about this task of conversion with the zeal of religious evangelists spending huge amounts of time, energy and money only to generate lot of confusion in the end.

Recently found an organization trying to implement Japanese culture in their manufacturing processes. After trying it out for a year they lamented, “We are nowhere near our desired target.”

I asked them, “How does manufacturing effectiveness of your organization compare to the manufacturing effectiveness of the best in class, Japanese included.”

They replied, “Well it is nearly same. The difference is negligible”

Pushing them further I followed up by asking “Then why do you want to bring about this cultural change?”

Obviously, there wasn’t any answer to this.

Similarly, in a joint venture organization the Japanese who were partners blamed the culture of the other partner country for lack of productivity. The real issue lay in the cultural mismatch of the two partners working shoulder to shoulder in the same workspace.

In another newly acquired plant in Chile, the Chairman who was an Indian, during a board meeting lectured the top managers, “I think the process you people are following is absolutely wrong. You must follow the unique process we have developed back in India. Some of you must visit to learn more about that.”

The top managers gently reminded him, “But what is wrong in the way we work? There is no quality rejection, no customer complaints, no productivity loss and to say the truth our productivity in this line of activity is best in the world.”

Well, you know better. The better way might have been “Let me learn your methods and the ways in which you work to consistently produce high quality stuff and ship goods with the highest productivity”

But we simply can’t shrug off this attitude of ‘I am holier than Thou so I know better’ simply because one has more money or more economic advantage or probably more educational certificates compared to another. 

The same mistake happens in the concepts of globalization and standardization. Ray-ban had to close shop in India. Their frames were simply out of proportion on an Indian face.

Coke came to India secretly nourishing the idea that Indians would soon forget about drinking water. They would drink Coke instead.

Kellogg harbored similar ideas. They would provide more nutrition to wean away Indians from their traditional breakfasts.

Nothing of these ever happened. Indians did not forget to cling to water and anything other than traditional breakfast tasted bland or insipid.

We, more often than we suspect, fall prey to this cultural trap in our personal relationships too.

Are we suffering from this “epidemic of cultural blindness”?

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