Review of “Cross-Cultural Management” (Part 2): Implications for UNESCO, Sustainability and World Heritage

(This review is a continuing study of the text first analyzed here.)

In the second half of this book, David Thomas explores the primary responsibilities of managers and how they manifest in cross-cultural contexts, as well more specific challenges affecting the work of those involved in international organizations of various types.  By examining how the broad patterns of cultural behavior analyzed in the first section of Cross-Cultural Management interact with the expectations for successful management in contrasting cultural environments, Thomas is able to provide concrete examples that support his underlying premise that cross-cultural interactions in business can significantly benefit from greater awareness – or suffer from the lack thereof – of how certain behaviors are interpreted and valued in the cultures at play.

Elaborating on the processes involved in the expression of cultural standards in organizations on which he focused earlier in the book, the author uses criteria of comparison from the studies he had mentioned earlier on to break down some reasons why certain organizational structures and patterns of social interaction are more successful in certain world regions than in others.  Moreover, he ties all this in regularly with the challenges that managers of cross-cultural organizations face when seeking to effectively make decisions, communicate and negotiate, function as a leader, support group work, or carry out international assignments, etc., as he clearly believes that the paths by which managers can do these things depend on the degree to which they know about, respect and sometimes incorporate the preferred cultural systems of relevant employees, coworkers and supervisors.

There’s a lot of credible-seeming information in these chapters about what it takes to navigate the complexities of such an environment, with the effect of making me wonder how any one company manages to successfully do so, as a result of the extensive opportunities that could arise for insult or inefficiency from misunderstandings or contrasting assumptions about how to interact.  Given that around the world there are clearly a wide range of leadership styles that are valued, encouraged, or expected, along with varying levels and modes of superior/subordinate involvement, I would expect that the fact that UNESCO, for one, is primarily driven by European institutional models affects the efficacy of the organization when it tries to work with specific cultural groups across the globe to carry out its policies.

For example, representatives of UNESCO making policy suggestions from Paris could fail to account for the social dynamics within the government institutions with which they are working to manage a World Heritage Site, or expect that it would be appropriate to request the participation of impoverished local stakeholders when that society’s institutions sees such a request as socially unacceptable or unfeasible.  They could believe that they are making a clear assertion about how UNESCO wants a site to be handled, but do so in a way that comes across as rudely assertive or weakly petulant, depending on the local norms for behavior in negotiations, or they could struggle to motivate important potential stakeholders in an insufficiently familiar cultural group to want to care about protecting a historic site from damage in the way that distant UNESCO would prefer.

Moreover, the very concept of the World Heritage Sites as highlighting places of “outstanding universal value” could easily result in a wide range of miscommunications or disagreements about what this phrase even means, let alone how to identify, designate and then manage a place of such value, given the fact that values are so context-dependent. As a result, the complexity of dealing with multi-cultural situations would not completely preclude any degree of efficacy on the part of UNESCO and the World Heritage Centre, but it would inhibit it.  This complexity would only be made more challenging by UNESCO’s need to cooperate with national governments and international NGOs in order to actually make anything happen at designated historic sites.

Additionally, this text has reinforced for me how critical it can be for researchers and managers to take the time and effort to be quite familiar with whatever culture on/in which they intend to work, due to the lack of trust that could easily result between local stakeholders and the outsider researcher/manager if culturally-based miscommunications, false assumptions about appropriate practices, or inaccurate expectations about reasonable ways to organize social interactions, etc. occur.  These kinds of missteps could be helped by spending enough time with the group in question to at least reach the adjustment and adaptation stage of common reactions to a foreign environment, if not an even higher point of cultural fluency, in order to gain the nuance of understanding and depth of relationships necessary for productive interactivity.

This fits with discussions and readings I have had with my advisor in Archaeology about community participation in archaeological sites and historical exhibitions, in which I was struck by the great difference in the level of overall, apparent success between sites where the cultural outsider (archaeologist, curator, historian, heritage policy designer, etc.) built long-term relationships with the community and regularly incorporated their point of view, and those sites where the outsider “expert” thought it sufficient to come in briefly, do some work without actively engaging the community or doing so for only a relatively short time, vaguely set the stage for future continuation of that work, and then leave.  In brief, the latter approach rarely leads to long-term markers of success under any definition of “sustainability.”  In contrast, the former approach requires greater understanding and engagement between the experts and the community at hand, which in turn requires a greater amount of time, commitment and resources.  However, this method seems to much more reliably lead to productive results with long-term effects and the support/involvement of a higher percentage of stakeholders.

Unfortunately, given the wide-stretch of UNESCO’s programs, the thinness of their resources in any one location or project, and their requisite dependence on (biased) local governments and (too-distant) international NGOs to manage Heritage Sites, UNESCO seems to fall prey to the above dilemma.  In order to accomplish their goals, a significantly higher amount of education (on all sides), communication, resources, participation and level of commitment on the part of those in power would need to occur, and the vagaries of politics make this quite challenging (or unlikely) for many Heritage Sites.

In turn, all this has prompted me to consider further criteria by which it might be appropriate for me to pick the case-study sites I will end up using for my dissertation research, with greater emphasis on the degree of feasibility for me to engage with relevant stakeholders at a site for a sufficiently long and in-depth period of study.  This is something I have been thinking about since first reading this text in March, and about which I will write more soon.


About E. Emmons Hahn

I am a cultural historian specializing in heritage and museum studies - particularly issues surrounding the ownership, interpretation, and presentation of historic works, sites and landscapes that are connected to identity narratives. I am also a writer, editor, and photographer, with a penchant for applying these skills to topics related to travel, cultural and natural heritage, and the arts. Throughout my work, I am passionate about teaching - helping others to develop their skills, deepen their understanding, question their assumptions, and realize their visions.
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