Cultural Risk Management – Part I of a new series by Glen Burridge

This is the first of a series of articles where Interculturalist and Earth Scientist Glen Burridge be looking to highlight a topic that confronts us every day in all aspects of our lives and yet is frequently neglected by both organisations and individuals: Cultural Risk Management

Crowd. A large group of people of a white background.

If we have one characteristic as humans that represents both our greatest capability and our greatest weapon it is our ability to self-organise.

In other words, to create cultures.

In these groupings, we become actors in the world, through our organisations, societies, tribes, networks and communities. Through them, we trade and we exchange, we engage in conflict and war and we create things of beauty and value. In doing so, they form the basis of our identities and influence our behaviour at every moment. Some stem back to the origin of our species, while others are bubbling up as we speak.

Culture as Lifeform

We may do our best to romanticise them, especially those identities to whom we belong and find the most meaningful, yet a culture is – at best – no more than a meta-stable life-form. As ambient conditions vary, vulnerable cultures die, a few coalesce, whilst others are born. They are susceptible to changes in the environment, undergoing perpetual fashioning by external challenge and interaction – an analogy with viral behaviour would not be unfair – and our increasing connectivity with each other accelerates this process.

History tells us that cultural ‘entropy’ has operated since our earliest times: As human populations have expanded and come in closer proximity, there is a tendency for any extensive culture to produce homogenisation of society in their image. In order to survive the onslaught, any target community will require strong traits – either of adaptability, invincibility, suitability or to defy the threat by virtue of distance or size. There are moral and practical consequences to what is lost and gained by such an organic course, but it could be argued that this is simply the to-and-fro of natural selection at play; a culture is no more than an elegant ecological solution to a problem at a given time.

Whatever their origins and health, what the human story makes abundantly clear is that the simultaneous greatest threat to our future wellbeing and opportunity for positive development comes from the interaction between cultural groups. This is where interculturalists operate and (ought to) have a capital role to play in our future.

Yes, it really is as important as that.

Limited Space

The Earth, at present our sole home, has a surface area of 510 million square km. That might sound like a lot to you and me, used to possessing only an infinitesimal morsel of that terrain, but of that immense expanse only roughly 20% is habitable. In terms of the volume of our planet, only a fraction of 1% is a survivable biosphere. We are currently adding over 200,000 extra people per day to that space.

It pays for us to get along well with each other.

The Other

Cultures, with their attendant values, motivations and artefacts will come and go, but the perennial question that matters is whether these groupings – and their representatives – are able to find a common basis in which the existence of the Other is not a accompanied by fear. No group is ever going to fire a nuclear warhead deliberately at itself, it will always be at an Other. ‘Civil’ Wars are anything but civil. They entail the disintegration of the façade of a collective identity under exterior pressure or internal reckoning.

Equally, all valuable endeavours we embark on culminate, in some form, in a collective effort. At all scales of our lives, this entails an association of existing bodies, whether they are political, commercial, humanitarian or social. We therefore know we are going to face a myriad of interfaces in much of what we do. We ought to be prepared. Any organisation that neglects the multiple dimensions and effects of culture is ignoring not only its own DNA, but that of the environment it operates in.

Yet, despite a whole field of solutions that now stretch back more than half a century, the risk associated with cultural interactions remains the one we are collectively most reluctant to address in business and in the world at large.

The worst kind of success

The worst kind of failure is when we ignore a critical factor that was staring us in the face all along. The worst kind of success is one achieved without the capacity to repeat it, carrying threats into the very next situation we find ourselves, but now with a perilous confidence, until the moment of drama when we realise we have made a serious misjudgement, when it becomes no longer a risk, but history.

In the following articles, Glen will open up the discussion to explore further dimensions of cultural risk, how deeply it reaches into our lives, society and business, which go far beyond the familiar cultural realm of national identities.

For a discussion of the topics raised in this article and associated blogs, please feel free to get in touch with Glen at; glen@glenburridge.com or via LinkedIn or leave a comment below.

glenEarth Scientist and Interculturalist, Glen Burridge

 

 

Polish Heroes A Book review; Tim Bridgman “Positively Disappointed – Business Across Cultures in Poland”, Szkolenia Lodz, 2015

When I was handed the manuscript for Positively Disappointing, I thought the title was brave. Having personally experienced the negative language and assumed pessimism of Poland’s neighbour, The Czech Republic, some 20 years ago, I was keen to read of Tim’s experience and his analysis of the country’s culture as it exists in modern regional Poland.

The Culture of Poland

The Culture of Poland

This short and pithy book has 9 fictionalised stories that are based on the author’s real life experiences over the last decade.

By not attempting an opus major or tackling the whole of Polish culture, Tim has given us an accessible doorway via a foreigner’s Polish experience. With chapters about the ordering of coffee, being a disappointed vegetarian or, the enthusiastic cyclist, taking his life literally in his hands, Tim filters his perceptions through Hofstede’s dimensions and allows us to draw our own conclusions.

The main thrust of the book is post-Soviet Poland’s EU membership, the outflow of Polish talent and the influx of foreign investment. The author develops an argument for a genuinely changing culture with the challenges this presents for both foreign and Polish managers running businesses and leading people in markedly different ways.

The book works because of Tim’s vulnerable and honest confessions – the mistakes of a naïve outsider, and his even-handed treatment of the stories that are remembered.

The beginning of the book gives lesser-known historical facts – the post-war persecution of a Ukrainian minority and the expulsion of the sizeable German population.

I found the book to be a little light on the specific inheritance of the Soviet years and not to say enough about the catholic contribution to the Polish psyche. Having said this, the tome achieves its objectives and stimulates the mind whilst informing the reader about the local zeitgeist.

Who should read this book?

British and overseas managers who have worked for a couple of months in Poland and overcome their initial trauma will benefit from picking up this book, enjoying the stories and contemplating answers to the questions posed at the end of each chapter.

An English – Polish glossary is a very sensible addition and makes this sometimes esoteric book easily accessible to any Pole that wishes to see the foreigner’s point of view.

In conclusion, the author has done Poland and foreign managers a favour by producing a functional book that combines fact, reflective exercises and stories that can genuinely help build bridges across nations and prevent a few escalating culture and commercial clashes in regional offices around Poland.

The book comes out in February –